Harold Beal loved few things more than perching on a stool while he ran trains for folks who stopped by his Jonesport home to see his elaborate and intricately detailed model railroad display.

The Maine Central Railroad cars wended their way over bridges and through tunnels, from the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse to the western mountains. They traveled past paper mills, downtown streetscapes, and tiny replicas of author Stephen King’s Bangor home and the tidy blue house where Beal and his wife, Helen, spent 20 years building their diorama of Down East Maine.

“He loved to see the expression on their face when they’d come through the door,” Helen Beal said of her husband, who died in 2012 at age 75. “A lot of people would almost holler. Some people would say ‘Oh my word’ and ‘I can’t believe this.’ The expression on their faces, most of the time it was a big smile.”

Harold and Helen Beal pose in the 1990s with the model railroad they created. The photo hangs in the outbuilding where the couple spent 20 years building the elaborate diorama. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The model railroad display is believed to be one of the largest in Maine built in HO scale (which is 1:87, or 3.5 mm to 1 foot), but it has not been on public display for the last few years. That will change when it is moved to the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, which will construct a new building for the display of the couple’s hundreds of buildings and more than 400 train cars and engines.

The acquisition is a unique one for the 82-year-old museum, which specializes in preserving and restoring trolley cars. The fact that it is happening at all is attributed to the unique bond of rail enthusiasts and a bold move by the museum to ask for financial help to make the move possible.

A BENEFACTOR STEPS IN

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The Wyss Foundation, a private charitable foundation based in Washington D.C. dedicated to empowering communities and strengthening connections to the land, will give the museum an estimated $2.6 million to pay for the new building, relocating the model railroad and 10 years of operating costs. It is the largest gift the museum has ever received.

The unlikely connection to the Wyss Foundation came through Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire businessman who started the foundation and lives in Wyoming. Years ago, he was driving through Maine on his way to Canada and stopped to visit the railroad display after spotting a sign near the Beal home.

Like many visitors, Wyss was wowed by the layout and became friendly with the Beals.

A section of Harold and Helen Beal’s elaborately detailed model railroad layout. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Harold “Buz” Beal was born and raised in Jonesport, then served 26 years in the Coast Guard. After retiring as a chief boatswain’s mate, he went to work at Dexter Shoe Co., where he met Helen. Both came from railroad families: Her father and two brothers worked for Bangor and Aroostook Railroad; his grandfather worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“We sure had train blood in us,” said Helen Beal, who will turn 88 next month.

After they settled back in Jonesport, the Beals decided to try their hand at building a model railroad layout together. He had built one at age 12 and she had wanted one since she was a child. They recruited his nephew, Harry Fish, to help with the wiring. But Harold Beal didn’t like how their first try turned out and scrapped it.

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BUILDING DOWNEAST MAINE

They started over again, and Helen Beal said she never imagined their model would grow to fill an outbuilding next to their home on the outskirts of the Washington County fishing village. They spent countless hours together in their den constructing small buildings from basswood, modeling many after post offices and train stations that Harold photographed in Bangor, Jonesport, Machias and other towns in Down East Maine. He painted the interior walls of the outbuilding with landscapes to complement the train display.

Helen Beal said she didn’t think people would be that interested in their model, but they opened their doors anyway. They put up signs near their home and their display was later featured in magazines and visitor guides. Each summer they were open, 75 to 80 people would stop by to watch Harold Beal run the trains. Visitors filled three guest books with their signatures and pinned their hometowns on a world map hung on the wall.

“Oh dear Lord, we’ve had visitors even from Africa, Germany, Russia, all over the place,” she said. They never charged admission, but accepted donations to help cover the cost of heating the building.

A miniature version of West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Helen Beal continued to run the trains for visitors for a few summers after her husband died, but she wanted to find a new permanent home for the display so it would be preserved for others to enjoy. The family tried to find a museum or club that could take the model railroad, but – at 40 feet by 50 feet – it was too big for any of the organizations to handle.

That’s when Wyss, who had stayed in touch with Helen Beal, stepped in to help and told a fellow rail enthusiast about the situation. Years before, his friend had commissioned the Seashore Trolley Museum to build a replica of a trolley car for his estate in Florida. He suggested Wyss reach out to the museum.

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‘IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE TRAINS’

Like those other groups, the Seashore Trolley Museum didn’t have enough available space to display the model railroad – the museum is already short of space for its current collection. But the museum’s leaders were intrigued by the possibility of bringing in the Beals’ display. They spent months researching how they could move the layout while keeping it mostly intact, and what type of structure they would need to house such an artifact.

“It was quite an opportunity,” said Jim Schantz, the museum’s president and CEO. “We think it adds another major attraction to the museum. People come to see and ride full-scale trolleys. We think people find model railroads really interesting, especially one like this with a great deal of accuracy put into the Maine features.”

Herb Fremin, an architect and friend of the museum, designed a building to display the model train that includes a workshop, conference room, retail shop and a mezzanine viewing gallery that could be used for community programs. He also spent time figuring out how to adapt the model to meet local building codes and make sure the facility would comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The museum has since hired a construction manager, Steve Berg, to navigate the construction process.

Then there was the question of cost. The museum put together a 10-year operating budget and got quotes to estimate how much funding would be needed to make it happen. Katie Orlando, the museum’s executive director, said they made the bold decision to ask Wyss for a donation. He invited the museum to present a preliminary plan to his foundation and ultimately gave the go-ahead, she said.

The project is in the pre-construction phase and plans should soon be presented to town officials for approval. The museum hopes to break ground by early summer, finish construction by the end of the year and open the exhibit to visitors by spring 2023. After the display is finished, the museum will stay open year-round. Admission fees collected over the next decade will be put into an endowment to cover future costs to operate and maintain the display.

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But first, the whole model train display needs to be moved more than 200 miles from Washington County to York County.

The move will begin the second week of April when a Massachusetts-based company that specializes in moving model railroads will spend four days in Jonesport painstakingly documenting and disassembling the large display before taking it to a climate-controlled storage unit.

When the new building is finished, that company will come back to Maine to reassemble the model railroad, but it won’t be exactly the same. It will be cut in three places to widen aisles built into the diorama and add a second entrance and exit to meet local building codes and accessibility requirements. There will be new sections of tracks and forest, which volunteers will fill in with landscaping and buildings.

Narrow pathways and a low ceiling are also features of the Beal’s model railroad set. When the set moves to Kennebunkport, the layout will be reconfigured to be less cramped. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The museum is tracking down an expert to design a suspension bridge, modeled after the one between Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that will lower automatically to allow trains to cross and leave the aisle clear when the train isn’t running. The museum hopes to start a model railroad club – there are a lot of hobbyists in Maine, Orlando says – to help with the display.

Orlando said she was amazed when she drove to Jonesport to see the model railroad for the first time. She loved the intricate details that take you back to Maine in the mid-1900s and the story of how it all came to be.

“It’s not just about the trains, it’s also about the beautiful architecture they created,” Orlando said. “It’s so well done and I’m excited that it’s coming here.”

Helen Beal also is excited that her display will be in a museum, but the move is bittersweet. She’ll miss all of it, particularly her favorite spot in the layout – a  “special little corner” high on a mountainside, overlooking the scene she and her husband dreamed up together.

“I’ll miss it, but at my age I just can’t keep it up,” she said. “I’m hoping my God-loving husband will know what I did because it would make him very happy.”


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