HANCOCK, Maine — With the sounds of running feet, shifting bicycle gears and revving ATV engines, an 85-mile multiuse trail stretching from just east of Ellsworth to Pembroke was officially opened in its entirety Tuesday morning.
But before the dozens of runners, bikers and all-terrain vehicle riders sped off from Washington Junction toward points Down East, state officials and private citizens who spearheaded the effort to upgrade the former rail bed for off-road use celebrated the trail’s completion.
“We’ve been working for 20 years on this,” Sally Jacobs, an official with the Sunrise Trail Coalition, told dozens of people who gathered Tuesday morning to witness the ribbon-cutting event. “I’m having a hard time not jumping up and down today.”
Jacobs, an Orono resident who many said was the driving force behind making the trail a reality, was presented with a commemoration plaque signed by Gov. John Baldacci, Department of Transportation Commissioner David Cole and Department of Conservation Commissioner Eliza Townsend. Cole and Townsend attended and spoke at the event, as did state Sen. Dennis Damon and Phil Savignano of the Maine Office of Tourism.
“Sally, if you hadn’t existed we would have needed to invent you,” Cole said.
Many of the official comments Tuesday focused on the challenges of rehabilitating the former rail corridor into a multiuse trail and the effort it took to preserve the possibility of bringing rail service back to eastern coastal Maine. Convincing rail advocates that removing the tracks and ties would not eliminate that possibility wasn’t easy to do, according to officials.
Cole said that because the rail bed deteriorated after rail service along the corridor was discontinued in 1985, removing the old tracks and ties was a necessity, even if the purpose was to resume rail service. MDOT acquired the rail corridor in 1987.
By rehabilitating the corridor as a multiuse trail, the rail bed has been restored so that new ties and tracks might one day be installed along the line, he said.
Savignano said that the trail helps showcase Maine’s scenery and will give tourists options for the kind of outdoor experiences they can enjoy in Maine. Outdoor tourism in Maine is expanding, he said, with ATV use growing and Maine receiving a ranking as the 13th most bike-friendly state in the country.
Damon gave credit to the late state Rep. Eddie Povich for introducing him to the idea of converting the old rail bed into a multiuse trail. He said he looked into the idea but didn’t become fully convinced until he saw an old rail bed in Ely, Minn., that had been converted into a trail.
“It drew people to that region,” Damon said. “I think we can encourage [tourists] to come back time and time again [with the trail and similar attractions]. We might even be able to get them to relocate here.”
Damon agreed that the trail would not prevent rail service from being reintroduced along the corridor if it becomes economically feasible again.
“Why can’t we have both?” he said. “I’ve always thought that we can.”
Seasonal train service has been reintroduced to part of the old rail corridor between Brewer and Calais, which includes the newly opened Sunrise Trail. The Downeast Scenic Railroad offers open-air excursion rides west of Washington Junction through downtown Ellsworth and plans to offer rides all the way to Green Lake in Dedham.
The trail project faced other hurdles aside from some resistance from rail advocates. Earlier this year, work on the project came to a temporary halt when the company renovating the corridor defaulted on several bank loans.
It also faced opposition from a landowner. Dale Henderson, who owns properties in Hancock and Steuben, filed suit against the state in 2008, claiming it did not have rights to the abandoned rail line. Henderson erected barricades on the rail bed where he thought it crossed his property boundaries.
Toni Kemmerle, chief legal counsel for DOT, said Tuesday that the state won a summary judgement against Henderson earlier this summer in Hancock County Superior Court. But Henderson’s attorney, Tim Pease of Bangor, said that a similar case in Washington County Superior Court has yet to be decided. Henderson is appealing the Hancock County case to the state supreme court,
According to Dan Stewart, DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian program manager, the overall cost of the conversion project was approximately $5 million, which breaks down to about $59,000 per mile. He said the sale of the removed rail covered most of the project cost, while the rest came from rail improvement bonds.
Jacobs and other Sunrise Trail officials said the investment already is paying off. Jacobs said that last winter Helen’s restaurant in Machias had to take on extra wait staff to accommodate snowmobilers on the trail who stopped in for pie and coffee. The North Street Cafe in Cherryfield has moved so it can be closer to the trail, she said, and other adjacent retail businesses are clearing paths to the trail to attract customers.