Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railway back in Belfast, pretty much

Excursion train makes a new home at the old Upper Bridge crossing
By Ethan Andrews | May 31, 2011
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Lead Car Attendant Nicole Swenson, left, punches the tickets of, from left, Eleanor and Sonya Dodson, and Marcus and Keith Martin on the opening day of the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railway excursion season, Saturday, May 28.

Belfast — Aboard a 1920s passenger car on a train that was not moving, a man looked at his cell phone. Catching the attention of the car attendant, who sported a vest with an antique pocket watch and the classic conductor's cap with short, shiny brim, the man asked when the train would be departing. The schedule said 11:30 a.m., and it was now several minutes past that time.

The car attendant explained that it was the first train of the season, so they would probably wait in the station a few minutes longer than usual to catch any last-minute riders.

"It doesn't matter what time your phone says," she said, dryly.

The Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railway made a quiet return to Belfast Saturday, May 28 as Brooks Preservation Society ran its first excursion train of the season from the old Upper Bridge Crossing to Waldo and back again, a 10-mile circuit the group plans to repeat every Saturday and Sunday until mid-October.

The hour-long round trip initially follows the Passagassawakeag River inland from the wide vistas of the inner bay. The train eventually crosses the river by way of a rail trestle that shadows the automobile bridge on City Point Road. It passes City Point Station, with its dozens of pieces of rolling stock, and crosses Oak Hill Road (without a bump) before heading into the woods of north Belfast and Waldo, skirting fields, crossing streams and occasionally cutting through someone’s front or back yard.

Comprised of a diesel engine, a caboose improbably located in the middle of the train, and a mid-1920s passenger car that once shuttled commuters from the Hoboken, N.J. ferry terminal to points west, the train goes at a leisurely pace, dictated in part by the rating of the tracks. The Belfast-to-Waldo segment was upgraded by the previous owner, according to Russell Barber of BPS, so the trains could go faster than they do, but making a longer trip, to, say, Brooks would take more than two hours.

Absent fake train robberies, dinner theater, and other entertainment en route, Barber said the feeling was that a one-hour excursion was just the right length.

Brooks Preservation Society has agreements to use nearly all of the 30 miles of the former commercial rail corridor, which runs between the former terminus in Belfast and Burnham Junction, where the railway once connected to the Maine Central Railroad.

Last July, the Belfast City Council bought a 3.5-mile segment of the rail corridor between Veteran's Memorial Bridge and the Belfast-Waldo town line. In subsequent negotiations, BPS worked out a lease agreement to operate trains on this portion of the track and last season ran several trips up to the bridge. All of the track west of the city-owned segment is owned by the state, and leased to BPS, and excursions in past years have generally started in Brooks.

BPS lobbied hard over the past year to bring trains all the way into downtown Belfast, but several obstacles stood in the way, including a segment of the corridor owned by Penobscot McCrum and a city-owned portion, which cut through the former Stinson Seafood property.

When a group of a marine industry businessmen bought the former cannery in January and began quickly transforming it into Front Street Shipyard, Barber said he realized that the train stood very little chance of making it back to downtown proper. At least for now.

Despite the initial disappointment, Barber said it soon became evident that there were benefits to being outside of the congested downtown. At the Upper Bridge there would be fewer competing interests, less chance of inadvertently offending anyone and fewer regulatory hurdles.

“I think we have a comfortable place for the foreseeable future,” he said. “… It’s actually an easy place for people to get off Route 1. You come into Belfast, you ride the train.”

Barber said he has been in discussions with the management of Penobscot McCrum about using that portion of the track, but given the number of parking spaces at the Upper Bridge Lot, it was unlikely that BPS would be able to use the a similar portion of the potato processing plant's parking lot for loading passengers, unless BPS was to buy the entire property, plant and all.

“My vision would be that we could have tour boats and the trains meeting on the McCrum property, but in a smaller way I think that could possibly happen up here [at the Upper Bridge],” he said. “… There’s a deep basin up there, so I think there’s a way for smaller boats to get up there.”

That’s a five- or ten-year plan, Barber said. For now, he said, the goal is to make the best of the railway’s new station just outside of downtown.

“We’re content with what we’ve got here right now and we can let it develop and see how it naturally goes,” he said. “… I think if we can stay up here for the foreseeable future, we’ll build the numbers and I think we can build it into something quite good.”

Excursion trips on the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railway run on Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 10, departing from the old Upper Bridge (High Street, one half mile north of the Route 1 overpass) at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Brooks Preservation Society will also run shuttle trains to the Common Ground Country Fair this fall, departing from Thorndike and Unity Sept. 23, 24 and 25. View a full schedule at brookspreservation.org.

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