Scenic railroad volunteers share love of trains

By Jared Gendron

Leverett Fernald fell for trains riding on the Canadian Pacific Railway back in 1989. Bytown Railway Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Canadian rail history since 1969, had offered free rides that year as part of the 100th anniversary of the railway’s Maine service. A machinist by trade, Fernald got to sit up front with the driver as the steam-powered locomotive hurtled down the tracks from Brownville Junction to Onawa Trestle in Willimantic.

“I got a chance to ride in the cab,” Fernald said, remembering his rail adventure in central Maine. “Ever since then, I haven’t been able to get enough of it.”

Retired from Maine’s largest contractor Cianbro, after a 20-year career, Fernald appreciates trains as machines as well as antiquities. The Pittsfield man has put that passion and his mechanical skills to work refurbishing and maintaining trains — from locomotives to passenger coaches — and enabling the public to experience them. His hands-on contributions have benefited Maine’s seasonal Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railway and New Hampshire’s Conway Scenic Railroad among others over the past 25 years.

For 16 years now, he has helped restore and maintain the locomotive and other cars that make up the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust’s Downeast Scenic Railroad, since its inception in 2005. In recent years, he and other volunteers also have been hard at work restoring the Maine Central Railroad’s steam locomotive #470 in the Downeast railroad’s Washington Junction yard in the town of Hancock. They hope to have it going in five years. 

Meanwhile, visitors, local and seasonal residents get to go for rides aboard the Downeast railroad from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October. Embarking from Washington Junction, a 10-minute drive east of Ellsworth, passengers climb aboard the restored train and go for a 24-mile roundtrip excursion that takes them past mossy woodlands, open fields and wetlands on the former Calais Branch Line. They’ll see occupied bird’s nests atop telephone poles. They also keep an eye out for moose, herons, beavers and Bigfoot — indeed, even the elusive creature appears as a cardboard cutout between some trees. 

Ellsworth residents, going about their weekend activities, wave from porches, street corners and backyards as the train passes through Ellsworth’s downtown. Heading north, the train crosses the Union River railroad bridge, toward Holden. On Route 1A, motorists honk their horns as a form of salute. In the opposite direction, the tracks at times run parallel to the 87-mile Downeast Sunrise Trail that stretches from Hancock to Ayres Junction in Charlotte. Folks out exercising or walking their dogs will wave, too, from the multi-recreational trail used by hikers, cyclists, ATVers, skiers and snowmobilers. 

“You’re really selling the experience versus the service,” Fernald reflected. “People rode passenger trains because they had to get from one place to another, and then as time went by and things changed … those things kind of started to go away. And so, to preserve this stuff so that other people can appreciate what things were like — that’s kind of what this is all about.”

On the excursions, which depart at 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, passengers have a choice of four coaches including an open-air car, where people can stand or sit at picnic tables. Through a sound system, riders learn about how the Maine Shore Line Railroad once carried people, freight and refrigerated perishables to Ellsworth, Hancock’s Mount Desert ferry terminal and other points farther east to Calais at the U.S.-Canada border. They also hear what wildlife and other sights to look for out the window during the 90-minute trip. 

Over Memorial Day weekend, passengers of all ages boarded the train at Washington Junction. Parents took pictures marking the occasion. Children bounced and laughed as the locomotive’s horn blasted. One boy marched continually, his knees going up and down, the length of the coach’s aisle. 

“The kids love it,” said Carol Ann Edgerly, a volunteer steward who pleasantly interacted with passengers in the open-air car. 

Ellsworth residents Ian Crossman and Kaylie Rosborough brought their 21-month-old son, Duncan, for his first train ride. Wearing a Mickey Mouse cap, a golden sheriff badge sticker and clutching a plastic toy train, Duncan’s delight was apparent. The family’s home is near the tracks and their son has developed an interest in trains having heard and seen one go by in his own neighborhood. 

“[I] tried putting him down for a nap earlier,” Crossman said of his son who was excited about the train ride. “He did not want to take a nap.”

For a Maryland visitor, the railroad’s history stood out from her ride. Maine Shore Line Railroad’s passenger service ceased in 1960. “I think it’s nostalgic,” she said. “There’s not a lot of opportunity to ride historic trains.”

The visitor’s appreciation for trains and rail travel — whether past or present — is just what Fernald and other volunteers seek to achieve. That’s their reward for their considerable time spent clearing the rail corridor, converting aged and neglected railroad cars and other annual maintenance work and special projects over the years.  

“It’s a lot of hard work and everything,” Fernald said. “But when you’re all said and done, and you can take someone for a ride on it, and you see the look on their faces and everything — to see a steam engine working — that’s really quite a thing.”

From the late spring to mid-fall, Fernald puts in three to four days a week at the Downeast railroad’s yard. He drives the train’s diesel-electric powered locomotive train Sundays. He and other volunteers continue their restoration of Maine Central Railroad’s steam locomotive that was built in 1924 and made its last run in 1954. 

“When you can take something that’s been totally neglected and you can bring it back to life again,” he said, “it’s really quite a feeling to be able to do something like that.” 

To take the Downeast Scenic Railroad’s tours, call 1-(866)-449-7245 or visit downeastscenicrail.org. The railway is located at 8 Railroad Siding Road (off the Washington Junction Road) in Hancock. Tickets costs $17 per adult, $15 per senior and active military, $9 per child (3-12) and free for 2 and under.