“The Phantom Trolley” sounds like a good title for a ghost story, and undoubtedly there are a few on the subject. Bangor’s tale by that title, however, was more of a joke, savored a century or so ago by the employees of the Bangor Railway and Electric Company as well as some other residents of the Queen City of the East.
This version of the tale (the only version I know of) can be found in Charles D. Heseltine’s 1974 book “Bangor Street Railway,” the best source on the area’s electric train system. My apologies if I have misinterpreted some “trolleyism” technicalities in relating it. I’ve changed the author’s language only to condense it a bit and make it easier to follow.
Besides saying that it happened “in the early days of the street railway industry,” Heseltine’s account is short on dates. I assume it happened some time after the area’s trolley lines – one of which was the track to Charleston, which included East Corinth and Kenduskeag — were consolidated in 1905.
A “special” car had taken a group to a “fraternal society function” — probably some festive event where the liquor flowed liberally — in East Corinth. The celebrants broke up early and boarded the trolley for the return trip.
The crew, made up of a part-time motorman and a conductor hired especially for the run, had directions from the Bangor dispatcher to pull over on a siding at the Kenduskeag Village station and let the last outbound car go through. That car would be carrying theater patrons after the last theater closed for the night.
“On the front seat of the big open trolley were several gay young blades fortified with liquid spirit,” Heseltine wrote. “Remarking about several fast runs back to Bangor, they commenced to urge the motorman to attempt to set a new record, encouraging him to ‘open her up.’ The young spare motorman was only too glad to accept the challenge and took off from East Corinth Village like a greased goose.”
The eight miles to Kenduskeag siding was covered “at a fast clip.” The racing spirit soon seized the imaginations of others aboard the car who started chanting for more speed. At Kenduskeag, instead of waiting, the car crew decided to try to beat the outbound train to Worcester’s spur, three miles toward Bangor. They were way ahead of schedule, and the theater car was usually late — or so they reasoned.
Of course, an alternative scenario could have been a disastrous collision with the outbound car.
Heseltine tells us that “the conductor gave the two-bell system and the special was off on its wild run, the passengers screaming with glee as the wheels bit into the curves and flanges squealed.” The crowd shouted encouragement to the motorman on the front platform as the car sped along.
Then the conductor, the man in charge, started to have second thoughts. “A cornfield meet” with the other train would be difficult to explain to his boss. We can only imagine that he and the motorman might have been treated to some of the libations enjoyed by the fraternal men to have caused this confused state of affairs. Perhaps everyone was sobering up a bit.
“Happily, there was a way out!” Heseltine informs us jubilantly. “Taking a deep breath, [the conductor] made his precarious way along the running board of the rocking trolley to accost his running mate,” the motorman.
The conductor knew there was a long spur running into a lumber operation about midway between Kenduskeag and Worcester’s siding. It was just ahead. With not a moment to spare, the motorman was convinced to slow down, while the conductor jumped down and ran ahead to throw the switch to the lumber spur. The car rolled into the siding a few hundred feet parking behind a stand of trees, while the conductor realigned the switch.
“Within minutes” the outbound train sped by. Intent on making up for lost time picking up the theater crowd, its crew failed to notice the inbound car behind the trees. The latter then got back on the tracks and headed for Bangor.
Meanwhile, the outbound train arrived at Kenduskeag Village and stopped on the siding there and waited – and waited some more for the outbound train. After a few minutes, the conductor called the dispatcher. The outbound train seemed to have disappeared. Had some disaster befallen it?
The trolley was instructed to proceed cautiously to East Corinth in case the inbound train was merely behind schedule. However, upon reaching its terminal in East Corinth, the lost train – the “phantom trolley” — had not been seen, causing “uneasiness” back in the dispatcher’s office.
Meanwhile, the “special,” now back in Bangor, let its passengers off and rolled down Main Street to the car barn for the night. The crew saw a joke in the making, telling the confused dispatcher with straight faces that they had passed the other train at Kenduskeag just as planned.
“The unhappy crew of the regular car was called on the carpet the following day by the superintendent and accused of being drunk while on duty,” Heseltine informs us. “It was some days before the mystery of the ‘Phantom Car’ was finally unraveled – enough time for it to have been established as a legend among Bangor Carmen.” The fate of the tricksters is unknown.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org