Gazing up at the locomotive, 3-year-old John Turk of Portland sizes up his birthday gift.
Clad in a green jacket and beige sun hat, Turk stands close to his mother, Lita Semaru, awaiting his turn to visit with engineer Leverett Fernald of Pittsfield and brakeman Ron Jenkins of Bradley. Finally, mother and son climb the stairs to get a peek inside. After them, family after family follows suit.
Soon, it is time to board the Downeast Scenic Railroad from the depot behind Cadillac Mountain Sports in downtown Ellsworth. Turk bolts to the boarding ramp.
“That’s one of the best parts of this job, to watch the kids and their faces,” Downeast Scenic Railroad President Tom Testa said.
Downeast Scenic Railroad is a tourist train that travels between Ellsworth and Washington Junction. Once operated by the Maine Central Railroad, the route inhabits a part of what was once known as the Maine Shore Line Railroad.
Now the Downeast Railroad Heritage Preservation Trust leases the tracks from the Maine Department of Transportation. The trust operates the railroad with the help of volunteers. The roughly 90-minute excursion takes passengers through woods and wetlands during which a narrator informs them about the heyday of train travel and the sights they pass by.
According to volunteer Bill Alexander, working on a railroad requires a lot of manual labor. Volunteers work with a lot of heavy machinery. Their mechanical skills come into play, as they are often taking things apart and putting them back together.
As a kid, Alexander traveled frequently on the Reading Railroad in Pennsylvania. Growing up in North Hills, it wasn’t far for him and his family to ride on the rails.
“I’ve always been interested in trains,” Alexander said. “When I was young, steam locomotives were still running.”
This interest inspired him to volunteer with several different tourist railroads in the summer, including the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad. When Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad suspended operations in 2007, Alexander redirected his energies to the Downeast Scenic Railroad, which began restoration efforts in 2008.
Alexander, a year-round resident of Albion, makes a three- hour, roundtrip drive to Ellsworth twice a week to drive the train on Thursdays (for charters) and Saturdays.
“Running the train is a challenge,” Alexander said. “Every day, every trip is always different.”
Similarly, Fernald, who drives the train on Sunday, likes the challenge.
“I guess it’s kind of a feeling that you’re taking something that’s been out of service for a long time and you’re resurrecting it and bringing it back to life,” he said. “I know a lot of people like it and there’s a lot of interesting people…You’re giving something that people can enjoy and can take away with them.”
Fernald, who works as a machinist for Cianbro and Alexander, a retired high school chemistry and science teacher, are among the many volunteers.
“It’s a great bunch of men and ladies that work there; we all have an interest in the railroad,” Alexander said. “I like seeing the people and the young children that ride on the train. We do a lot of charter work with the elementary schools in the area and I also like just talking to the old-timers and remembering when the trains were running in Ellsworth or wherever they are from.”