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All Aboard! Print E-mail
Written by Letitia Baldwin   
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Downeast Scenic Railroad to Finish First Section of Track in 2008
ELLSWORTH — Arthur E. Pew III experienced the magic of being rocked to sleep by the rhythmic motion of a moving train and the deep, sonorous sound of the whistle blowing in the night.

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(Right to left) Earl Shaak of Eastbrook, Bill Green of Bar Harbor, Tom Testa of Bar Harbor, David Baldwin of Harrington, Shawn Melvin of Orrington, Gary McKinnon of Oakland, Leverett Ferland of Pittsfield and Charlie Freeman of Brewer converged last Saturday at Washington Junction in Ellsworth to work on the four-mile rail section to Ellsworth Falls.— STAFF PHOTO BY LETITIA BALDWIN
As a boy, traveling by rail every summer to Maine, he got to know several flagmen who let him raise the railroad lantern straight up and down to tell the engineer to proceed and other railroad signals. 

The Northeast Harbor summer resident never got over the annual adventure of coming by train to Ellsworth from Philadelphia or New York. In fact, he became so enthralled with trains, the Princeton-educated engineer spent 33 years working for the Burlington Northern Railroad Co.

Now, Pew and nearly 200 other railroad buffs have high hopes of sharing their passion for trains and enabling people to experience the pleasure of riding them. As members of the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust Inc., they are aiming to have the first leg of the Downeast Scenic Railroad laid by next summer. The four-mile stretch goes from Ellsworth Falls to Washington Junction in Hancock.

Pew, who has spent a lifetime studying trains for work and pleasure, said the Downeast Scenic Railroad will serve as a model for reviving passenger rail service in eastern Maine.

“It sets up the stage for some sort of regular passenger service from Bangor to Ellsworth,” said Pew, 74, speaking from his winter home in White Bear Lake, Minn.

Thomas J. Testa, whose family has run Testa’s restaurant in Bar Harbor since 1934, and other rail enthusiasts founded the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust in 2004. Years ago, the restaurateur explored the idea of dinner train excursions and never gave up on the concept. He notes how the railroad first made the Downeast region accessible and helped shape it into a travel destination drawing millions of visitors annually.

“It’s the reason most of us are here. Many people either worked for Maine Central Railroad or were employed by businesses that relied on it,” Testa, whose family has also operated a Palm Beach, Fla., eating establishment since 1921, said last week.

Last Saturday, Testa and a dozen other volunteers who belong to Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust Inc. converged at a Washington Junction siding to see an original Maine Central Railroad flat car recently made available to the nonprofit group by the Maine Department of Transportation. The flat car, used to haul scrap wood and lumber starting in the 1940s, is being put to use again to carry rail and ties for the long-term project.

Hailing from as far afield as Oakland and Pittsfield, the volunteers checked railroad switches, cut brush and unplugged culverts along the four-mile corridor. Testa and others were back at it on Monday before rain showers were expected. They’ll be recruiting new members and fresh hands to help out later this month at the trust’s annual meeting in Ellsworth.

To date, Testa and others have raised nearly $300,000, but require an additional $500,000 to launch the first phase of the proposed Downeast Scenic Railroad project. Those funds will enable the group to upgrade the Ellsworth Falls-Washington Junction track and acquire a locomotive and two passenger cars. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the Downeast Scenic Railroad would offer two excursions and a sunset dinner train daily.

Last year, the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust was granted a 15-year lease from MDOT for the 29-mile rail line between Brewer and Washington Junction. As part of a long-term plan, the excursion railroad would be eventually extended to Green Lake in Dedham. The full rail service would include a dining car, four passenger cars and two locomotives.

New York’s Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the Black Hills Central Railroad in South Dakota are among the rail excursion outfits that have served as models for the Downeast Scenic Railroad. Once completed, with 65,000 rides projected per season, the Ellsworth-based venture is expected to generate more than $5 million in tax revenue over a five-year period. An estimated 200 jobs would also be created.

The trust also envisions building a 12,000-square-foot depot and railroad museum at a trackside location. The downtown Ellsworth station is envisioned as an intermodal transportation hub where Island Explorer and West Bus Service riders could wait comfortably. Park-and-ride commuters could also leave their vehicles there.

Meanwhile, at the June 23 annual meeting, the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust will recruit new members at 9:30 a.m. at the Ellsworth Holiday Inn. Election of officers and directors is at 10 a.m.  Starting at noon, paid members over 18 are invited to tour the rail line between Vittum Road in Ellsworth and Green Lake. Annual membership begins at $40. To reserve a spot on the limited rail cars, call (866) 449-RAIL (7245) or e-mail For more information, visit downeastscenicrail.org.

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