Opinion

Returning artifacts

Last winter, Bureau of Parks and Lands staff reinstalled the original front boiler door and smoke stack on the locomotives located at the northern terminus of the famed Eagle Lake and West Branch Railroad. The parts were illegally taken from the trains several years ago, but some regular visitors to the waterway acted as middlemen for retuning the ill-gotten artifacts back to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

Ed Cullivan, an avid ice fisherman and regular winter visitor, contacted me last spring asking if he could return a few parts taken from the locomotives without getting the people that possessed the pieces in trouble. I agreed not to ask any questions about the illicit artifacts if they were returned in good faith. We met at Cianbro’s headquarters in Pittsfield, where the items were returned. I took them to Churchill Dam, hoping to put them back in place during the upcoming winter.

Chief Ranger Kevin Brown took the broken light platform and door out to Ashland for welding and recruited Joe Powers to help with the project. Joe provided the expertise in working with metals. He welded the broken light stand, bent the hinges to fit, removed the non-original stack, and welded the original smoke stack back in place.

This all sounds pretty easy, but believe me – it wasn’t. These parts weighed in excess of 750 pounds; they had to be brought to the site by snowmobile, manually lifted into place and welded on-site. We had to bring a very heavy portable welder on the 15-mile snowmobile trip down the lake with torches, pry bars and a bunch of other tools.

Edouard “King” Lacroix, a Canadian lumber baron who had huge operations at Churchill Dam and Clayton Lake, built the railroad to deliver pulpwood cut along the shores of the Allagash headwater lakes to the paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

The railroad was the solution to a watershed problem. Thousands of cords of pulpwood were required to keep the Great Northern Paper Company mills running. There was a vast quantity of pulpwood within easy hauling distance of Churchill and Eagle Lakes, but these lakes flowed north to the St. John River. The pulpwood was needed to the south, at the Great Northern mills on the West Branch of the Penobscot.

Necessity being the mother of invention, the idea of building a railroad in the middle of the Maine woods was born.    

During the winter of 1926–1927, the trains were partially disassembled at Lac Frontiere, Quebec, and hauled over ice roads with Lombard log haulers to Churchill Dam. From there, they were hauled across frozen Churchill and Eagle Lakes to the tramway area. Transportation of the materials to build and operate a railroad in such a remote location was a monumental task. In addition to the two 10–ton locomotives, this massive project required materials to build the 1,500 foot trestle over Allagash Stream, steel rails, loaders, two gasoline-powered Plymouth switchers and 40 train cars, all hauled to the tramway that winter.

Great Northern Paper Company bought the railroad from Lacroix before it was put into operation. On June 1, 1927, the train made its first successful trip over the 13-mile railroad. The Eagle Lake and West Branch Railroad was in business.

The most significant structure of the railroad was the 1,500-foot trestle,the remains of which are still visible today. Great Northern Paper later extended the line five miles to Chesuncook Lake to facilitate the large amount of supplies and fuel required to operate the railroad.

Demand for paper declined during the Great Depression, essentially shutting down the railroad after it had carried nearly one million cords of pulpwood. The locomotives were parked in the shed at the tramway, never to be moved again.

The trains and tramway were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Today, they are a must see location for history buffs and canoeists paddling the 92-mile long Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

Matthew LaRoche is superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The waterway is managed by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.  For information go to: www.maine.gov/allagash or call (207) 941-4014 for an information packet.

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