Rhythm of rails back on track in Ellsworth

Posted Aug. 09, 2009, at 9:29 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:59 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The train whistle echoed throughout the downtown area Saturday afternoon as a locomotive eased its way across Main Street and headed out on the 2½-mile trip back to the rail yard at Washington Junction in Hancock.

This was the second weekend in a row that the volunteers from the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust have put the 70-ton locomotive through its paces on the restored section of the old Calais-to-Brewer rail line.

“It runs great, it rides great!” said Tom Testa, the trust’s president, who had ridden on the engine as it pulled a flatcar and caboose on the trip. “We’re very pleased with the ride and the way things are working.”

The trust — which now boasts more than 350 members — has been working for three years to refurbish the track and to restore equipment in an effort to develop an excursion rail service on the line. On Saturday’s trip, the locomotive crossed Main Street and stopped alongside Allen’s Blueberry Freezer, as residents stopped to watch.

“I moved here in 1970 and I can remember trains coming through,” said Bonnie Ross of Ellsworth. “It’s such a nice sound.”

Ross said she hopes the trust is successful in bringing back rail service on the line.

“We need to offer the tourists a diversity of things to do,” she said. “This is one more thing they can enjoy.”

Ross also said she plans to ride the excursion train once it starts running.

The community’s response to seeing a train on the tracks again has been very positive, according to Gary Briggs, the trust’s vice president.

“A lot of people have family members who used to work on the trains in the area,” Briggs said. “There’s a lot of memories there for people. A lot of people are glad to see it come back.”

Bill Alexander, 70, of Albion is one of the two certified engineers who drive the locomotive. Alexander worked for 10 years on the Belfast & Moosehead Lake steam locomotive that ran from Belfast to Unity. It took a little work to adapt to the trust’s diesel, he said, but having that past experience made it easier.

“The thing about a locomotive is that it is so long and so heavy, it doesn’t start quickly and it doesn’t stop quickly,” Alexander said. “It’s very different than your car.”

The slow response time means that the engineer has to stay alert and always be aware of how long it takes to stop, he said.

“You need to look as far ahead down the track as you can,” he said. “You always need to be aware of where you are.”

All of the train components are vintage pieces, according to Testa. The locomotive was built in 1948, the caboose dates to 1926, and the flatcar, used for working on the rails, was built in 1960.

“Everything we have is vintage equipment,” Testa said. “The coach we’re working on is from 1910; it was a Maine Central day coach. That’s part of our mission, to restore and preserve. There’s a great history here.”

Although the trust still needs to restore some of the crossings between Main Street and Ellsworth Falls, Testa said, it may be able to make a few trial runs later this fall. Eventually, the trust plans to restore the rail line and run the trips north of the city to Green Lake.

Having the locomotive running, Testa said, will make the restoration process easier, since the trust will use it to move crews and materials along the rails.

“When we’re restoring those crossings, we can load up the rails on the flatbed and move them to the site,” he said. “It’s good for us to have it in service — now we can use it.”

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