This past weekend I had the extraordinary pleasure of take a trip on the Downeast Scenic Railroad in Ellsworth. I can say without a doubt, the drive was worth it.
In attempting to write this trip report, I continue to be overwhelmed by the layer upon layer of history that I saw and experienced in Ellsworth. It is almost impossible to describe how many different aspects of history and even legend the DSRX captures in its experience. For most visitors these layers are invisible or only apparent after some additional reading or education. Few of those who experience this ride realize or understand the cultural significance of the experience they are having. That is not to say there is anything at all wrong with that and perhaps that is the easiest and simplest place to begin.
The DSRX operates out of Washington Junction yard with a boarding platform behind Cadillac Mountain Sports in Ellsworth, Maine on weekend in the summer. They typically have two daily departures from Ellsworth which proceed down currently in service track to a passing siding, return back through Ellsworth past the station, through Washington Junction yard and, new this year, to a wye track where the train is turned and then returned to the station. The staff of volunteers is very friendly and inviting, the prices very reasonable ($15/adult), and the rolling stock clean and comfortable with a range of seating options to include a remarkably sturdy looking open car.
And that, is probably the only part of this experience that is simple.
Over the years I had come through and been around the tracks in Ellsworth many many times on my way to and from Mt. Desert Island for both work and pleasure. I had always wondered about the Calais Branch and as the years went on I learned a lot more about these tracks through reading and through discussion here on railroad.net. In the summer of 2007 I happenned to be on my way through Ellsworth from MDI (yet again) and noticed a brochure talking about a "new" organization that was getting started called the "Downeast Scenic Railroad". As memory serves we had stopped at a large gas station in Orland to fill up on our way back to Winthrop. Although at the time I was somewhat interested I really didn't honestly think that this group stood much of a chance of success. The task at hand seemed so large and the resources so few. After all, nobody really thinks of a railroad as something that people get together to build and run. Perhaps a museum, perhaps a static display, but not a real live operating railroad.
The tracks in Ellsworth, like many places that went through Guilford's branch line abandonments of the 1980s had an almost tragic quality about them. Clearly, at one time, trains had run through here. Clearly, at one time, there had been enough industry to demand the construction of the railroad. It's dormant state was like Poe's raven, "Never more!". Never more would trains roll, never more would freight move, never more would industry thrive and every single time you would ride by these tracks that was the story that they told, over and over and over again. Obviously, industry, and Ellsworth, have in fact since then thrived, grown, improved and generally speaking moved on from the losses of the late 20th century. But the tracks remained, silent and dead, a monument to an idealized era of expansion, prosperity and possibility.
So it was something of a shock that morning when I pulled up into the parking lot next to Cadillac Mountain Sports and quite suddenly looked up and saw the train with its old fashioned clerestory roofed cars on either end sitting in place waiting for passengers and looking as if it had never left.
Frankly, it was as if I had seen a ghost.
The train was waiting in place, in what I learned has been the historic location of the Ellsworth passenger depot since the railroads went through the area. The DSRX platform is the third railroad passenger station ever located in that spot and sits right next to the second depot (now housing the offices of the Maine Community Foundation). The platform actually sits on top of the footprint of the old platform and is directly adjacent to foundation piers of the old canopy.
The DSRX has restored MEC Coach #155 to operation and named it McNeil Point (the former place of the ferry terminal for the Bar Harbor Express). I chose to sit in Coach #155 in an attempt to get a sense of what it must have been like to ride on the MEC at one time. The coach is wood with some steel underneath and it made predictable creaking and flexing noises as the train moved along. The wye track was acutally a very interesting experience in this car as you could tell the curve was causing the car body to be strung taught. The interior has been restored using replacement coach seats, which were very nicely reupholstered and some simple, new windows and hardware are in place and look great along with new trim and paint. Although the interior trim isn't necessarily "historic" the effect nonetheless was in my mind essentially complete. The doors at either end of the car appeared original (or at least quite old), and the vestibules had been repaired and cleaned but they too were essentially intact. The overall experience is almost certainly the closest one can get today to "the old Maine Central" as many would have known it so many years ago.
Such was our schedule that I didn't even take the time to visit DSRX's other restored coach car #123 Union River, a restored Reading EMU heavyweight coach. I got just a few glimpses of the interior of that car and from what I could see it looked even nicer than McNeil Point. One other surprising aspect of the ride on the DSRX was the scenery along the way. I really didn't know what to expect at all but I think on some level I was just expecting to see the back ends of a bunch of strip malls on US Route 1A. Thankfully I was definitely wrong there. Even the truncated route currently used by the DSRX already travels through some scenic areas including a very substantial wetland, and some very nice spruce and fir forest. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Acadia for a little while this is definitely a great way to do it.
After having a great lunch with some new friends and some further gawking at the Engine and trainset I made my way home along US Route 1A. As it so happens the railroad parallels 1A for a quite some time and in many areas I could see where DSRX already had cleared a great deal of brush and were making obvious preparations to get to Green Lake, perhaps within only a few years (if not sooner). The ride will be even more interesting and fun and will include several "high visibility" crossings of Route 1A that should be great for marketing. Also of note, the train was very well patronized the day I rode and although they weren't 100% sold out it was getting there. Total ridership was well in excess of 100 people and this seemed to be the norm for them.
I will be looking forward to watching DSRX's progress over the next few years and wish them well.