Connecting with our past can take many forms. We read books, watch movies, visit historical sites and we go to museums.
Among its exhibitions, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum is making the connection in another way: dioramas, three-dimensional models representing scenes from the past. The model can be miniature or large-scale.
Vince Biondi has created four miniature dioramas of life in the late 1800s to the early 1900s in Niagara-on-the Lake. While three can be seen at the NOTL Museum, the fourth is at the Queenston Community Centre.
Although Biondi was born in Toronto, he spent most of his working life in Calgary working for Air Canada, first as a flight attendant, later as flight services manager. Toward the end of his career he hired and trained new staff.
His early interests included building miniature airplanes, but his true love was the railway.
This can be seen in three of his dioramas. His vision of the Queenston dock and railway includes a couple of rare steam engines and a street car.
The model goes further: You can see a couple arguing with a porter about their luggage and nearby a car is loaded with boxes of fruit ready to be shipped to Toronto. A fisherman has cast his line into the river and a busker stands on the dock, ready to entertain visitors.
That diorama can be seen at the Queenston Community Centre.
A second railway model shows the corner of John and King streets in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Today we know it as a four-way stop near the Pillar and Post. At one time, it was a major railway crossing.
Originally, the Pillar and Post was a cannery and Biondi shows it as that. He has also included railway cars from the period.
He searches to find the appropriate locomotive and if he can’t find what he needs, he meticulously creates them.
The third railway diorama portrays the Michigan Central railway, which ended at the docks in NOTL itself.
Like John and King streets, this model also includes a warehouse. Today we know it as the yacht club. The lighthouse near the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre is also there.
Biondi’s most recent diorama is of the Queen’s Royal Hotel. Again, you see people arriving, but rather than by train, they seem to have used a rather fancy car. They are well-dressed and clearly looking forward to their stay.
These three dioramas are at the NOTL Museum.
To create the models, Biondi gathers pictures and postcards of the area. He visits museums and uses the internet.
The library and archives at Brock University have been a useful source of maps of the areas. His research is careful and precise.
He likes to walk through the locations to think through how they looked at the time he wants to re-create.
The dioramas can take several months to complete and he’ll often spend three hours a day building them.
Precision is important. The models are built to the scale of 1:87, or one centimetre representing 87 centimetres in real life. The same image resolution is used for high-definition television.
Although he collects the trains where he can, Biondi creates the buildings from scratch, using balsa wood and styrene as well as other forms of plastic.
His next project is a recreation of the early 20th century Queenston-Lewiston bridge.
As part of his research, he has walked down the extension of York Street in Queenston, along the paving stones that were once part of the road to the bridge. An old abutment still marks its location, as does one on the Lewiston side.
The NOTL Museum is open daily from 1 to 5 p.m. during the winter. The Queenston Community Centre is open Tuesday afternoons from 1 to 4 p.m.