CHAMBERLAIN LAKE, Maine — Anyone who says time travel is impossible needs to visit the spit of land between Big Eagle and Chamberlain Lakes off the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
Just a few steps into the woods and you are suddenly back more than 100 years, when timber was king and the state’s rivers and waterways were a commercial transportation system rivaling today’s interstate and highways.
Thanks to the efforts of officials with the Waterway and some dedicated volunteers, a small piece of that history got a facelift over the summer, giving visitors a glimpse of Maine’s working history.
The north end of Chamberlain Lake is home to the old Allagash tramway, a 3,000-foot system of cribwork, rails, inch-thick cable and iron that once upon a time moved thousands of logs overland on their way to the mills in Bangor and beyond.
No one ever said making a living in the Maine woods was easy.
As hard as it is today, put yourself in the work boots of lumbermen more than a century ago faced with the job of getting cut trees from the vast forests around Big Eagle Lake to Chamberlain Lake and on their way south.
This meant the lumbermen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had to find a way to bridge the more than half-mile of land separating the two lakes and access to the south flowing Penobscot River.
Enter Fred Dow, an engineer who in 1902 designed the 3,000-foot-long, steam-powered tramway capable of hauling the logs from Big Eagle Lake and dumping them in Chamberlain Lake.
Powered by two large boilers, the tramway, according to Matthew LaRoche, superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, operated much like a miniature railroad with 60 steel “trucks” attached to a cable every 10 feet.
The trucks each had two tooth plates that held the log in place on top and the 6,000 feet of steel cable, an inch in diameter, pulled the trucks along the track.
When the logs were dumped at the Chamberlain end, the trucks looped under the tramway and traveled back to Big Eagle.
The tramway was in service for six years, transporting more than 100 million board feet of timber before it was discontinued.
For 103 years, the old tram has stood silent, watching the passing of the seasons as it slowly fell victim to time, the elements and the occasional artifact-seeker illegally taking parts for souvenirs from the federally protected wilderness waterway.
What was once the heart of a massive logging operation had become a curiosity for the thousands of outdoors enthusiasts who travel the Allagash Wilderness Waterway every year.
“People would walk in to look at the old tram but really never had any idea of how it worked or what it once looked like,” LaRoche said. “We wanted to give people an idea of what it did.”
So last year LaRoche put out the call for volunteers to take part in a restoration project and put some life back into the old tramway.
Among those who answered the call was Steve Barnes from Ellsworth, who had seen the rusty machinery and rotting wood the previous year while canoeing the waterway.
“A bunch of us did the did the Allagash waterway last summer [because] this is such a great resource and we’d never done it,” Barnes said. “We stopped in to look at the tramway and were dumbfounded — it’s not what you expect to see in the woods.”
When Barnes read about the refurbishment project, he knew he wanted to be part of it and had just the group of guys in mind to bring along.
“When Matt [LaRoche] found out I was a carpenter, I sort of got put in charge,” Barnes said. “From that point on it was me finding a crew.”
Thanks to that team that included Dale Abbott, John Mountford, Terry Kelly, Ken Worden and Chris Weaver working over a single long weekend this summer, 25 feet of the old tramway looks as good today as it did when it was first log rolled off in 1903.
To bring the section of tramway back to its original glory, the men had to dig new post holes, replace the rail ties, lift sections of rail into place, run new inch-thick cable and reinstall the small cars on which the logs were carried.
“We all had the discussion about what it was like 100 years ago doing this work,” Barnes said. “We had power tools and were only doing 25 feet [and] back then they did all 3,000 feet. I felt like we cheated because we had a circular saw and chainsaws.”
A century ago the parts of the tramway were brought in from as far away as Boston to Moosehead Lake, where they were placed on boats for the final journey to Chamberlain Lake, according to LaRoche.
Other parts were brought in that winter overland and over the frozen lakes, he said.
Under full steam, the tramway moved the logs at about 3 mph and could handle upwards of a half million board feet of lumber a day.
Of course, like all major construction projects, this one was not without incident.
Standing by the new 25 feet of the tramway and looking east where more than a half-mile of rusted cable still snakes through the woods toward Big Eagle, LaRoche talks about bolts.
Lots and lots of bolts.
Four thousand, eight hundred of them, to be exact. That’s how many it took to hold those steel trucks and the pulley clamps to the cable.
Trouble was, when workers installed them in 1903, they discovered the bolts were not long enough.
The solution? Remove them all and lengthen the threads with a hand die.
“I bet you could hear them yelling about that all way down in Boston,” LaRoche said.
“They probably used some curse words you just don’t hear anymore,” Barnes added with a laugh.
Looking at the old tramway, the two men speculated about its operation 100 years ago.
“I would have loved to have been here in 1903 when they first fired this up,” LaRoche said.
“I just imagine the noise it must have made clanking along,” Barnes said. “It must have been amazing.”
Before the reconstruction even began, a one-acre patch of trees and scrub brush was cleaned out by a crew led by Roger Morneault of St. Agatha, LaRoche said.
Over the past winter more than 82-yards of gravel was brought in over the ice along with other building materials, all of which were donated by project supporters like Dave Flanagan of Viking Lumber, Tom Thornton, Cianbro and a group of smiths who forged 100 miniature railroad spikes.
“Matt did have a plan on what he wanted this to look like,” Barnes said. “But we ended up doing a lot of field engineering [and] we had a good crew who all contributed what they knew.”
For his part, LaRoche is thrilled with how the project turned out.
“It looks really, really good,” he said. “Now people can visualize how it looked in 1903 [and] it really makes the history of this area come alive.”