Putting it on
Enthusiasts see excursion potential in abandoned Down
Monday, July 24, 2006 - Bangor Daily
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Freeman looks out at the rusted steel tracks and splintered wooden
ties of the old Calais Branch Line near Washington Junction in
Ellsworth, he sees railroad history.
He also sees potential.
He sees passenger cars emerging from the vast expanse. He sees
riders - locals and tourists alike - soaking in scenery from their
cushy seats in a railway car.
Freeman, an Ellsworth native
and owner of an auto body shop, has had plenty of time to envision
such a scenario. During the last 10 years, he has become the
railroad's overseer of sorts, clearing brush from the line and
oiling the switchovers, among other things.
He's been doing
it all with the notion that one day the abandoned railroad will once
again become a vibrant part of Maine's coastal culture.
day might come sooner than later.
Freeman is just one of a
growing number of members of the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation
Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving railroad
history in Down East Maine.
The group has visions of turning
a portion of the former Calais Branch Line into a passenger
excursion train from Green Lake in Dedham to Washington Junction in
The trust aims to have the Downeast Scenic
Railroad up and running by the summer of 2008, but it still has a
long way to go. That's why many are spending some of their Saturdays
this summer working on the railroad.
"There are so many
people who thought something should be done to reuse this railroad;
they probably would like to see it running tomorrow," Tom Testa,
president of the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust, said
Saturday from the tracks at Washington Junction.
Freeman and about 15 others spent most of Saturday cleaning up the
tracks in Ellsworth, which included removing brush and other debris.
The volunteer work session was one of many planned through
the summer and the effort already has attracted a buzz.
is a pretty good group of volunteers," said Freeman, whose overalls
and conductor's cap only hint at his passions for trains. "And a lot
of them are new faces."
Many involved with the trust are
enthusiasts like Freeman. They probably all had model trains growing
up, and this project has become their own model train track -
"We all wanted to be engineers as kids, I think,"
laughed David Baldwin of Harrington, who got involved with the trust
last year when it was formed. "There is still a lot of work that
needs to be done, but it's fun to get out."
Keith Davis of
Bar Harbor has been with the group for a couple of years. He said he
got involved for a number of reasons, but mainly for the
"There was a time when trains were a popular means
of travel, I don't know why it can't still be that way," he
The volunteers on Saturday wore safety vests and
gloves, steel-toed boots and goggles. They worked hard, but not too
"This isn't a chain gang," Testa explained. "We want
everyone to enjoy themselves."
And they did.
Taylor of Stonington, for instance, listened intently as Freeman
explained the history of the stretch of rail and why some spots look
"I thought I knew it all as a kid; now I realize
how much I don't know," Freeman said.
Taylor was a first-time
volunteer Saturday, but it didn't take long for him to catch on like
so many others.
"I always wanted to see something happen with
this railroad," he said. "I'm glad it is."
In February, the
Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust signed a 15-year lease
with the Maine Department of Transportation to reuse a portion of
the Calais Branch Line that used to carry passengers and
In addition, the trust has been working closely with
the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce to create a historic railroad
museum and depot.
The tracks still need $2 million in
repairs, and the trust hasn't yet said where that money is going to
However, a recent economic study indicated that
the train could see 40,000 passengers in the first year and 70,000
by the second, and Testa said the scenic railroad could be
self-sustaining in no time.
But for now, the volunteers are
dedicated to the cleanup work with hopes that their vision will be a
reality in the not-too-distant future.
"Nobody had any
delusions that this would be a lot of work," Testa said. "It's a
labor of love."