Enjoying the ride
Downeast Scenic Railroad launches excursion service
You would think that after launching a railroad, you would sit back and enjoy the ride. But Tom Testa and members of the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust (DRHPT) are busy on a warm fall weekday painting rail cars and getting things ship shape. For some people running a railroad is a labor of love.
“We’ve got a whole crew out here painting coaches today,” said DRHPT President Tom Testa enthusiastically, speaking from the railroad’s maintenance facility in Washington Junction in Hancock. In addition to impromptu work sessions like this one, the group has no fewer than four volunteer work days scheduled this fall. That is in addition to running the excursion railroad’s first season of foliage rides. For some railroads, it’s the color of the leaves that affect the schedule.
The group’s pride and joy, the Downeast Scenic Railroad, opened for business on Saturday, July 24, and already has carried more than 3,600 passengers. That is well above the group’s ridership projections for its first season, according to Testa.
He expects the enthusiastic response to the service will carry through to its October 17 close. Testa said riders and support have come from all over. But support has been especially welcome from those close at hand. Many of the service’s first passengers have been local residents, friends and family who have watched the DRHPT stockpile equipment, build the train’s Main Street depot and Washington Junction maintenance facility and rehabilitate the old Calais Branch Line over the past four years.
There also have been passengers and rail aficionados from further afield, as well, and that ridership is expected to grow as more people hear about this piece of rolling history. “We’re thrilled with the response,” said Testa. “We’ve had people from Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey. . .” Testa reels off an impressive roster demonstrating that word about the service is getting out among tourists visiting the state and a railroad community always on the lookout for new treasures.
That is a good sign for the excursion service that runs 90-minute rides traversing the line from the group’s Main Street depot in Ellsworth to Ellsworth Falls, back along Main Street to Washington Junction, and ending back at the depot. DRHPT plans to eventually link the service to Green Lake about 13 miles away and carry 72,000 passengers annually.
‘No champagne spilled’
The launch of the service is the culmination of four years of hard work, building the Main Street depot that serves as the train’s boarding point, rehabilitating vintage rail cars and refurbishing tracks that were last actively operated by Maine Central Railroad in the mid 1980s as a freight line. Passenger service on the line, begun in 1884, was stopped in 1960.
DRHPT has a 15-year lease on the line, plus two five-year renewal options from MaineDOT, which purchased the line when Maine Central Railroad abandoned it in 1985.
The Calais Branch extending from Brewer to Calais was famous for the Bar Harbor Express, a summer train that ran seven trips, seven days a week during the summer bringing wealthy travelers, known as “rusticators,” to their palatial cottages on Mount Desert Island. According to the DRHPT web site, Maine Central Railroad crews would work “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.’”
The line flourished through the late 1800s and early 1900s, but eventually became the victim of increased automobile and air travel. Today’s train, while paying homage to the train’s luxe history serving the wealthy, also showcases the region’s natural beauty. The 10-mile route passes through a thriving wetland, and passengers can spot beaver lodges, osprey nests, deer and other wildlife from its cars.
Up and running
The Downeast Scenic Railroad went active on June 26, giving DRHPT time to work out final details leading up to the launch in late July. That was when the town of Hancock and city of Ellsworth officially changed the line’s status from “exempt-inactive” to “fully active with no exemptions.”
Testa said that it has been gratifying to see the train take off, and said there has been a lot of community support. Currently DRHPT has 350 paid benefactors, businesses and individuals who through their membership have helped provide much needed capital for the railroad’s resurrection. Many are also hands-on volunteers. Testa also offers high praise for all the volunteers who with their hard work and boundless enthusiasm have provided the sweat equity needed to get the train up and running and ready to roll. In all, this group has given more than 37,000 hours of their time to the railroad.
All told they have cleared and repaired six miles of track, replaced 2,500 railroad ties, added new timbers for rails and fixed crossing signals, said Testa. They also have restored two engines, an ALCO S-4 locomotive with a 1,000 horsepower engine and a second GE-70-ton locomotive as a backup, passenger cars and a red caboose, which dates from 1926.
“We’ve got 40 people who have literally worked their tails off for five years,” said Testa who calls them all friends. “Yes, we’re all ecstatic to see this come together.”
Downeast Scenic Railroad
What: Excursion rail line offering 90-minute rides leaving from Main Street Depot in Ellsworth during summer and fall.
Mission: DSRR is owned and operated by The Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust and its mission “is to celebrate and preserve the railroad history of Downeast Maine. . . for the education, enlightenment and enjoyment of future generations.”
Details: The service will run two trips a day through October 17, 2010. Tickets are $8 for children and $12 for adults for the open air car and coach; $13 for children and $17 for adults for a seat aboard the enclosed 1926 Reading caboose which features a cupola and is limited to 12 passengers.
Advanced reservations: Call Cadillac Mountain Sports at 207-667-7819.
Group rates for 40 or more available, call 866-449-RAIL (7245).