JONESPORT, Maine — Helen Beal, 79, is carrying on her late husband’s “second love,” caring for and operating a model railroad that has drawn visitors from all over the world.
The Maine Central Model Railroad takes up the space in a 900-square-foot outbuilding near Helen’s home on the outskirts of the fishing village of Jonesport. It consists of more than 400 freight cars, 20 diesel engines and some 3,000 feet of track. The HO scale model train and layout goes adjacent to the walls and runs on special-made tables in the interior of the room.
Harold “Buz” Beal was retired from the Coast Guard when he met Helen while working in a shoe factory in Dexter. The two later moved to Jonesport, where Harold had grown up, and he worked on an uncle’s lobster boat and for a building supply company for a few years. The couple were married nearly 28 years before Harold died in 2012 at the age of 75.
Helen’s husband had been interested in model railroads since he was a boy, she said. His father gave him a model railroad set at 12 and built a layout for it in the basement of their home.
It wasn’t until a few years after the couple moved to Jonesport when Harold decided to scratch his model railroad itch.
“‘I’ve always wanted a model railroad ever since I was a child,’” Helen recalled Harold saying. “‘What do you think about building one?’”
He contacted his nephew, Harry Fish of Jonesport, to help with his first railroad layout.
“[Harold] didn’t like it,” Helen said. “He tore it all down.”
The second attempt, one more ambitious, was a hit.
“Buz and I did all the decorating,” said Helen. That included making the tiny model buildings, which were constructed out of basswood, and little trees.
Many of the buildings are based after real ones in Maine. Harold photographed some and used them to create replicas, including the former Bangor train station, Jonesport post office and Machias train station. The Beals even contacted author Stephen King and received a photograph of his Bangor home, in order to create a replica complete with two tiny figures representing King and his wife, Tabitha, on the front porch.
Other features of the model train layout include four people playing tennis, factories and other industrial facilities, bridges and trestles, tunnels, and waterfront scenes with boats.
There are also Harold’s painted landscape scenes on the walls surrounding the railroad.
The trains are operated by wireless remote control and equipped with sound effects — blowing whistles and the noise made by air brake systems.
“I thought it was quite impressive,” said Ray Williams of Ellsworth, a member of the Eastern Maine Model Railroad Club, who visited the Beals to see their model railroad one summer a few years ago. The model railroad was not running at the time of his visit, he noted, because Harold was not home. Helen did not know how to operate it yet, he explained.
“It was a lot of work,” added Williams, 69, who has been building model railroads since he was a boy.
Helen had grown up in Milo and was no stranger to railroading. Her father and three brothers worked for the Bangor-Aroostook Railroad, and her husband’s grandfather worked for the Canadian-Pacific Railroad.
The Beals made their model train layout available for people to visit and see over the years, and she has continued the tradition. In one corner there is a map of the U.S. and a map of the world where visitors have inserted pins indicating their state or country of origin.
“It took us quite a while,” said Helen, “but we got all of the states in the United States after a few years.” She estimated about 60-70 people visited this year.
Although the model railroad is known by word of mouth, it also has been the subject of articles in various newspapers and magazines. There is also a compact website devoted to it, and it is publicized on the town of Jonesport’s website.
The Beals never charged for admission, but they accepted donations. The building must be heated at a minimal temperature during the winter to prevent damage to the model railroad by freezing temperatures.
Helen hopes one day the railroad can find a new permanent home.
“I would like to see it in a museum,” she said.
“[The railroad] was my husband’s second love,” said Helen. “I was the first.”