In many ways, 57-year-old Eric Gagnon seems like your typical Amherstview retiree: he enjoys spending time with his family, reading a good book, and pursuing an engrossing hobby. It’s this hobby, however, that has garnered him a fair bit of attention around Kingston in recent years because – well – his hobby is Kingston. Specifically, Gagnon builds HO-scale models of historical buildings and landmarks, many of which are based on archived photos of Kingston’s past, in an effort to preserve some of the city’s history.
“Some of these buildings are gone – and that’s the problem. You’d think that everything [historical] in Kingston has been preserved, but it hasn’t been,” said Gagnon when asked about what inspired him to build the uncanny models. “The outer train station on Montreal Street, you can’t even find it now – but I built a model of it, so it sort of lives on, in a way.”
Gagnon first started building models depicting historical sites three years ago, after retiring from his position as a medical laboratory technologist. Retirement freed up time for his already impressive model train hobby to evolve into other projects. He had dabbled with building models in the past, depicting sites in cities such as Vancouver and Winnipeg. A self-published author and blogger, Gagnon had already written several books and blogs about Kingston’s historic transportation industry. It was during research for these works at the Queen’s University Archives that he first felt compelled to give new life to the buildings he saw in photos, over 20,000 of which existed only as negatives donated to Queen’s by historic Kingston photographer George Lilley in the early 1940s to the 1970s.
Gagnon said he noticed right away that there were plenty of archived photos depicting hospitals, prisons, and military buildings, but very few physical records of commercial, industrial, and transportation buildings – which Gagnon felt were important parts of Kingston’s historic past that were worth preserving. So he built a 10 by11 ft. (335.28 by 304.8 cm) model layout depicting some of these historic sites, turning still photos into vibrant 3D tableaus set in the time during which the photos were taken.
“Once I got looking through those [photos], I came across quite a few interesting finds. [At] the archives, you can either buy a print from them or they let you take your own pictures of the images. And so I ended up with probably 2,000 images from that, and they were very kind to give me permission from [Lilley’s] family to let me use those images in my books as well.”
Gagnon also participates in a local hobby group called ARK (Associate Railroaders of Kingston) and, in the past, has joined other model enthusiasts who meet monthly to showcase their work and brainstorm about even larger model ideas. While the pandemic has halted the meetings, Gagnon said that the building of connected “modules” depicting the city of Kingston and its historical buildings may be in the works as a collaborative project within this group.
“Pre-pandemic, we had quite a grandiose plan to build model modules of different parts of the city that we could link together,” said Gagnon, “and we could set them up at, you know, City Hall or some sort of public event. Then the pandemic came in and it sort of wound down, but everyone was quite excited about it.”
Much like the collaboration module idea, Gagnon asserts that his books, blogs, and model building are “all connected,” and offers that the best way to appreciate his historical model work is to look at the bigger picture clarified within his many written works. An avid trainspotter, Gagnon has also written many pieces depicting railway history, ferries, and other modes of transportation in Ontario and elsewhere, with his works selling mainly in hobby shops as well as Kingston bookstores such as Novel Idea. Yet Gagnon stresses that he is “not an expert” when it comes to Kingston history; he is still learning from Kingstonians willing to share their insights.
“Everything that I’ve been learning – instead of just writing it down somewhere or putting it in my computer, I’ve been blogging about it. This way, other people can learn about it as well.”
As for any public viewings of Gagnon’s models in the near future, he hinted at a strong possibility, saying, “I’m going to be talking to the Pumphouse Museum on Ontario Street because they’re going to be working on a display/show/presentation about Kingston Transportation history. You never know what can happen until you put yourself out there.”