FORT KENT, Maine — Fort Kent Historical Society President Chad Pelletier got a lot of looks on a recent drive north from Gorham.
It’s understandable, given he was hauling a one-of-kind, hand crafted, scale model 800-pound locomotive steam engine in the back of his pickup truck.
“Some people stopped me outside of the Olive Garden in Bangor asking if they could take photos,” Pelletier said last week. “It did get a lot of looks.”
The locomotive is currently in a back room of the historical society’s building in the old Fort Kent train station, having completed a round trip that took decades.
“We had been offered the train about two years ago,” Pelletier said. “Last week I had some time to go down and pick it up [and] I had seen photos of it, of course, but when I walked in and saw it for the first time, it was like, ‘Wow.’”
The working steam engine was designed and built by one of Fort Kent’s true “petanteurs” — the St. John Valley French word for a combination engineer, fabricator and trouble shooter — George Roy in 1961.
Roy passed away in 1999, and the exact reason he decided to spend 5,000 man-hours on the project went with him, but in an interview with a local newspaper in the early ’60s, he indicted the project was born “in the South Pacific” while serving in World War II.
Whatever the reason, Roy devoted nearly every spare hour he had to fabricating the train’s moving parts in minute detail down to the tiny rail spikes bent over the tracks out of old car parts or casting them from brass in molds he designed and created himself by melting different metals in a small furnace in his shop.
The 6½-foot long model is an exact replica of an old 250 Class Bangor and Aroostook Steam Locomotive, including the working boiler that can push 100-pounds PSI and operates on soft coal.
At the time, according to Pelletier, Roy estimated to pay someone to do the work would have cost $15,000, or around $122,000 in today’s dollars.
Because the locomotive required someone with a valid boiler operator’s’ license to run it, Pelletier said it remained more of a display piece, though there are local tales of Roy taking the engine to gravel pits and firing it up.
His daughter Sue Roy still lives in Fort Kent and remembers her father starting the engine several times.
“It was cool,” she said. “It made the cutest little ‘poof, poof, poof’ sounds like a real train.”
At one point George Roy had actual tracks running around the the house for the train, but Sue Roy said those did not remain operational for long.
“People got him worried about the safety of it,” she said. “But I am glad it’s back home and being taken care of.”
Roy had hoped his creation would become something of a tourist attraction, and he even had a dream of building more cars as the locomotive reportedly could pull a full ton, or what he said at the time was the equivalent to 36 children.
That never happened and, at some point over the last couple of decades or so, the engine was taken to southern Maine by Roy’s son and later given to his grandson.
“This is a piece of Fort Kent art and engineering that has come home,” Pelletier said. “We are so happy the people in town can now come see it and enjoy it.”
Pelletier said the model will eventually become the central showpiece of a permanent display centered on the importance of the railroad to Fort Kent.
“The history of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad and its impact on Fort Kent is really the history of the area,” he said. “When the rail first came through in 1902, there were 2,000 people living here [and] just 25 years later that had grown to 6,000.”
Lise Pelletier, director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, said the trains opened the area to commerce and tourism, bringing an economic boom.
“Before the train came to Fort Kent, local merchants had to have things brought up on the Canadian rail across the river from markets in Boston and New York,” she said. “These merchants had special arrangements allowing them to bring their goods over an international border.”
Lise Pelletier said she was thrilled when she learned Roy’s train was coming home.
“When Chad told me the possibility we would have it back here there was no question we had to make it happen,” she said. “To see a working model of living history and a testament to the creativity of of an individual who turned his passion into creativity is quite something.”
Chad Pelletier has no doubt the model will attract visitors.
“I mean, it’s a train,” he asid with a laugh. “I don’t know what it is about trains, but when I’m working here and hear one coming down the tracks, I stop whatever it is I’m doing and run to watch it.”
No one knows when the model was last fired up, but Both Chad Pelletier and Lise Pelletier hope it will run again as part of the museum’s rail display.
If that happens, and people flock to see it it, George Roy may finally get his original wish for his creation.