A walk through the basement at Don Eastman’s house is like stepping into a miniature Disney theme park dedicated to the history and romance of the railway.
Like Disney, Eastman has an eye for detail, right down to the tiny paper eagles he’s positioned in the mountains painstakingly built to scale along with about 100 buildings and five running trains.
Don is a Master Model Railroad builder, one of only about 600 on the continent.
It’s a distinction awarded to him by the Master Model Railroader Association in 1995, nine years after he began creating scratch-built, 0-scale model railroad layouts. He’s only become more skilful since.
“Don’s work is the pinnacle of great craftsmanship,” says his friend and fellow model builder Tom Walter.
“Don will always go the extra mile. Instead of buying anything in a box, Don makes his own strip wood for the buildings,” Tom said. “Everything he does is scratch-built, which means it’s demanding and time-consuming.
“He could build a roof with a kit but instead he will make 5,000 shingles for one roof. That makes him top of the line. It makes him exceptional.”
Don, now 83, was in high school when he realized he excelled in woodworking class. He built his first wooden model car at age 17 and won a prize for it.
His professional career was spent designing and making wooden furniture, cabinetry, and quirky items like wooden prototypes of early Canadian ice scrapers before they were made from plastic. For a period in the 1980s, he was hired to build wood frames for 13 antique cars under restoration.
At age 30, he started his own business called The Wood Joint. And for more than 50 years, he’s been creating model railways and honing a hobby like none other.
Don spent most of his life in Blenheim and didn’t think he’d ever move because it would mean dismantling his massive model train layout.
But when the Eastman’s found the ideal home close to family in Sarnia , he was convinced to move in 2009. It took five years to put the tracks, buildings, mountains and tunnels back together in his new basement.
The main model he’s worked on all these years fills most of two rooms and has 230 feet of track. Don bases his designs on the little coal-mining town of Quinnimont, West Virginia as it looked in the late 1940s. He exclusively builds track and trains from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, which ran through Blenheim at one time and hauled coal in Quinnimont. As well as the railway and supporting buildings, his layout features an oil field with jerker lines, an abandoned coal mine, hotels, shops, houses and even a still where railway workers make moonshine behind a powerhouse.
Don said he chose to model Quinnimont rather than Blenheim, or any other railway town, because the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia adds visual interest. “And I couldn’t go with the Rocky Mountains because they wouldn’t fit in my basement,” he laughed.
Don’s also built about 40 ships over the years, including a 13-foot model of the Kaye E. Barker built in 1952 by the Interlake Steamship Co. and still a familiar site passing under the Bluewater Bridge.
An entire corner of the Eastman’s basement is occupied by a model loading dock and the Kaye E. Barker, complete with furniture and lights. Don spent a year working on her because he thought it “was one of nicest old ships on the Great Lakes.”
His wife Anne said she is grateful that he has such a love for his hobby and immerses himself in big projects.
“I’m proud of him,” she said. “He’s amazing. There he is at 83 thinking about his next project and keeping busy.”
Don has often taken on commissioned projects including a replica of the Courtright train station for the Moore Museum and a model of the Sarnia train station. He’s also donated numerous railway models to the Moore Museum and is preparing to donate 40-50 buildings to the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society in Clifton Forge, Virginia.
It’s time to find a permanent home for it all, he said.
Before Don takes apart any of his spectacular layout, the Sarnia Photographic Club went this week to photograph decades of exceptional model making.
“Don is a true artist in my opinion,” enthused photo club president Pierre Houle. “His workmanship is amazing.”
“Not just that but Don’s a super guy too,” added his buddy Tom. “A lot of people who are really good at something, are not very humble about it.
“But Don is a modest man.”
Who do you consider an exceptional person in Sarnia-Lambton? Nominate someone you know and explain why you think they should be The Journal’s Exceptional Person of the Week. Email [email protected].