Nestled deep in the Maine Woods near the northwest end of Chamberlain Lake sit the rusting hulks of two large steam powered locomotives. The trains are remnants of the industrial revolution in an area so remote that it was more practical to park the engines when operations ended than it was to bring them out of the woods.
The lakes and rivers of this great state were once the highways that delivered logs and pulpwood to the mills. These mills, in turn, produced the lumber and paper that fueled development of a prosperous nation.
The railroad was the solution to a watershed problem. Thousands of cords of pulpwood were required to keep the Great Northern Paper Co. mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket running. There was a vast quantity of pulpwood within easy hauling distance of Churchill and Eagle Lakes but these lakes flowed north to the St. John River. The pulpwood was needed to the south, at the Great Northern mills on the West Branch of the Penobscot.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the idea of building a railroad in the middle of the Maine woods was born.
Edouard “King” Lacroix, a lumber baron who had huge operations at Churchill Depot and Clayton Lake, was up to the challenge. He went to New York City and bought two used steam locomotives. He had them delivered to Lac Frontiere, Quebec, over existing rail lines.
During the winter of 1926-1927, the trains were partially disassembled at Lac Frontiere and hauled over ice roads with Lombard log haulers to Churchill Dam. From there, they were hauled across frozen Churchill and Eagle lakes to the tramway area. Transportation of the materials to build and operate a railroad in such a remote location was a monumental task. In addition to the two 100-ton locomotives, this massive project required materials to build the 1,500-foot trestle over Allagash Stream, steel rails, loaders, two gasoline powered Plymouth switchers and 40 train cars, all hauled to the tramway that winter.
Great Northern Paper bought the railroad from Lacroix before it was put into operation. On June 1, 1927, the train made its first successful trip over the 13-mile railroad. The Eagle Lake and West Branch Railroad was in business.
Two large conveyors were used to fill the train cars on the Eagle Lake end of the line. The cars were built with a 12-inch tilt in the floor so that when they drove out onto the unloading trestle at the Umbazooksus end — where the tracks were tilted six more inches — an operator would knock loose the bottom pins holding the side wall of the pulp car, the side would swing out on the top hinges and most of the load would tumble out into the water.
Trains of 12 cars each ran both night and day stopping only 10 minutes between runs to service the steam engine. While this happened, the Plymouth switching engines at each end of the line shifted empty cars around the yard.
The most significant structure of the railroad was the 1,500-foot trestle, which had to be sturdy enough to carry both the train and its heavy cargo across the north end of Chamberlain Lake where Allagash Stream enters the lake. The remains of the trestle are still visible today.
Great Northern Paper extended the line 5 miles to Chesuncook Lake at a later date, to facilitate the large amount of supplies and fuel that were required to operate the railroad.
About 6,500 cords of pulpwood per week was transported over the line, enabling Great Northern Paper to manufacture approximately 20 percent of the United States annual paper production.
Demand for paper declined during the Great Depression, essentially shutting down the railroad after it had carried nearly one million cords of pulpwood. The locomotives were parked in the shed at the tramway, never to be moved again.
One of the locomotives began leaning to the point where it was in danger of toppling over. In 1996, the Bureau of Parks and Lands and volunteers from the Allagash Alliance worked together to jack up the train, rebuild the railroad tracks under the locomotive, and set it back down on level rails. The project took more than three years to complete. This included the moving of 5,200, five-gallon buckets of crushed stone onto the site by snowmobile.
The trains are most easily reached during the winter, by snowmobile from Chamberlain Bridge. However, many snowmobilers make an all-day expedition to the trains from the Greenville, Millinocket, and Patten areas.
The Allagash Wilderness Waterway is managed by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.
For general information on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, visit maine.gov/allagashwildernesswaterway or call 941-4014; email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to the Bureau of Parks and Public Lands, 106 Hogan Road, Bangor, ME 04401.
Waterway notes: Allagash Lake is open to ice fishing for the month of February. Power equipment of any kind is prohibited on that body of water. Very restrictive fishing regulations also apply on this lake. Consult fishing regulations before fishing this lake.
Matthew LaRoche is superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.