Down East scenic rail line takes passengers into the past

Volunteers George Thomas (left) and Gary Briggs greet Downeast Scenic Railroad passengers—young and old—as they board for a trip that through parts of Ellsworth, woodlands and marshes, past Osprey nests and beaver dams.
Photo Courtesy of Down East Scenic Railroad
Volunteers George Thomas (left) and Gary Briggs greet Downeast Scenic Railroad passengers—young and old—as they board for a trip that through parts of Ellsworth, woodlands and marshes, past Osprey nests and beaver dams.
Posted Sept. 14, 2011, at 9:36 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 14, 2011, at 2:49 p.m.
Fall leaves on railroad tracks in Brunswick
Photo Courtesy of Down East Scenic Railroad
Fall leaves on railroad tracks in Brunswick

ELLSWORTH — A dozen kids from 2to 8 years old with paper engineer hats on their heads ran to the front of the passenger car to watch as the trainmen reattached the 70-ton engine.

The engine had just hauled passengers 4 miles, through part of Ellsworth and on to hidden wilderness areas, in two vintage coaches and an open-air flatbed car with picnic tables. The “tonner” was now being reattached to the other end of the train to make a return trip that would include a tour of wilderness, wetlands, a beaver dam, marshes and active osprey nests filled with chicks.

Parents held up the littlest children to see the diesel engine as it sped past the cars and backed into place to make the return trip. Conductors walked through the aisles pointing out features of the engine and explaining how the tonner was being rejoined to the back of the train. When the engine’s horn bellowed loudly, the kids covered their ears and squealed, clearly captivated by the journey and the chance to see the trainmen do their jobs.

This past May, Downeast Scenic Railroad began its first full summer season of operation after volunteers completed restoration of the train and more than 6 miles of railroad track and rail corridor. The new season has been filled with railroad volunteers providing trips for more than 1,000 schoolchildren, hundreds of senior citizens, national railroad enthusiasts from Vermont, hundreds of local residents and tourists from all over the U.S. and Canada.

“Many of the senior citizens who have ridden have been ecstatic about the train,” says Gary Briggs, vice president of Downeast Scenic Railroad. Briggs looks completely official as a conductor on the train while he punches tickets and stops to share information with passengers about Maine’s railroad history. “Many of the older passengers have childhood memories of going from Bangor to Calais on this line,” he says, “and they seem delighted to be making the trip again.”

Downeast Scenic Railroad is the only restored railroad in service in eastern Maine. The excursion train operates on part of the old Calais Branch Line, which used to span 126 miles from Brewer to the Canadian border. Although the Calais line officially closed in the 1980s, during its heyday thousands of people and tons of freight were transported on the line from southern to northern Maine and the Canadian border.

Tom Testa, the president of Downeast Scenic Railroad, said that the first season of operation has been a good one for the organization. “We have a total of about 75 volunteers from the Ellsworth region and also volunteers who come from other parts of the state. These hardworking volunteers have done an extraordinary job of restoring this outstanding historical resource,” Testa said. “And, they’re not done yet. They intend to rehabilitate more tracks to increase the length of the trip, and we are always working on finding and restoring rail cars.”

While the children gazed with amazement at the adult osprey swooping down to land in nests to feed their young, a 101-year-old man in a wheelchair sat with his family in the open-air car smiling and enjoying the passing scenery. “He remembers when the train ran regularly,” said George Thomas, a conductor on the train. “It’s really a treat for him. It’s really a treat for all of us.”

Downeast Scenic Railroad will operate at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Oct. 16. The boarding platform is located at Cadillac Mountain Sports in Ellsworth. For more information about the train, visit www.downeastscenicrailroad.org. For ticket information or reservations, call 866-449-RAIL (7245). The Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust is a not-for-profit organization formed to preserve part of the Calais railroad line. For more information about how you may volunteer to work on the restoration of the railroad, contact Testa at 207-561-324-1845 or 866-499-rail (7245).

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