KENT WARD

Anthology describes hardy breed of Bangor and Aroostook Railroad

Posted May 04, 2012, at 4:07 p.m.

“Griswold isn’t even a whistle-stop on the Bangor and Aroostook’s Ashland Branch anymore. The two buildings remaining, formerly occupied by railroad employees, keep a brooding vigil over the grassy clearing and the clear waters of the St. Croix swirling past on the journey to the Aroostook River at Masardis.

“The forest stretches for miles in each direction, its silence broken only by the occasional snarl of a chain saw in the distance. It’s hard to believe this sleepy clearing once bustled with life.”

The lead paragraphs in a feature story headlined “Echoes of a Ghost Town” — a chapter included in Dick Sprague’s new book, “The Past is a Different Place’’ — grabbed my attention as I riffled through the book that had arrived in the morning mail.

I was hooked on the Maine history lesson and the accumulating yard work simply would have to wait while I learned more about what Sprague described as “a string of lusty mill villages that popped up like overnight mushrooms in the wake of the Fish River Railroad in 1903 to reap the rich harvest of newly-penetrated forest.’’

One story led to another, of course, and soon the yard work had been successfully put off until tomorrow.

“The Past Is a Different Place’’ is an anthology of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad’s award-winning in-house Maine Line magazine from its birth in 1952 under the guidance of Sprague — the public relations voice of the railroad for nearly 40 years — until 1991, the year he retired as a senior vice president of the line.

The 390-page softcover book, creatively illustrated with Sprague’s outstanding black-and-white photography, recently was published by Furbish-Roberts Printing Co. of Bangor, which is handling sales. It sells for $40, the per-copy publication cost of the volume.

It took him three years to compile his best-of-Maine Line material for the printer, Sprague said in a telephone interview from his Bangor home on Wednesday.

“I got carried away and couldn’t stop,’’ he confessed, admitting to relief when the massive undertaking was completed. The experience was somewhat like a porcupine must feel upon giving birth, he said — “glad when it’s over.’’

The essays Sprague chose for his anthology by no means slight the line’s top executives, but the majority of the material extols the railroad’s dedicated rank-and-file employees and their accomplishments on and off the job. As well, there are profiles on citizens not connected to the railroad, including the late legendary weekly newspaper publisher King Harvey of the Fort Fairfield Review and Presque Isle potato farmer Frank Shaw, an early promoter of the Maine Russet potato.

Sprague writes of blacksmith Bill Paul of Milo, who practiced his art with the railroad for 42 years; the railroading Beaupre family of Grand Isle and the seven sons who worked for the BAR; Big John Willinski, general foreman and wreck master who found some good in everyone; car repairer Don Campbell of Dover-Foxcroft, a trapper in his off-duty life. He lauds the many contributions employees of French and Swedish extraction have made to the BAR, as well as those made by the line’s female employees.

There are stories about the railroad’s bus division, its port operation at Searsport, the railroad’s 19th century origins and its role in shipping the agricultural and forest products of northern Maine, and the day the telegraph became obsolete in the firm’s communications system. A chapter of the book is devoted to the line’s World War II military veterans and their heroics.

When word came via telegraph in August of 1945 that Japan had surrendered and the war was over, jubilant railroad crews at Oakfield tied down the shop’s steam whistle. It was said the triumphal blast could be heard in Houlton, 17 miles away.

In a preface, Sprague suggests that writing about railroad men and women was the best journalistic assignment he could have imagined because it allowed him to absorb the culture of a hardy breed that was much like the independent Maine islanders he had grown up with.

“They had the same work ethic I remembered, and I came to treasure them,’’ he wrote of the line‘s employees.

His hope is that the book “reflects the quality of these remarkable people,’’ Sprague said Wednesday.

He need not worry on that count, for on page after page what comes clearly through is the grit and taste for a good challenge characteristic of the extensive BAR family of which Sprague writes so eloquently in this significant contribution to Maine history.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is maineolddawg@gmail.com.

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