Ellsworth scenic rail steaming to a start

Posted Sept. 25, 2008, at 12:37 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A 70-ton locomotive rolled into town on the back of a tractor-trailer Wednesday and was loaded onto the tracks at Washington Junction, the latest piece of equipment for the Downeast Scenic Railroad.

“This is a big day for us,” said Tom Testa, president of the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust, the parent company of the railroad. “This is the last piece of equipment we need to get going.”

The trust, a volunteer organization, is refurbishing a variety of railroad cars and improving a portion of the former Maine Central rail line as part of its plan to offer scenic rail excursion trips, beginning next summer.

“A lot of people have worked very, very hard to get to this point,” Testa said. “And there is still a lot of work to do.”

Using donations from members and financing assistance from Machias Savings Bank, the trust bought the No. 54, a General Electric, 600 horse-power locomotive weighing 70 tons, from the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad Preservation Society.

The wheel assemblies, weighing about 12 tons each, were removed from the locomo-tive earlier this week at the Belfast and Moosehead Lake yard in Unity. A crew from Baxter Cook House and Building Movers of Searsport loaded the locomotive onto the tractor-trailer and took it to Ellsworth.

The crew, aided by volunteers and trust members, worked through the afternoon Wednesday to jack up the locomotive body and slide it into place so it could be lowered onto the wheel assemblies which had been positioned on existing track.

According to Gary Briggs, the trust’s vice president and property manager, the organization has worked hard to find equipment that would have been used on the rail line in Maine.

“There’s a lot of equipment out there,” Briggs said. “But we wanted something that was typical of what had run on the line during this time. And we wanted something that was ‘blue-carded,’” which means it has Federal Railroad Administration approval.

The locomotive was built in 1948 and has served on the B&MLRR for the past 20 years. It is in very good shape, Briggs said. “They maintained it very well,” he said.

The locomotive was partially disassembled for the trip from Unity, and over the next several weeks, volunteer crews will reassemble, service and inspect it as they prepare it for the coming season, Briggs said. The trust already has refurbished a box car and a century-old caboose, and will work this winter on restoring two passenger cars that will be used for the excursions.

Once it’s operational, Briggs said, the locomotive may be used to transport equipment and materials along the line in preparation for starting seasonal excursion trips between Ellsworth and Ellsworth Falls next summer. The trust has leased the rail line between Brewer and Washington Junction from the state, and eventually plans to extend the trips as far as Green Lake.

The trust and its volunteers have been working for three years to refurbish the line, and a crew is installing new ties from the Washington Junction rail yard through Ellsworth to Ellsworth Falls. The project coincides with the conversion of the rail line east of Washington Junction into a multiuse recreational trail.

The trust is working with the Sunrise Downeast Trail group, the city of Ellsworth and the Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce to develop a multiuse transportation center that would serve as a depot for the railroad, a station for the several bus lines that run through the city, a rail museum, a jump-off point for recreational excursions and a possible home for the Chamber.

The group has not identified a site for the center, but Briggs said it will have to be along the rail line and should be easily accessible from High Street.

The trust and its 350-plus members will continue to work on the line through the winter.

Anyone interested in helping or joining the organization may call 866-449-7245 or go to www.downeastscenicrail.org.

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