All-terrain vehicle riders and walkers take in the Down East Sunrise Trail in 2016, when the trail was last extended. Calais is now hoping to connect to the trail. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik

A popular multi-use trail that runs roughly 90 miles from Ellsworth to Pembroke could be extended all the way to the Canadian border, if officials in Calais get their way.

The Calais City Council has asked the Maine Department of Transportation to consider using 12 miles of state-owned, unused rail line to connect downtown Calais with the Down East Sunrise Trail.

The council voted last week to petition the department to create an advisory group to look at the potential of converting the railroad to a multi-use path and abandon a freight easement for the line.

The idea has been tossed around over the years but never came to fruition when the trail was built along the old Calais Branch rail corridor in phases between 2008 to 2016.

But city and state officials in Calais are hoping the state will reconsider the project and see extending the eastern terminus past Ayers Junction in Pembroke as a potential economic boost to the area.

“You can’t understate the impact that this could have,” said Mike Ellis, the Calais city manager.

The trail is a favorite among bicyclists, walkers, horseback riders, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and ATV drivers in Hancock and Washington counties. Ellis said he’s seen it bring the ATV crowd to Machias and hoped it would do the same for Calais.

There currently isn’t any rail service along that stretch of the rail line, though Maine Central Railroad does hold an easement for freight service.

State Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Washington, has been working to extend the trail to Calais for years and said it would also benefit people on the other end of the trail who want to go somewhere with amenities that the current terminus doesn’t offer. People can use the trail to get from Ellsworth all the way to Ayers Junction, but then it abruptly ends on Route 214.

“They come along to Ayers Junction, and there’s absolutely nothing,” Moore said. “Just a parking lot.”

Moore put forth a resolution in 2019 that would have directed the Bureau of Parks and Lands to develop a trail linking the Calais to Ayers Junction, but it died at the end of the legislative session in 2020.

While the idea enjoys a lot of local support, there are some who don’t want to see the railroad torn up, denying any future potential for service to the area. But Ellis said the tracks are in such a state that they would likely need to be replaced anyway, and converting it to a trail would set the foundation for any future railroad.

“The existing rail lines would have to be pulled up anyway,” he said. “We’re just preparing it and using the space until it does come.”

Securing easements to get the route from the end of the railroad line, which is about a mile from Main Street, all the way into downtown Calais and getting agreements with the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge — which the railroad runs through — could be other potential hurdles.

The idea is still in the preliminary stages, and Ellis said there is no concrete plan at this point, nor a cost estimate.