ELLSWORTH, Maine — The snow is deep around the vintage locomotive at Washington Junction, but the folks at the Down East Rail Heritage Preservation Trust are busy behind the scenes getting ready for their first full season running scenic train trips out of Ellsworth.
The trust, which operates the Down East Scenic Railroad, began its runs in midsummer last year, but plans to run a full season of weekend trips beginning on Memorial Day weekend and running through the weekend after Columbus Day.
The first season was a success, according to Gary Briggs, vice president of the trust, and the train carried more than 5,000 passengers during the summer, surpassing their expectations.
“We had a good response,” Briggs said. “We were sold out on almost every trip.”
Briggs said they had the best response from their youngest riders and their oldest.
“The kids liked the ride, listening to the history and checking out the locomotive,” he said. “For the senior citizens, it brought back a lot of memories of riding the train from Washington County to Bangor and beyond.”
While the start of the scenic rail service was positive, Briggs said, they have only just begun. During the fall, volunteers worked on restoring a vintage passenger car that will expand the train’s capacity and allow it to carry more passengers. Passenger Car No. 155 was built in 1910 by the Laconia Car Co. in Laconia, N.H., for the Maine Central Railroad, which owned and operated the Brewer to Calais line. The work on the Pullman-style car is about 80 percent complete with all of the exterior work done, Briggs said. Although much of the work has stopped during the winter months, some volunteers have taken smaller pieces to work on at home.
When the weather breaks, they’ll finish work on the car and also work on restoring about 1.5 miles of track at Washington Junction, the eastern end of the line. The restored track will create a wye, a parallel section of track that will make it easier for the engine to turn around to make the return trip into the city.
The trip the trust offers covers about 10 miles and lasts 1½ hours, starting from the loading platform behind Cadillac Mountain Sports on High Street and heading out to Ellsworth Falls, back through town to Washington Junction, and then back to the starting point.
The trust hopes eventually to raise enough funds to restore the track all the way to Green Lake.
The summer rides will run on weekends and holidays, but Briggs said they also hope to be able to team with some of the area schools to offer rides to schoolchildren, which would be done on weekdays.
“It’s all about education and preserving the history of the rail line,” he said. “The Calais Branch operated here for about 100 years, and we want students to learn what riding trains is all about.”
The trust has received some funding to support those field trips for students and is working on new educational materials for the next season.
While warm weather seems far away right now, Briggs said, they already are getting calls about the summer season and have made reservations for groups. Anyone interested in learning more about the scenic trips or in making reservations for the summer or a school trip can call toll-free 877-449-7245.