Robbie McKay and her fiance Nathan Nipula were walking on her family farm in southern Aroostook’s Molunkus Plantation in 2011 when Nipula spotted a piece of metal sticking out of the dirt. It was a rusted old sign that read “Pine Tree Trail.”
The couple stored the sign away and forgot about it for a while. But in 2019, they began to research its history, and found that it belonged to a scenic highway route spanning from Portland to Fort Kent, forgotten by time after the Interstate 95 highway was built.
“It’s pretty amazing how he even found it. Everybody says he was meant to find it,” McKay said. “This was meant to be.”
Now the couple is trying to raise money to bring back the Pine Tree Trail, so they can put up new signs along roads originally built for the trail, give drivers a scenic alternative to taking the interstate and help the economy of some of the towns on its path. They already have some of the signs.
The original Pine Tree Trail was created in 1937 by an act in the Maine Legislature. At the time, the country was still mired in the Great Depression, and the state knew its tourism appeal could help the state’s struggling economy.
It was also around this time that “Vacationland” began first appearing on Maine license plates.
The original trail goes through Routes 100, 11, 2 and 1. It stops at some of the major Maine cities such as Portland and Bangor, but also some of the smaller scenic towns that would otherwise require an exit off the highway, such as Lincoln, Mattawamkeag and Island Falls.
After reaching Aroostook County, the trail splits in two, one way going to Island Falls and another to Haynesville, before merging back again in Houlton, where it then follows the Route 1 path to Fort Kent.
But with the emergence of World War II, and the following post-war infrastructure development that saw the creation of the I-95 highway in 1956, the Pine Tree Trail route was forgotten.
In raising awareness and installing signs along the original trail, McKay said she hoped to direct some traffic off the interstate and into some smaller towns to help boost their economy.
“These communities that shriveled up back when the interstate went through have a good chance of reviving and flourishing again,” she said. “There’s so many wonderful things on the trail, and we’re always in a hurry and we’ve got our heads buried in our phones. That’s why we say to slow down and enjoy life.”
McKay said that the Pine Tree Trail Project has raised about $7,000 of an initial goal of $15,000 to get the new signs made and placed along the roads. Donations have come from local businesses along the trail, such as Hogan Tire in Houlton and Hanington Lumber in Reed Plantation. McKay said she expects the signs to be up by May of next year.