Jim Strang’s voice came over our headsets reminding us things might get a little bumpy as we transitioned from being over the forest to over water. We were photographing for a book about the North Woods, and grateful for the warning; turbulence can be a problem for a photographer pressing a camera, up against his face and a plane’s windscreen . It’s a good way to loose a few teeth.
Just as we banked hitting a downdraft and scattering equipment around the cabin, we heard Jim’s voice calmly say; “Oh yah, and if you look off to the right you’ll see the trains the paper company left in the woods in 1933.” "Huh, what?" Sure enough, looking down, we could make out two 100-ton locomotives sitting close to the southwestern shoreline of Eagle Lake.
The year was 2009 and ever since that day Eric and I have been thinking about a way to find those trains again.
The area north of Millinocket is a vast sweep of forest, dotted with lakes and ledge, and cut by one of the most fabled rivers in Maine, the West Branch of the Penobscot. This is Thoreau country, the setting for the journeys described in Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods.
It is a land rich in human and natural history, and nowhere more so than at Big Eddy, where the Penobscot River finally slows after a 5-mile tumble through the rapids of Ripogenus Gorge.
It takes about forty miles of back road driving to go from the Big Eddy campground to the trailhead.We took Telos Roadheading north, arriving after much travel at the North Maine Woods Telos Checkpoint.
The road was in fairly good shape but still had its requisite number of potholes and washouts. We made the trip without too much fanfare having only one blowout and that was on the way back. I'm pretty sure we rolled the tire off the rim at a particularly ugly section of roadway.
When we reached the Telos Cut we turned left on to Longley Stream Road, driving until we came to a fork. From there we bore to the right on Grande Marche Road and drove until we passed a lumber camp. Once beyond the camp, we started counting mile markers. Just after mile marker15 we took the first serviceable looking right-hand turn (unmarked and somewhat overgrown). After a few miles on this section we found another drivable road on the right and took that until we ran out of space. The end of this roadway, is is the trailhead.
The Maine woods is still actively logged and there's lots of evidence of that in the backwoods.
The trail begins at this old section of logging road. The further you go, the more overgrown it becomes until you simply end up in the forest.
At times we moved through stands of high canopied hardwood that had an understory of decaying deadwood, moss, and ferns, while in other places we dead-ended into zones of dense, shadowy softwood were branches slapped and grabbed at any loose-fitting gear, and swampy compost underfoot constantly tugged and our boots.
At one point we came to what looked like and intersection and needed to decide which way to go. We knew the lake was someplace in front of us; our compasses confirmed that, but we weren't sure if we'd come in east of the trains or west. Bushwacking to the lake and following the shoreline was out of the question, so we turned left thinking we were probably east of the trains. After travelling some distance we thought we saw a red marker although the forest was very dense, and we couldn't be sure. When we finally got to the marker it was a group of brightly painted poles with notched initials "AWW" and a small triangular sign that said Allagash Wildness Waterway Restricted Zone. WRONG WAY! We turned around, backtracked and about an hour later after passing over a small rise we found the tracks. From here we literally "tracked" ourselves to the trains.
In the winter of 1926-1927 machines known as Lombard tractors hauled everything needed to build a thirteen mile railroad in the woods, from Lac-Frontiere, Quebec to Eagle Lake. Besides the two one-hundred ton engines, they hauled rails, switchers (small train engines), enough equipment to build a fifteen-hundred foot trestle over Allagash Stream at the Umbazooksus Lake end of the railway, and sixty box cars.
Supplies to run the railroad came from the South. Delivered to Greenville Maine, they were then transported over forty-five miles of backwoods roads to Chesuncook Lake for the final leg of the journey by steamboat.
Both engines burned coal but needed to be converted to oil because of the concern that cinders might light the woods on fire. This is the furnace of engine #1.
The boxcars were thirty-two feet long with slatted sides, remnants of which can still be seen today. each car could hold twelve cords of pulp wood. Today the boxcars are lined up in two rows on a forested berm near the lake.