History

A Brief History of the Maine Shore Line Railroad/The Maine Central Railroad Bar Harbor Branch, Now the Home of the Downeast Scenic Railroad

1911 map of Hancock County, showing part of the original Calais Branch Line

1911 map of Hancock County, showing part of the original Calais Branch Line

June 23, 2008 marked the 125th anniversary of the completion of the Maine Shore Line Railroad, the name of the section of the railroad the Trust now leases from the Maine Department of Transportation, which runs from Brewer to Washington Junction and was first built in 1884. It is a portion of this rail which our current excursion train travels upon, which was carefully restored over several years by the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and financial supporters.

This line, built by Colonel John N. Greene with the financial backing of the Maine Central Railroad, was to become the premier passenger line in New England, hosting the notable and noteworthy of the day as they traveled to the then burgeoning summer resorts on Mount Desert Island aboard the Mount Desert Limited which later became the Bar Harbor Express.

This original portion of the line would for a time be referred to as the Bar Harbor Branch of the Maine Central until 1911. In that year the Maine Central consolidated this line with the Washington County Railroad (Washington Junction to Calais) and the entire 126 miles from Brewer to Calais would become known as the Calais Branch of the Maine Central, including the connection to Eastport at Ayers Junction.

The Maine Shore Line Railroad, as originally built, continued an additional 9 miles south and east from Washington Junction to McNeil Point on the Hancock Peninsula where passengers would board steamer ferries to cross Frenchman’s Bay and ride the 6 miles to the Maine Central Wharf, which then sat on the end of what is now the town pier in Bar Harbor.

MDI Ferry, courtesy Rick's Train Pictures

The MDI Ferry on its route, courtesy Rick's Train Pictures

Traveling from New York City and Philadelphia the “Rusticators” as they would become known were treated to the finest the Pennsylvania and Maine Central Railroads had to offer.

The Bar Harbor Express became such an important part of the Maine Central during the summer months in the late 19th and early 20th century that the president of the Maine Central Railroad would ride the line prior to the commencement of summer service to ensure that the ride was smooth and superior to any other line in the Maine Central system. Track crews worked diligently throughout the spring to ensure that the rails were properly level and all crossings and switches were maintained to their highest standards to guarantee that, “not a drop of coffee or champagne were spilled.”

With over seven trains a day arriving at the Maine Central wharf at McNeil point and six departing, seven days a week through the summer months, it was indeed a busy railroad.

Maine Central Railroad volunteers working to restore the line, courtesy Charlie Freeman

Maine Central Railroad volunteers working to restore the line, courtesy Charlie Freeman

With the connection of Mount Desert Island to the mainland by auto bridge and the expanding use of highways, the Bar Harbor Express service to Mc Neil Point and the steamer service to Bar Harbor were discontinued in the fall of 1931. The Bar Harbor Express continued to run to Ellsworth until 1957 when service was cut again with the famous train now turning at Bangor. This service continued until September 5, 1960 when the Bar Harbor Express became but one of the many famous named trains to succumb to auto and air travel.

The Maine Central Railroad continued freight service right up to it’s abandonment in 1985 when the line was purchased by the Maine Department of Transportation.

These historic national treasures are slowly being scrapped for the value of their steel. The Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust is dedicated to preserving and operating this great rail line for the enjoyment of those who remember–and those who have yet to learn–the importance this line played with nearly a century of service to Downeast Maine and the nation.

It is because of the incredible maintenance performed by the Maine Central over the decades that allows this line to be rehabilitated at this time for a relatively low cost considering it’s almost 20 year dormancy.

Please consider becoming a member of the Downeast Heritage Preservation Trust and help us continue preserving such an important part of not only Maine’s history, but part of the American fabric that helped build our country.