HOME: The Story of Maine

"Trails, Rails and Roads"

TRANSCRIPT

Joel Eastman, Professor of History, University of Southern Maine:

The story begins with the first settlers...Maine people constantly upgrading their transportation system, to make sure they're up to date with the latest technology.

Forest Bunker, Retired Bangor and Aroostook Railroad Engineer:

Here's something that's going down the track, and the wheels is going, and you know what I mean, the smoke's coming out of it.....I just fell in love with them.....If you wanted to go to Van Buren, and not be all day, you went on the train- it was the only way to get there.

Kathleen Shea, Education Coordinator, Maine Historical Society:

There had been a push for better roads, even in the late 1890's. With the invention of the automobile, people realized they needed to have good roads, as a way to prosperity....so they decided that the road was the way to go.

Narrator:

Many of the familiar roads we travel today started out as paths created first by native people, then followed by Europeans as they began settling Maine in the 1600s. The first settlements were isolated farms that hugged the coast and rivers. Aside from the well-worn Native American paths, the only roads were long, deep ruts running from house to house. Homesteaders joined together to clear the land and an agricultural economy took hold.

Mary Ellen Barnes, Executive Director, Maine Forest and Logging Museum:

They were working on the farm in the summertime, haying, planting, harvesting, keeping their tools in shape, building new buildings, putting in water lines sugaring in March, haying in August. As soon as the summer season got over, the harvest got over, men and young boys would go to work on getting their sleds ready, their oxen ready for the winter logging season.

Narrator:

Their success soon drew others. People saw Maine's vast tracts of undeveloped forestland as a place where they could make a better life for themselves. Farming required land, and, as more colonists arrived, the ribbon of shoreline settlements expanded and the frontier began moving inland. To reach these new, isolated areas, pioneer families made the long, tedious journey on foot or horseback, following the centuries-old paths of Native people, or trails marked by colonists who had gone before them and would soon be their neighbors. Thousands of early settlers were drawn to Maine in search of inexpensive, prime farmland, like the Ezekiel Merrill family, who built in the town of Andover. A family memoir tells their story:

As pecuniary means had been reduced, they concluded to remove to Maine where land was cheap, and in March 1788, with seven children, they started for Bethel. At Fryeburg their road terminated.
Source: Laura Elizabeth Poor, The First International Railway-Life and Writings of John Poor, 1889.

Narrator:

Their journey didn't end here, but the road did. From Fryeburg, the Merrill family continued overland through the wilderness - climbing to heights more than 1,400 feet before reaching the other side of Evans Notch; fording rivers, and wending their way through rugged terrain. This difficult journey brought them to a glorious, lush valley of rich, riverbed soil. Many people followed- well into the 1900's- like Phil Andrews, whose family settled in the town of Stow.

Phil Andrews, Retired Dairy Farmer:

When I moved up there I had 4 cows and two horses the same age as I was.

In July of '34 I married my first wife-we was married 47 years. And I think how much courage she had. The only convenience at all was a hand pump in the sink. No furnace, no running water, no electricity, no bathroom. And we had four children. And the first three of them we paid the doctor and the nurse with maple syrup. Not money from maple syrup, but maple syrup. And they would rather have had the money, but they'd rather have the maple syrup than no money. They knew the circumstances to start with.

Narrator:

The isolation faced by the Andrews family was similar to that experienced by earlier generations. Despite the difficulties, thousands flocked to Maine - eager for new opportunities. Between 1784 and 1800, the state's population tripled. Some of these settlers were merchants and artisans, but most were farmers. Maine was now home to tens of thousands of proud, hardworking families. Except for their nearest neighbors, who could be miles away, people were disconnected from one another. No one felt this isolation more than the women.

Tina Roberts, Environmental and Women's Historian, Women in Curriculum, University of Maine at Orono:

The women in the farms and in the houses had different responsibilities than did the men. The men might have more chances to go to the towns or to visit with other folks to get out, whereas women tied more directly to the house because they were taking care of children and they were doing all those other tasks that go along with running your farmhouse. I know of a woman who lived in Aroostook County who wrote letters to her sister who lived in the southern part of the state telling her how much she missed her and how hard it was to get to visit her and that one of the difficulties was getting a team together- getting the horses and getting the carriage and the long journey that that would entail, even if she got it together. She was in a very isolated spot and although she could write and have contact that way with her sister, she couldn't see her.

Narrator:

One woman who did travel from southern Maine to Aroostook County was renowned botanist Kate Furbish. In 1881, she wrote in her diary:

The country was a vast wilderness. The driver of the stage said that there were probably no houses west of the road until one reached Canada. The road itself was alarming because recent "repair" work had left ditches as deep as ravines on both sides. There were fine views of Mount Katahdin, and long stretches through dense forests where silence itself seemed the only presence.
Source: Excerpt from Furbish diary printed in Kate Furbish and the Flora of Maine, by Ada Graham and Frank Graham, Jr. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House Publishers. 1995.

Narrator:

Such difficulties were simply a part of traveling in Maine. Good roads required time and capital that most communities didn't have. But the face of transportation in Maine was about to change. A miraculous invention developed in England decades earlier was revolutionizing the world and had just arrived in Maine.

Eastman:

The railroad system benefited everybody. It meant that they could import raw materials economically and export their finished products economically and be competitive. So railroads were the ideal solution to Maine's transportation needs because it would serve the entire state.

Narrator:

In 1834, the Legislature began the difficult process of establishing a comprehensive railroad policy with the best interest of all regions in mind. Maine's varied topography made it difficult to create a plan, and decisions were stalled. It became apparent that assistance was necessary if the railroad was going to flourish in Maine. A private citizen rose to the task. His name was John Poor and he had a vision. This grandson of Ezekiel Merrill understood the isolation of rural communities.

A successful lawyer in Bangor, he had the means and foresight to open up the state in previously unimaginable ways. The locomotive engine grew into a greatness in my mind that left all other created things far behind it as marvels and wonders. It was a vision, in which I saw the whole line pass before me like a grand panorama, and in continuation a vast system of railroads permeated the whole country.
Source: Maine: The Pine Tree State

Narrator:

Poor's dream went beyond linking the communities of Maine together. He had a grander plan for connecting the state to the rest of the world. The first branch of the system was a line that would serve Canada.

Eastman:

His goal was, first build a railroad to Montreal and become Canada's winter port. Building that railroad would serve a portion of the state and then use that line as a trunk off which you can run branch lines to serve the other parts of the state.

Narrator:

It was an exciting time! As rail lines expanded, development sprang up all along the tracks. Although most people were in favor of this development, some recognized its disadvantages as well. In the mid-1800s, one such dissenter was John Brickett. He was hired by a rail corporation to survey the old wilderness trail traversed by the Merrill family through Evans Notch. Brickett had mixed feelings about the railroad. He understood the economic benefits, but foresaw the disruptive consequences. So he came up with a plan to preserve the landscape surrounding his farm. The slope through Evans Notch was steep and he decided to exaggerate the elevation. He did this by going to the tallest peak in the valley. Even though the train would never actually need to climb that high, he figured the elevation gain from that uppermost point. His plan to dissuade the rail worked. The railroad determined it would be too costly and canceled their plans to build a route through. With this small act, John Brickett protected the irreplaceable, wilderness - leaving behind the undeveloped landscape we appreciate today.

Barnes:

On the other hand, a number of people, including folks who perhaps were merchants and wanted a better connection with the market they made other efforts throughout the next few decades to actually get a railroad up there. But it was not successful.

Narrator:

Mixed feelings or not, overall enthusiasm for the rails ran deep and Maine people welcomed the routes and jobs they created. Maine craftsmen even manufactured the locomotives themselves. The Portland Company built engines for lines throughout the United States and Canada. By the 1850s this was the largest employer in Portland. The railroad industry was booming and the younger generation who would work on the lines to come grew up dreaming about the rails.

Bunker:

I was raised in Canada, up in New Brunswick. That's the first time I can ever remember seeing trains, was on the CP and the CN that run by the farm there. There was two railroads that went by my grandparents' place. There was a crossing just a little ways from the farm. They'd blow for that and I'd get up and look out the window and get back in bed again. That's how interested I was in it. My ambition was to be an engineer. Not very big ambition, but it's what I wanted to be, and I made it. I was satisfied with it, and I'd do it again.

Narrator:

What was begun by John Poor soon grew into the Maine Central Railroad. By 1871, this line connected Maine to the rest of the nation both by track and steamship.

Eastman:

Once you get an efficient transportation system established, then new industry and new businesses tend to settle themselves around those corridors to utilize that efficient transportation system.

Narrator:

While the lower half of the state was booming, the northern part of the state was not. Two ambitious Mainers sought to change that by opening up this rich farmland. Franklin Cram of Bangor and Albert Burleigh of Houlton led the creation of the Bangor and Aroostook railroad in 1891.

Eldred Rolfe, Professor of Geography, University of Maine at Farmington:

Originally with the coming of the railroad in Aroostook County, of course, you had the opening up of that area. The potato industry really didn't blossom until they had a way of getting the potatoes out. Once the railroad went in, then they had a means of getting their potatoes out.

Narrator:

In the 20 years between 1894 and 1914, potato shipments increased 6-fold to over 300,000 tons.

Wayne Duplisea, Retired Bangor and Aroostook Railroad Engineer:

There used to be a saying on the Bangor and Aroostook that this is the railroad the potatoes built, and there's no question in my mind that's what started them going.

Narrator:

Farmers benefited not just from being able to move their potatoes, they could now travel with greater ease themselves. What used to be a several day trip from Houlton to Portland by horse, now took only one day.

By 1900, there were 1,200 miles of track in Maine and the communities on the rail lines thrived. The areas off these main lines were often served by the narrow gauge. This smaller track could get into places where larger rails couldn't go.

Rolfe:

A lot of the narrow gauge railroads were built primarily for the harvesting of the resources in the area.

You had the Sandy River Narrow Gauge Railroad from Farmington north which lasted relatively a short period of time. Once the wood was harvested, trying to find a way to keep it alive was very difficult.

Narrator:

Railroads were a part of most everyone's lives and fathers and sons often worked for the same lines.

Duplisea:

I came from a railroad family. My father was an engineer and my father put in three years longer than I did. I put in 43 and he put in a little more than 45. But my dad, he used to have to shovel a lot of coal. And, I'm telling you, you'll burn like 8, 10 ton of coal going 75 miles and you had to have a strong back for that kind of work.

Narrator:

Railroads had developed fast and powerful steam locomotives, but their size and weight were cumbersome and railroad corporations demanded a faster, more reliable way to haul. The solution was the diesel engine. The Flying Yankee, one of the nation's earliest diesel liners, marked the first challenge to the steam locomotive in Maine. The diesel's smooth, constant delivery of power gave it superior hauling ability over steam.

Duplisea:

Oh, yeah. Running a steam locomotive was entirely different than running a diesel. It's like going from the horse to the tractor, I'll tell you. You could get on a diesel locomotive and you could haul just as much freight as I could, as far as that's concerned, but that wasn't so with the steam locomotive.

Bunker:

A lot of guys felt - they didn't cry but they felt bad because they spent all their lives working on them. They liked them. I liked them myself but each trip on a steam engine was a challenge to the fireman. He had to make the steam. After you got the steam made, the engineer had to use it, and he had to be a pretty smart guy to get the power out of the steam engine.

Duplisea:

You had to know when to use them and when not to use them. We had a gauge in our cab we called back pressure gauge. And, some of the men had a tendency to overuse too much backpressure before you get to the hill, and others didn't. So, you had to know when to use the right amount of backpressure at a certain milepost, because they didn't have no speedometers on them.

Narrator:

The speed and efficiency of diesel meant less wear and tear on tracks, half the fuel, and much more cost-effective runs. Maine could now boast lines equal to any in the nation. But this potato road would soon find itself coming to an end. The one thing no improvement in railroads could compete with were the country's newly developed highways. This network of roads moved beyond the confines of the railroad track and connected regions and people as never before. After 1948, rail traffic began to give way to highway transportation. It wasn't long before rail lines couldn't compete with the lower cost of shipping by truck. The B&A, along with the rest of the rail lines in Maine, fell into decline.

Eastman:

Americans tend to go whole-hog for the latest transportation innovation. First it was canals, then in was railroads, then it's highways. The automobile is ideal for rural states like Maine was and Maine people adopted automobiles very, very quickly. But, of course, there's a cost to that. It meant that rail passenger service just plummeted and freight service dropped dramatically too, as trucks began hauling more cargo that railroads previously hauled. And they lost probably 75% of their freight to trucks.

Narrator:

Many of the paths and trails that European settlers first traversed had gradually widened into roads. In western Maine, the wilderness trail traveled by the family of Ezekiel Merrill, was finally paved.

Barnes:

That was in 1934, 1935. There are people that remember their mothers going through being the first handful of families being driven through the Notch. That was quite an event to be put into a car and drive through the Notch on a passable road.

O God, who hast raised up every towering crag and lofty mountain pass, bless the daring labours of those who have prepared a highway through the wilderness and made the rough places plain.
Source: Prayer for a Mountain Road, at Evans Notch Road completion and dedication, Cold River Camp Reflections, p. 28

Narrator:

In Southern Maine, US Route 1 was one of the state's first paved roads.

Before being officially tied together in 1925, this route was no more than a series of loosely interconnected dirt roads and remnants of old paths.

Shea:

It was almost like an auto trail more than an actual Route 1 interstate highway that we envision now.

It was almost like hiking the Appalachian Trail or something. You needed a guide book to read and say ah turn left at the horse trough in the middle of the road or at the general store take a left or cross over the railroad tracks now. That was part of the adventure of the road. On the open road you're in your car, you're headed out for the territories and certainly Maine was even viewed as a frontier. So there you were exploring on a Maine frontier.

Narrator:

Motorists and their need for gas, food, and lodging fueled the roadside economy. Route 1 provided miles of opportunity for local farmers to find ways to turn the traffic into a new stream of income. With so many people on the road, safety became an important consideration.

Shea:

In the push for safer, faster roads and straighter roads many businesses found themselves having to adapt to this by actually moving the location of their business to the road. For example Moody's Diner in Waldoboro. They actually had to buy property, up closer to this road so that they would still have road frontage.

Narrator:

By 1947, the on-going traffic jam of Route 1 required an alternative. The solution was the Maine Turnpike - the state's first modern, efficient roadway.

Shea:

The turnpike provided increased opportunity for tourists, and commercial traffic, between destination points. This was a streamlined travel experience- there was a focus less on the journey, and more on the destination.

Narrator:

Today, modern roads lead everywhere in Maine. People take highways to scenic Route 1 - where they can enjoy the Maine coast. Or to places where there are no roads - like the hiking trails preserved in Evans Notch. Scenic spots are valued as much modern highways and transportation systems. The Evans Notch region remains much the same as it was 100 years ago. The wilderness trail may have transformed into Route 113, but the isolation of the valley continues - this road is still not plowed through in the wintertime.

John Brickett's homestead is now the information center for the National Forest Service which helps maintain the hiking trails that rise and fall through the mountains surrounding the valley.

Maine strikes a delicate balance between respect and pride for places that are wild and remote and keeping up with the transportation needs of the future.

Eastman:

Every type of transportation has its positive and negative aspects. Right now we rely heavily on highway systems. We have this magnificent rail system, which is still a more efficient way to move things than highways. I think the comeback of passenger rail service will be very positive, and hopefully we'll see a return to that in the next millennium.

Bunker:

If I'm alive when that train goes on- from Boston to Portland- I'm going to take a ride on it!

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