The Rock Island Line connection

Lewes train enthusiast is recreating a childhood Christmas-time train ride
November 27, 2019

Dennis Davison says trains, and in particular the Rock Island Line, are in his blood.

Not only did the Lewes resident have an uncle, Sam James, who worked for the Illinois-based railroad, he was born in Rock Island, Ill.

His passion for the railroad has led to a lifetime of building model train displays.

Davison, 77, moved to Lewes with his wife, Linda, in December 2008, when his passion for a large model train layout, sparked in childhood, was renewed.

He is currently working on his fifth, he says last, layout in his train room in his Reserves at Pilottown home.

It was Linda's idea for him to model his layout after a childhood memory. “Each year at Christmas, we would take the Rock Island Rocket from our hometown to downtown Chicago to go shopping,” he said.

Dennis and Linda grew up in the same town, LaSalle-Peru, Ill.

His two-tiered, 10-train layout depicts what he saw out the train window on those 100-mile trips – including the skyscrapers in Chicago, small towns, the wide-open farm fields of central Illinois, and even a large grain elevator and sand and gravel plant.


Love of trains starts early

As a youngster, Dennis started out with a Lionel train layout going around his family Christmas tree. Each year, he would get more pieces. Eventually, he and his father, Bob Davison, put up two 4-by-8-foot pieces of plywood with stands in their basement to expand their layout. Because the Lionel trains took up a lot of room, they sold everything and started over with HO-gauge trains.

“I could kick myself for doing that,” he said. “Older Lionel trains are valuable today.”

His younger brother, Marc Davison, picked up the hobby when Dennis' interests turned to cars and girls. Dennis was drafted and spent two years in the Army, and then during his working life as a salesman for Motor Wheel-Goodyear and Alcoa, he gave little thought to the family train set.

But he still constructed model train layouts as his family moved, including at homes in Lansing, Mich., and Newark.

During a visit to see his brother, he asked about the family trains, and returned to his new Lewes home with several boxes of trains and buildings.


True to Rock Island Line

The Rock Island Line went out of business in 1980 after providing passenger and freight service throughout the Midwest for nearly 140 years. “It's hard to find Rock Island pieces,” Dennis said.

But he was able to score a major find at a train show in Wilmington where he bought a Rock Island Rocket engine and two passenger cars, replicas of the train he rode as a child.

The attention to detail in his layout is evident. He makes his own miniature trees from plants his wife grows, hand paints all of the half-inch people in his layout and builds many of the buildings as they actually appeared. He's even learned how to use pastel chalk to make buildings look weathered. He uses photos of the area printed off the internet as backgrounds in the layout.

He also does his own train maintenance in his workshop next to the layout in his hobby room.

“I never imagined I would be doing this kind of detailed work,” he says. “I get up here and lose myself.”

Today's model trains are computerized. He can operate all of the trains and numerous switches using an app on his smartphone, but only after he retrofited his train engines with decoders to make them compatible with today's technology.

Dennis plans to work diligently to finish the top tier of his layout this winter. “This won't take another 10 years,” he said with a smile.


A connection to Lewes

Dennis retired in 2007 after working for more than four decades for two companies, Motor Wheel-Goodyear and the Aluminum Company of America. Most of those years, he sold aluminum wheels to the transportation industry.

While working for Motor Wheel, he was named the company's East Coast sales representative and moved to Newark, which, at the time, was a hub for car manufacturing with the former GM and Chrysler plants in full operation.

While living there, he and his wife and two children made frequent trips to Cape Henlopen State Park – and a connection to Lewes was made.

His daughter, Michelle Whetzel, and son-in-law Robert built a beach house in Cape Shores so they spent more time in Lewes over the years.

“We fell in love with this area,” he said.

The couple has been active since they moved to Lewes. Linda served on the board of Lewes in Bloom for five years and was cochair with founder Warren Golde for three years. During that time, Lewes was named the most beautiful small town in America by America in Bloom.

Dennis served as a Lewes park commissioner for six years and has been a guide on the Lightship Overfalls.



The model train layout to see

According to Davison, the best train layout he's ever seen is Northlandz Model Train Museum in Flemington, N.J. Many others agree. It's the world's largest model railroad, with 100 trains, 8 miles of track and more than 400 bridges and tunnels. Go to for more information.

  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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