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 Volunteers - including Dick Taylor (far left), Shawn Melvin (center) and Earl Shaak - work to free up a switch at Washington Junction in Ellsworth on Saturday. The Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust coordinated the effort, with hopes of opening the track for an excursion train by 2008. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY GABOR DEGRE


Putting it on the line
Enthusiasts see excursion potential in abandoned Down East railway

Monday, July 24, 2006 - Bangor Daily News << Back

When Charlie 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.

That 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 Ellsworth.

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.

Testa, 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.

"This 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 - life-sized.

"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 nostalgia.

"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 said.

The volunteers on Saturday wore safety vests and gloves, steel-toed boots and goggles. They worked hard, but not too hard.

"This isn't a chain gang," Testa explained. "We want everyone to enjoy themselves."

And they did.

Dick Taylor of Stonington, for instance, listened intently as Freeman explained the history of the stretch of rail and why some spots look different.

"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 freight.

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 come from.

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."



Eric Russell
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