ELLSWORTH — There is no real reason to travel by train. Cars are more convenient, the highway system extensive, and a plane is almost certainly less expensive for any comparable distance. But trains hold a magic that few modes of modern transportation can match: the rhythmic click and swish of the rails, the soft sway of the car and a pace that’s slow enough to peer into the lives of little towns along the way.
It is this charm that Hancock County’s Downeast Scenic Railroad aims to capture. Departing from its platform at 245 East Main St., the train recently started up its Saturday-Sunday runs for the 2019 season over Memorial Day weekend. Making two runs at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., the train takes passengers on a roughly 13-mile trip from downtown Ellsworth to the Washington Junction train depot and up to Ellsworth Falls and the newly refurbished Union River Bridge.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, the railroad will hold its annual Touch-A-Train event for children of all ages. For free, kids get to climb aboard and explore the vintage rail cars and sit in the engineer’s seat.
As part of the railroad’s regular runs, riders perch on plush leather seats in the meticulously restored coaches. The train passes through wetlands dotted with beaver hutches, past a giant osprey nest, over the river and back again.
This year — June 23, to be exact — marks the 135th anniversary of the first passenger rail coming to Ellsworth. And, thanks to hundreds of hours of volunteer efforts, it will also be the first time in more than 60 years that the bridge spanning the Union River in Ellsworth Falls is functioning.
The Bar Harbor Express began passenger service from Boston to Hancock in 1885, where travelers could then continue on to Bar Harbor by ferry. By 1887, the Express was the fastest passenger train in the country. Eventually, wrote Brook Ewing Minner in a history of the Express, “It was possible to board the train as far south as Washington, D.C., in the evening and make it to the Island by mid-morning of the next day.”
A confluence of events over the next 75 years — new laws allowing cars on Mount Desert Island, a ferry being called to government service for World War I, the construction of the causeway — would result in the eventual decline of passenger rail in the region. The Express made its last passenger run to Ellsworth in 1957 and ceased operation altogether three years later, when the route had simply become unprofitable for its owner, the Maine Central Railroad.
But in its heyday, writes Minner, travel on the Express “mirrored the elegance found in the grand cottages on Mount Desert Island built during the Gilded Age.” Artists, laborers and American royalty rode the rails: the Morgans, Pultizers and Vanderbilts among them. The Vanderbilts had a private train car built that was so long it had to be taken back to Newport, R.I., to be turned around for the eventual trip home, writes Minner. Engineers worked tirelessly to ensure that “not a drop of coffee or champagne were spilled,” along the route, according to the Downeast Scenic Railroad website.
The reopening this year of the Union River Bridge marks a milestone for the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust, the group that has been running passenger trains on the tracks since 2010.
“It’s been neat to watch it grow and come back to life again,” said Gary Briggs, the nonprofit’s vice president.
“This was our biggest hurdle,” Briggs continued, referring to the organization’s goal of eventually running a train from Ellsworth to Green Lake. “We’ve got the key part.”
Heavy equipment can now be moved across the bridge, said Briggs, which will make it easier to work farther down the line.
“Most people have no idea how much there is to it,” said Trust President Tom Testa.
“We’ve got a great group of people,” he added, gesturing to volunteers bent over working on the tracks on a cold, foggy April morning.
Over the past year, many of those same volunteers, along with Lane Construction Corp., Maine Track Maintenance and the Maine Department of Transportation, have spent hundreds of hours restoring the rails for service. Volunteers from as far away as Massachusetts have spent weekends repairing tracks, replacing hundreds of cross ties and adding ballast (the crushed stones around the ties).
The concrete structures holding the bridge in place were repaired. The project cost nearly $400,000, which the organization raised via grants and donations, and workers hurried to get the project completed before service began on Memorial Day.
Testa never did get the chance to ride the Bar Harbor Express before it ceased service in 1957, but said his parents took it on occasion when traveling between their restaurants in Florida and Bar Harbor.
Both Briggs and Testa profess to fall more on the side of history enthusiasts than train buffs, saying they want children in the years to come to know the joys of train travel.
“I had my model train as a child,” said Briggs, “but for me it’s really been preserving rail history for the youth.”
The two men say they would like to see more passenger rail in the United States — Briggs notes its prevalence in Europe, and Testa said he recently took a trip on the new Brightline service to Miami. And with visitors to the area growing and congestion on the roads increasing, train travel is starting to look like an enticing option.
“My dream,” said Briggs, “is to see Amtrak make it to Bangor.”
Trains start running Memorial Day weekend. For more information, schedules and to purchase tickets, visit: downeastscenicrail.org/ride or call 1-866-449-RAIL (7245).