Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Maine Eastern Railroad

Young Luke was a homeschooled lad. Motivating children to educate themselves takes a little bit of incentive, and my mother was pretty good at that. One of her solutions to this problem was the "mailbox item," in which she would place a small reward-item in a wicker basket attached to her bedroom door. When I finished my work for the day, the mailbox item would be mine. The prizes ranged from candy to small toys. But one day, I reached into the basket and found a ticket with a brochure. Upon the brochure was a photograph of a dynamic green-and-yellow diesel locomotive.

I knew this train because we had seen it crossing the tracks at Wiscasset, a little village we had to drive through to get to Brunswick or Portland. It was a leisure train, just operating for the sake of the ride. But I didn't know that, all that mattered is I got to ride it.

Something like 15 years later, while Jenna and I were on our honeymoon in Maine, I remembered that train. I decided to see if it still existed.

It did.

A little bit of internet research yielded the name of the railroad, the Maine Eastern Railroad, and a travel schedule. The trains ran from Brunswick to Rockland, a distance of about 50 miles.

The railroad's stop in Brunswick was little more than a gravel parking lot with a tiny wooden kiosk serving as a station: Brunswick's original station is long gone (much to my surprise; most historical buildings in Maine are revered). The railroad usually offers a dining car and a first-class car, but as this was the train's first weekend of service for the season they hadn't gotten those yet. We were treated to the standard passenger car.

For all I've said about the superiority of train travel, I...was pretty much exactly right. The car was so much more comfortable than really any kind of transportation I've ever experienced, except for maybe charter buses. A lot better than first-class air travel, even. The cars were air-conditioned, roomy and offered a look at the beautiful countryside and towns of Maine. As we got going, many of the residents of Brunswick stopped to stare and wave at us. I heard someone from the rowdy group of 40-somethings at the other end of the car say, "Let's be like the tourists and wave back!" So I did.

The train first stops in Bath, a former hometown of mine. Bath's station still stands (seen above) and was recently refurbished for the purpose of the Eastern Railroad. I asked one of the conductors about the history of the railroad, and he told me it had only been open a few years. But the trains, he said, have been operating on and off for a long time. So I must have ridden it at one of those intermittent times. We picked up a couple passengers in Bath, and then crossed the ghostly Carlton Bridge and made towards Wiscasset.

Wiscasset's station was a diminutive building resembling a standard Italianate depot, but looked like a hasty reconstruction to me. Nobody boarded the train at Wiscasset. A few of the 40-somethings yelled their affection for Red's Eats, a famous hot dog and lobster roll stand in the town.

The rest of the train ride was a beautiful 2-hour meander through the countryside of Maine. The track was lined with decaying telephone poles, some with wires drooping towards the ground. Occasionally we passed through a town, at least one having an abandoned train station. I spotted a few derelict Amtrak cars on a side track as we got close to Rockland.

Rockland's station is not only present, but completely renovated. One side of it is home to a Maine Eastern Railroad office and gift shop, and the other side is a new restaurant/bar.

We decided to eat lunch here, and I ate probably the most immense Reuben I've ever seen. The group of 40-somethings all plopped themselves down at the bar, and we left them there in favor of exploring Rockland for a couple hours before catching our return train.

Rockland is a formerly industrial town which has managed to clean up its image a little in recent years. It's home to the Wyeth-saturated Farnsworth museum, which was recommended to us by almost everyone in Maine. It has its supply of interesting shops and waterfront activities. We enjoyed them for a few hours and then got ready to board our train again.

Upon getting in our seats, we noticed some of the members of that group of 40-somethings were stumbling back onto the train.

It turned out the only reason they were in Rockland was to bar-hop in celebration of one of their friend's birthday. The purpose of using the train was to avoid having to select designated drivers. Our eyes widened as they all started pulling out giant cases of beer and hip flasks. This made it a little difficult for us to enjoy the scenery on the way back...

One of the group, probably the most drunk of them all, was a very loud woman who seemed to think Jenna and I were European (because I had made the somewhat foolish choice of wearing a suit for the trip, and because we didn't talk that much). She was positively riotous once she found out I was actually from Maine, and thereafter would, from time to time, pop into our booth, tug on my gold tie, and tell me, "You know--you know what? You're GOLDEN." This happened frequently until her friends started trying to hold her down. She could still be heard up and down the train informing various folks, "Hey! It turns out they're not European!"

Another guy in her booth tried to offer us booze a few times, but as it was like two or three in the afternoon, and since we're too snobby for Bud, we politely turned down his offers. His reaction was to ask us if we were born-again Christians, which we are. Once he knew that, he would go off onto little anti-Christian rants sort of to himself but sort of to the people in his booth at the same time. We could hear him, of course. Pleasant.

After ten or twenty drunken rounds of "Happy Birthday" and one passenger's complaint against the increasingly unruly 40-somethings (followed by another grumbling rant by our anti-Christian friend), we managed to make it back to Brunswick.

So did the behavior of our drunken car-mates make our train trip across Maine less awesome? No. No, it didn't. It just gave us a good story to tell. And it made me more ready for the return of train travel.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Portrait of Newport

After driving north from Searcy on 67, drivers will eventually pass a town called Newport. Newport lies between Searcy and Walnut Ridge (where 67 abruptly terminates). It's a moderately large town for the area, having around 8,000 inhabitants.

Like most moderately large towns around here, it has a historic (and crumbling) downtown district. I've already shared the town's train station, which lies in the center of the district. The city is an old crossroads; it's right on a junction of the White River and was later made into a major railroad junction. In fact, the city was the site of extreme economic prosperity up until around the 1950s and 60s.

The Arkansas Encyclopedia reports, "Newport has been negatively influenced by problems common to the Arkansas Delta region. Mechanization of agriculture and an economy of scale that promotes large corporate farming have caused land loss in the rural population. Limited employment opportunities have caused out-migration and restricted growth. The dense retail activity formerly concentrated along Front Street has diminished."

Thus Newport remains another snapshot of life from 60 years ago, and I suppose it will until folks start moving closer together again. Newport still has its original (beautiful) courthouse:

One of the more interesting bits of Newport's history also comes out of its highly successful post-war years. Attracted by the economic prosperity of the city, a young man named Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin in the city's downtown.

Though it's home to something else now, this corner store is where Walton started his business career. Thankfully the new owners aren't ignorant to history, and though they have remodeled the building into something nameless, they did erect a little shrine to Walton's business in the corner window. In there are several pictures and items from the time when Walton walked those streets.

The fascinating thing is the reason why Ben Franklin no longer inhabits this building. Walton eventually got in trouble with the higher ups at Ben Franklin for the way he was running the business, and as a result moved to Bentonville with plans for his own super-store. I think we know how that turned out.

Once Wal-Mart was tearing up America's countrysides, Walton decided to move back into Newport with his own guns. Shoppers took to the new store and Ben Franklin had to close its doors.

The little plaque in front of the corner store reads:

"On this corner Samuel Moore Walton opened a Ben Franklin store September 1, 1945. So began a sales career that has culminated in the greatest retailing story in history. This store became, in less than five years, the gross sales leader among all Arkansas Ben Franklin stores. The sales genius of Sam M. Walton, at this location for five years, moved to Bentonville, Arkansas in the spring of 1950, later to grow into today's Wal-Mart."

Perhaps Walton's exodus from Newport is analogous to the town's descent into desolation.


Friday, July 10, 2009


Here's another thing which has basically disappeared in this country: privately owned drugstores. These little shops used to be social centers of their own right, even containing a little eat-or-drink-in spot: the soda bar. Soda bars were eventually replaced by full-on lunch counters, which in turn were replaced by your favorite greasy fast-food joint. Basically folks didn't want to have to park their cars in the busy city districts, opting for the easier, built-in parking allotted to the newer, more surburban restaurants.

Drug stores changed as well, becoming like miniature Wal-Marts in their own right. You can still buy soda and snacks, but there's no more community center.

The above image is from a drugstore in Damariscotta, Maine, the small town in which my brother was born. Since Maine has towns that endeavor aggressively to keep their small businesses, little drugstores like this still survive. This one still has its original soda bar, and still sells soda and ice cream there. When I was growing up in Boothbay Harbor, we had three small drugstores: Brooks, Downeast Pharmacy and one more that's slipped my mind. Downeast Pharmacy had its bar in the back, but I can't remember in my old age how functional it was.

But Downeast had a lot of character. I would go there and sit in the back reading Mad Magazine, other times walking down from my house to rent a tape to watch. Sometime after I moved from Maine, the inhabitants of Boothbay (quite surprisingly) allowed a Rite-Aid to take up residence just out of town. Now Brooks is gone and Downeast Pharmacy is an antique store.

I've already mentioned Robertson's Drugstore in Searcy, now home to Quattlebaum's Music. But the rival drugstore Stott's, immediately to the right of Robertson's and visible in the above picture (then Bramlett's Cafe), is still in business. They are still a drugstore, but sell a lot of other bizarre things as well, as most existing private drugstores do. I've been in there and looked for remains of a soda counter, but found nothing. Most traces of antiquities are gone from Stott's, besides the various old trinkets lining the tops of the shelves and the 90 cent glass bottles of Coke available from an old vending machine at the front of the store.

But my favorite old drugstore is in Mountain View.

The apothecary is located in Mountain View's beautiful and functional downtown. I don't know much about its history, but it has clearly been there for a long, long time. The whole place is one of the best recreations of a bygone atmosphere I've ever felt. Just look at the beautiful tin ceiling! The apothecary serves ice cream, light lunch material and sodas, and of course they still have their classic soda bar:

At the bar, they actually mix up the sodas themselves, serving them as "phosphates." Even though it is arguably just the same as any soda you might get anywhere else, the fact that they mix them themselves, just like in the past, is what keeps me coming back.

That, and the apothecary isn't just a set piece: the place is a fully functional drugstore as well as nostalgia center. There are lots of reasons to go to Mountain View, but this is one of my favorites.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

More Train Stations

I have, of course, been dutifully snooping out train stations wherever I go. This continued snooping revealed to me that I have led you, the readers, astray! Yes, the building at the corner of Beebe Capps and Main that I mentioned in a previous post is NOT, in fact, the Searcy train station. It is undoubtedly a former train building (as the nearby tracks and loading docks declare), but the actual depot lies just a few feet away on Main Street. It is so devoid of visible train-features that I have missed it up until now.

The depot, the last remaining of (I think) three depots which once stood in Searcy, is a completely unassuming building. In hindsight, it displays many more of the qualities of a depot than the larger building on Beebe Capps and Main, but is much smaller than even the depot in Bald Knob. I'm not sure if this is representative of Bald Knob once being a more prosperous city, or if it just means a smaller railroad owned this depot (I know for a fact that it wasn't owned by Missouri Pacific, for example). There is a rustic wooden loading dock hidden away on the side of the building, visible only for those with hawk-like eyes for railroad paraphernalia. Not me, in other words. Here a couple of different views of the building:

Though the decrepit nature of the depot would seem to indicate its vacancy, this sign near the front door claims otherwise:

While I don't see Searcy's railroad potential going up any day (or year) soon, this depot makes me just a little more hopeful.

I'm not done yet, though; there are a few more depots to talk about.

A much earlier trip to Newport, Arkansas (original stomping ground of one Sam Walton; more on that another time) revealed their gorgeous and well-maintained train station in an otherwise moldering downtown sector. Like most depots in this area, it's in the traditional Italianate style, complete with large decorative brackets. I would postulate that the depot in Searcy had brackets at one point, but given its present condition, nobody really cared to maintain them. The depot seems to be home to some sort of meeting/event hall these days, but the trappings of railroad life lie all around it. Here are some more views:

The last station I'd like to talk about is one of the largest I've seen in my life. It's Union Station in Little Rock.

According to Amtrak's web site, Little Rock's Union Station was built in 1921 after a fire destroyed the original building. It also once held a record for being the largest station hosting only one railroad. As you might have gathered, it's the first station I've mentioned on this site which is actually still in use as a station. Amtrak loads its intermittent passenger cars from here, with it and Walnut Ridge being the only two stations left in operation in Arkansas. Boo. I don't have an altogether wonderful picture of Union Station in its entirety, so here's a link to Amtrak's page on it. Meanwhile, enjoy another picture of the station's magnificent tower.