Preservationists reviving Waldo County rail, one tie at a time

By Ben Stickney | Aug 19, 2009
Photo by: Ben Stickney

Brooks — After a year of hard work by a handful of dedicated volunteers, trains are running in Waldo County again. The inaugural season of the Brooks Preservation Society, begun on July 4, has breathed new life into the former Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad.

Their Saturday excursions begin at the historic Brooks railroad station and run five miles south to the site of the Waldo station and back. The society also has a schedule of special trains running north, including a pizza train to Thorndike and a train for leaf-peepers that will go all the way to the northern end of the line in Burnham Junction.

In addition, the society operates rail-bike tours, which go north from Brooks to Knox when the train is not running.

Getting the restoration of an historic railroad station under way and acquiring and maintaining the track and rolling stock necessary to run rail excursions is no mean feat. That is especially true for an organization that has only existed for a little over a year and a half and relies on a core group of volunteers that seldom numbers more than a dozen.

However, Brooks Preservation Society Executive Director Joe Feero sees this as only the beginning.

"We would really like to extend service back to Belfast," Feero said.

Feero sees it as an opportunity for both the railroad and the city. He noted that even in its final year, at the bottom of its decline, the B&ML drew 3,400 passengers.

"We could get into Belfast, work in partnership with the city instead of [having] an adversarial relationship, and help attract people to the community," said Feero.

Developing a run from Brooks to Belfast would serve the interests of the society as well. Its overarching goal is to keep the B&ML right-of-way intact as a functioning rail line.

At present, 30 miles of the 33-mile line are owned by the Maine Department of Transportation, which leases the track to the preservation society. The last three miles, between the former limit of the Belfast rail yard and City Point Station (now the City Point Central Rail Museum), are still held by Unity Property Management, the final owner of the B&ML before its demise in 2008. The state Department of Transportaton is considering purchasing the stretch, which is for sale.

The society has worked with the City Point Central Museum, Coastal Mountains Land Trust and the Belfast City Council in its effort to preserve the corridor. Feero characterized his communications with these three bodies thus far as positive.

In the meantime, plenty of work remains for the society's volunteers. Track maintenance, which the society performs as part of its lease agreement with the DOT, occupies a prominent place in the workload. Volunteer Robert Gillam, who was once the general manager of the B&ML and was the Maine Central engineer of track when he retired in 2006, said that the property suffered from neglect in the railroad's declining years.

The railroad was rated a Class 2 by the Federal Railroad Administration when he left the B&ML and now it is struggling to be Class 1, he said.

The FRA's class ratings set freight and passenger speed limits based on standards of track construction and maintenance. Class 1 track has a speed limit of 10 mph for freight trains, and 15 mph for passenger trains. Class 2 track is 15 miles per hour faster.

Gillam added that the condition of the track between the Belfast yard limit and City Point would not be an obstacle to rail service, even with the society's volunteers doing the work.

In addition to track maintenance, Feero said he hopes to reconstruct the freight house that used to sit behind the Brooks station, to be used for office space, restrooms and storage for the truckloads of old records donated by the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Preservation Society.

Work is not yet complete on the station roof, two 1925-vintage coach cars need to be repainted and the collection of records — dating to when the B&ML became an independent railroad in 1926 — needs to be cataloged.

The Brooks Preservation Society welcomes volunteers who want to learn and get involved with railroading. Financial support through membership in the organization is also possible.

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