There is a romance to train travel that few modern modes of transportation can match: the soft, rhythmic click of the wheels, the shrill whistle, the cars wreathed in white steam. Few places offer such a space for repose.
Tom Testa, president of Downeast Scenic Railroad, hopes to preserve that experience, at least in part.
“This is the best part of it all —the history of it,” Testa said. “Making sure it doesn’t get lost.”
Since 2005, the nonprofit Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust has been refurbishing several miles of railroad track and passenger cars. On weekends from May through October, visitors can settle into a coach or an open-air car for the 10-mile round trip from the boarding station at 245 Main St. in Ellsworth (behind the Maine Community Foundation Building) to Ellsworth Falls and Washington Junction and back again.
The tour follows the historic Calais Branch Line, part of the Maine Shore Line Railroad, once one of the few ways to visit Mount Desert Island.
“Most people don’t realize there was quite a transportation network here,” Testa said. “It was the backbone of the economy and how people got to this area as it became one of the great tourist destinations.”
Early visitors to Mount Desert Island had two (somewhat inconvenient) options. They could catch a stagecoach over a dusty span, linking Trenton and the island, or a steamboat from Portland or Rockland. The extension of the Maine Shore Line Railroad from Brewer to McNeil Point in 1884 offered a more convenient solution: a direct, express train from Boston to the Mount Desert Ferry terminal on McNeil Point in Hancock, where travelers could board a steamer to Bar Harbor.
The train ride from Boston took around nine hours, with the ferry adding 40 minutes. Express trains to and from Philadelphia, New York and Washington were later added to the schedule.
The line became known as the Bar Harbor Express, ferrying the East Coast city elites to summer homes around the island. The train ran north on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and headed south on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Cars were elegant, with imitation mother-of-pearl ceilings and gilded woodwork. The Vanderbilts had a private car on the line, and President Benjamin Harrison was also known to ride the rails.
Towns along the route also benefited from the rail traffic, which transported passengers as well as freight including lumber and perishables in refrigerated cars. In February of 1883, Ellsworth voters saw enough promise to invest $10,000 in the Maine Shore Line Railroad (about $227,342 in today’s dollars), according to a history of the railroad in the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.
Passenger service to McNeil Point ceased in 1931, after the completion of the Trenton causeway bridge put a stop to ferry service and automobiles became the preferred mode of transportation to MDI. The Bar Harbor Express made its final run from Ellsworth to New York on Labor Day in 1960, according to the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.
Downeast Scenic Railroad is in the midst of a six-year, $40,000 refurbishment of a combination coach and baggage car that the organization hopes to have ready for passengers in the late summer.
“Our volunteers have done an incredible job,” Testa said. The car has been resided, its seats reupholstered and armrests stripped and varnished. A new bead-board ceiling has been put in and the roof and windows replaced. The brakes have been refurbished, and with a $10,000 grant from Mass Bay Railroad Enthusiasts, the organization has begun work on the installation of a restroom and electrical system.
The nonprofit also has undertaken restoration of the former Union River Railroad Bridge in Ellsworth Falls. The project includes restoration of the bridge abutments and support tiers (the concrete structures holding the bridge in place) as well as replacement of all timbers and installation of new cross-ties on both the eastern and western approaches.
Testa said the group hopes to eventually expand service to Green Lake, which he estimates will cost upward of $300,000.
While Testa laments the loss of train travel, he doesn’t expect it will return anytime soon.
“This is excursion rail,” he said. “But as the roads get more congested …” he trailed off, sighing a little. “Well, it would be a great relief if it returned.”
In 2018, the Downeast Scenic Railroad will make runs starting Saturday, May 26, and running through Columbus Day weekend. The cost is $15 per adult and $8 for children 3 to 12. Children under 2 ride for free. For more info, call (866) 449-7245, email [email protected]g and visit www.downeastscenicrail.org.