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All the whistles and bells

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Downeast Scenic Railroad

There ain't nothing sweeter than riding the rail.
-Tom Waits

ELLSWORTH The railroad has a long and storied history in America. It was both the backbone and lifeline of industry and commerce in many places, and it was no different in Maine. Volunteers have gone above and beyond to not only preserve this history, but ensure that future generations can actually experience rail travel for themselves with the Downeast Scenic Railway.

'[The Downeast Scenic Rail] informs people of history of the line and what its meaning has been to the community, and how it helped develop the area,' said Tom Testa, president of the Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust, Inc. 'This was the link to the world.'

Riding the rail

Throughout the season, the train runs on Saturday and Sunday with most trips occurring at 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. Testa said that these times were intended to give people a chance to enjoy the surrounding area. Get up, have some breakfast and enjoy a train ride - and then still have time for lunch. Or eat a nice meal, then go for a ride and enjoy the afternoon whether you're staying in Ellsworth or have plans to visit Acadia, Bar Harbor or the Bangor area.

The actual trip itself is a fun jaunt for children and rail enthusiasts of all ages. It's a trip that can be enjoyed rain or shine and offers a chance to see areas that may be familiar to visitors from a completely different angle.

You embark from their platform situated behind the Maine Community Foundation at 245 Main St. in Ellsworth. Your options for seating include two passenger cars and one open-air carriage. Passenger coach 123 was built in 1917 by Delaware Lackawanna & Western and used in commuter service in the 1900s. Passenger coach 155 is known as the 'McNeil Point,' and was built in 1910 by the Laconia Car Co. for the Maine Central Railroad. Open Air Car 124, called 'the Downeast Breeze,' was converted from a 1964 Thrall log car.

The three cars offer a fun ride during rain or shine and travel a 13-mile round-trip circuit, first heading west through the heart of Ellsworth before reversing direction and heading eastbound, through beautiful wetlands, where you have a chance to see wildlife, including eagles, osprey, herons, snapping turtles, deer and even moose or bears. Then you continue on to the Washington Junction rail yard, where you can see the heavy equipment that keeps the train running.

While travelling through Ellsworth, it is really interesting to see the city from a new angle. I had heard of the city's bike and pedestrian path, but I hadn't seen it until then. It's a wonderfully maintained, paved path that runs along the rail line, and separated by a six-foot-tall security fence. 

During the ride, there is an audio tour that points out notable sights as well as the history of the rail line.

Whether you're the parents of young children who have a newfound love for trains, a train enthusiast yourself or simply a history buff, this is a fun ride for all. 

Testa emphasized that the ride has been designed with families in mind. About mid-way through the trip, volunteers offer light snacks and drinks at very reasonable prices. The cars are all contained, and children get exposed to all the bells and whistles of rail travel, including a chance to see the train engine drive past the train when it's time to reverse direction and head up to the Washington Junction.

The birth of tourism

The Maine Shore Line Railroad, which ran from Brewer to Washington Junction, was built in 1884, and the Downeast Scenic Rail traverses a portion of the trail that has been restored with the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and fiscal supporters over several years.

According to Downeast Scenic Rail's website and audio tour, The Maine Shore Line was built by Colonel John N. Green and became the premier passenger line for New England. It was how the first tourists came to Maine. The wealthy 'rusticators' would ride the rail to Mount Desert Island on the Mount Desert Limited, which later became the Bar Harbor Express.

'This was the connection to the outside world. The number of people it brought here was responsible for starting the tourist industry,' said Testa. 'All of the people you hear about who came to Bar Harbor (including the Rockefellers and Teddy Roosevelt) came via train.'

When people came to the end of the line, they would take a steam ship to the island which was included in the ticket price.

The lifeblood of the line: Volunteers

Testa said that without the work of the volunteers, the Downeast Scenic Rail wouldn't exist. They do it all, from renovating rail cars and rehabilitating lines to manning the train itself. The carriage cars that have been donated are all refurbished by dedicated volunteers. The 155 took two years to renovate.

'We need considerable crews to maintain the equipment and train maintenance. Some [volunteers] do several things,' said Testa, who noted that they have a rotating volunteer staff of around 40 people.

The Downeast Rail Heritage Preservation Trust and the Down Scenic Rail Road Project volunteers meet every Saturday at Washington Junction rain or shine. You don't need experience, just a willingness to help and learn. If you are interested, email  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . You can see the entire schedule of work days on the website www.DowneastScenicRail.org and select 'become a volunteer' under the dropdown menu for 'donate/support.'

Moving forward, Testa said they plan on renovating more track work. And though the track will never complete the circuit it once did (some of the right-of-ways have been lost to time and new ownership), they already have plans to expand its current route.

You can also help the rail by supporting the cause financially. And, of course, by riding the train.

Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for children aged 3 to 12. Children under the age of 2 who don't need to take up a seat can ride for free. For more information, including schedule routes, visit www.DowneastScenicRail.org. You can also find them on Facebook.

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