Growing up in Bangor during the 1950s and ’60s, there were places an East Side kid like me never ventured. Topping the list was the sprawling Dow Air Force Base. With the exception of a Thunderbirds air show and the Aug. 21, 1966 pass-through of President Lyndon B. Johnson, my civilian family and I seldom got beyond Air Force sentries on duty at the entrance stations on Hammond and Union streets.
In 1968 the air base closed, and the 11,400-foot runway transferred to Bangor International Airport. Now, much of the former base’s 2,278 acres were finally free to explore. Budding historians like me could touch the World War II-era checkerboard water tower and the Maine Avenue hangar where B-17 bombers stood ready to win the war in Europe.
But I’ve long been puzzled by one piece of largely undocumented base history: the railroad tracks that slice across the airport. What stories can these rusting relics tell? Where do they begin and end? What materials did trains carry onto Dow AFB?
Assisted by Dr. David Bergquist of Hermon, who has written and taught about the base’s history, I recently walked the old track to grasp its significance. Information supplied by Michael P. Gleason, SMSgt. (Ret.) USAF, states the tracks eventually measured nearly two miles.
“They came onto the base during two different eras,” Bergquist explained. “The original track, built in 1941, started at a siding off of Odlin Road [across from Perry Road and the Holiday Inn], running off of the Maine Central line [now the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway]. This spur onto the base was used into the 1960s.”
Another section Bergquist calls the “Cold War track” was built closer to the base after Dow Air Force Base expanded its runway in 1956 to handle mammoth B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Hammond Street was cut off, Odlin Road’s path was changed, and a section of outer Hammond Street nicknamed “The Bulge” was constructed. A newer track joined the 1941 section and ended near today’s General Electric plant at 208 Maine Ave.
“It wasn’t just munitions such as machine guns that the railroad transported,” Bergquist said. “It carried fuel, food, and airplane engines. A hundred thousand soldiers passed through Dow AFB [then named Dow Army Field] during WWII, and they had to be fed, armed, and clothed. Do you know they supplied Arctic uniforms to Bangor?”
The old WW II magazine off Odlin Road, today an industrial park with an old water tower and bunkers, received materials transported by truck from the base. Railroad tracks never entered the magazine because a steep grade exceeded what a train could maneuver. So every day, a constant shuttle of trucks, some of which went to the siding, others directly onto the base, kept the supply lines open. Base warehouses stored materials awaiting air shipment to Europe.
Ghostly relics on track sections near Odlin Road, Hammond Street, and Maine Avenue include switching equipment, electrical junction boxes and metal spikes stamped “41” to commemorate the pre-Pearl Harbor war effort. Near where a theme park, print shops, motels, restaurants, an Elks Club lodge, and dental office serve today’s Bangor, a railroad once made special deliveries. One conspicuous track link sits in front of the Maine Air Museum at 98 Maine Ave., near the site of a WW II-era warehouse.
Visitors to the Dow AFB railroad tracks should use caution and watch for approaching trains and traffic. Expect to find only small sections of the overgrown 2-mile track and to dress in long pants and comfortable foot gear. Always respect historic sites and honor their significance.