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.



Anonymous said...

Looks like you had a very good experience on the MERR; glad you enjoyed it.
The one you rode as a child might have been the Maine Coast RR. Their successor ran for a couple of years, freight only, and then MERR became the operator. (The Maine Dept. of Transportation owns the line.)
BTW, in case the mention of "Eastern Railroad" wasn't just a typo, the Maine Eastern Railroad is sometimes mistaken for the Eastern Maine RailWAY. They are two different entities, in different parts of the state. The old Eastern Railroad (1836-1884) only mde it to Portland before being taken over by the Boston & Maine RR.

Rook said...

Yes, I was just saying "Eastern Railroad" so as not to type out all three words. Laziness on my part.

Sounds like you might have some connections with the MERR. :) Well, I'd ride it again if I were ever in Maine another time.