Tram, train remnants of logging's glory days
By Mark Shanahan
Copyright © 1997 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc
In the woods that separate Chamberlain and Eagle lakes on the Allagash, we stumble upon a museum. Or is it a graveyard?
Two hulking locomotives - one weighing 142,000 pounds, the other 180,000 - stand in a clearing before us, their massive frames streaked with rust and their whistles silent.
Taken together, the locomotives look like an enemy of Godzilla, but they are artifacts, remnants of the glory days of logging in Maine when greedy and ingenious land barons spared no expense to haul lumber out of the woods.
And the locomotives are but one of the exhibits in this odd, open-air museum. What's left of the tramway - the contraption used to transport logs before the train - also is here, 90 years after it moved its last log.
Of course, there is no link between these heaps of rusting iron and Henry David Thoreau; the author was through here well before either was operational. But Thoreau did anticipate the sort of large-scale lumbering that the tramway and the train eventually made possible.
The tramway, built in 1902, was designed to move logs over land from Eagle Lake to Chamberlain Lake, where they could be floated south to mills in Bangor, the emerging lumber capital of the world.
It consisted of a steam engine, a 3,000-foot-long loop of steel cable and 600 steel trucks, each with a pair of 11-inch wheels that sat on rails. Attached to the trucks were saddles shaped to hold one end of a log.
Traveling at 250 feet per minute, the trucks were loaded with logs at Eagle Lake and moved to Chamberlain Lake on the rails. There, the logs were dropped onto a series of live rollers, which pushed them into the lake. It is estimated that in its six years of operation the tramway moved 100 million board feet of lumber.
Today, pieces of the tramway still exist, including the rails, sections of the cable and the two, large wood-fired boilers that generated the steam. A jam of old, bleached logs today marks the spot on Chamberlain Lake where the tramway dropped its load.
In 1926, needing more and more spruce trees to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for paper, Great Northern Paper Co. started up the so-called Eagle Lake & West Branch Railroad, a 13-mile line that ran from Eagle Lake to Umbazooksus Lake.
The logistics of establishing a railroad in this wild and exceedingly remote country were complicated, and the labor backbreaking.
The two oil-burning locomotives, for example, arrived in pieces on a sled, and were reassembled in the woods without benefit of a crane. And the oil that was hauled in before the thaw had to be reheated to pump it into the site's four 25,000-gallon storage tanks.
Between 1926 and 1933, the railroad operated 24 hours a day, six days a week from late spring through early winter, hauling in its 14 pulp cars an estimated 65,000 cords of wood per season.
In 1933, with the country lurching deeper into an economic depression, Great Northern Paper Co. abandoned the railroad. Ever since, the train has been sitting here in the woods, a rusting relic.
Now, an effort is under way to preserve it. In the past year, volunteers from the Allagash Alliance, the Maine Conservation Corps and various Boy Scout troops have used 100-ton hydraulic jacks to lift the locomotives and lay a more stable foundation of crushed rock beneath them.
The groups are next planning to construct a shedlike building to prevent the harsh weather of the Allagash from further ruining the train. As we stare at these slumbering giants, we wonder what Thoreau would make of this place. Despite the role these locomotives played in the harvesting of trees, something tells us the author would want this bit of history preserved.
Two old steam locomotives, long ago abandoned in the forest near Eagle Lake, are being rescued from the encroaching forest in hopes of making them an attraction to visitors to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Staff photo by John Ewing
Allagash Wilderness Waterway ranger Tom Coon describes the salvage work being done on two old steam locomotives in the forest near Eagle Lake to Dean Bennett. In its six years of operation, the tramway moved an estimated 100 million board feet of lumber. Staff photo by John Ewing.