ELLSWORTH, Maine — Downtown-area residents of the largest municipality in Hancock County were treated this weekend to a sound that has not been heard here for many years.
While people were outside Saturday walking on the downtown sidewalks of Main Street, hanging their laundry on clotheslines or mowing their lawns, the distinctive call came soaring through the air. A train locomotive repeatedly sounded its horn, signaling the approach of rail service coming back to coastal eastern Maine.
“It has been [nearly] 25 years since a locomotive has run on that line,” Gary Briggs, vice president of Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust, said Monday. “It was a very exciting day for us.”
The locomotive, No. 54, a flatbed car and a caboose had made the 3-mile trip from Washington Junction in neighboring Hancock as a test run, Briggs said, and made the same trip again Sunday. The crew wanted to see how well the train ran on the refurbished section of track, he said. The group, operating as Downeast Scenic Railroad, hopes to establish excursion rail trips on the line between Washington Junction and Green Lake in Dedham.
Briggs said that on Saturday people came out of nearby homes or honked as they drove by to acknowledge the slow-moving train.
“Reality is here,” he said. “We successfully brought a train back to Ellsworth.”
The last time a train ran along the 126-mile Brewer-to-Calais rail line was in 1985. In 2006, the rail group signed a 15-year lease with Maine Department of Transportation for the western part of the old rail line between Washington Junction and Brewer. The eastern part of the rail corridor, from Washington Junction to Ayers Junction in Pembroke, is being rehabilitated by the state for use as a multipurpose trail.
Briggs said the rail preservation group hopes to offer excursion trips between Washington Junction and Ellsworth next summer. He said the locomotive made it as far as the west side of Main Street last weekend. More work needs to be done where the line crosses Lincoln and Davis streets before the train will be able to roll all the way to North Street, which is just east of where the rail line crosses the Union River, he said.
“The track has been rehabilitated with new ties all the way down to [the river crossing],” Briggs said. “We want to make sure everything is done right and safely.”
The group hopes to continue working on the remaining 8 miles of track between the Union River and Green Lake next summer, after it begins excursion service on the 4 miles of track between Washington Junction and the river, Briggs said.
Besides the cars that went on the test run last weekend, the rail group has some other passenger cars that it is renovating and is hoping to acquire other passenger cars, he said.
Briggs said that if things go well, the rail group possibly could offer excursion service this fall, but has no plans to do so.