ECR Trek to the Trains: February 2000

DAY 1:

If you live outside New England and you think of the winters in Maine, you probably think of things like skiing, sleigh rides and picturesque winter settings. If you live in New England and you think of winters here, you probably think of things like slush in your boots, road salt eating your Rover and just how many times you've had to scrape the freezing rain off your windscreen in one day. Most Rover owners we know wait until winter is a thing of the past to go off road, but if you spend time waiting for the next summer's off roading season to come around, you'd waste more than half your life. The fact is that winter is a great time of year for 4 wheeling. It means that you and your Rover have to be a little better prepared to handle the added complications that mother nature can throw at you, but it really is a blast. In February of 2000 some of staff of ECR set out on yet another trek. This time in the middle of the Maine winter, to track down an abandoned pair of antique steam locomotives that were said to have been left deep in the woods of Northern Maine many decades ago.
Only through hear say and tall tales had we heard of these locomotives in the middle of the Maine woods. What could two vintage steam locomotives be doing 100 miles from the nearest railroad tracks? The history that drove us to set out on this trek is nearly as interesting as the trek itself. The area around Eagle Lake and most all of Northern Maine has been logged at one time or another. In the days before trucks hauled the timber out, logs were floated down the rivers to the mills of Central Maine. The problem is that not all the rivers flow towards these established mills, about half flow north towards Canada. Some practical way of handling the timber had to be set up to get the timber over the land to the correct waterway and down to the mills. In the mid 1800s lock systems were set up and canals were dug so that logs could be floated from one water shed to another, but this was very slow and proved to be troublesome. In the early 1900s a railway based tramway was built across the 3000 foot stretch of land that divided Eagle Lake and Chamberlain Lake. The tramway consisted of train style axles attached to a cable that was driven by steam engine and large sprockets. Logs were transported on the axles to Chamberlain Lake were they were dumped into the water for the trip down stream.

The tramway moved over 500,000 board feet of pulp per day and was in operation for six seasons starting in 1903. By 1909 most of the timber had been cut off the area so the tramway was shut down and nature was left to take over the area again.
Edouard Lacroix, a very famous Canadian logging industrialist, gained the timber rights to the area in the 1920s. The land had a new batch of trees and he contracted with the paper companies to deliver the goods. Lacroix's crews cut all the timber and sent it down the streams that would flow back to the mills in Millinocket, but they faced the same problem when they crossed into land were the water flowed to the north... how to get the logs to the mills in Central Maine.
Lacroix's answer was a railroad. This was dismissed as an impossible, to build a railroad in the middle of Maine, in the 1920s, but Lacroix took on the task.
In 1926 they started on the route for a rail system from Eagle Lake, near the old tramway, west across Allagash Stream, down the shores of Chamberlain Lake to the head waters of Umbazooksus Lake. The 13 miles railroad was cut into the forest and construction began. The materials including enough steel for a 1500 foot bridge across the Allagash was hauled in that winter. While the lakes were frozen steam powered Lombard log haulers performed the impossible.

These massive steam powered snowmobiles brought in all the materials over the ice for the railroad, including the switching engines and two steam locomotives weighing over 90 tons each.
The 2 locomotives were purchased used from other points in New England. One was from the Rutland Railroad and the other from the New York Central Railroad. The steam engines were converted to oil and once the railroad was finished they were put into full time operation.

The new railroad was then called the U&EL line, for Umbazooksus and Eagle Lake Railroad. The paper companies bought out Lacroix and changed the name to the Eagle Lake and West Branch, but Lacroix was retained to run the operations. In 1927 the system was ready for business and at the two locomotives moved over 100,000 cords of wood that had been cut that past winter. There were 2 tracks at the Eagle Lake loading site and a passing track in the middle of the stretch between the lakes so that the trains could pass each other. The empty train would be filled at Eagle Lake while the full train was emptying its load in Umbazooksus Lake. Switching engines at each end of the line would move the full and empty cars off the locomotives and set them up for the return trip to the other lake.

A conveyor belt system was built at Eagle Lake to load the cars with the winter's waiting pulpwood. The loaded cars would then be hitched to the locomotive for the trip to Umbazooksus Lake.

A long point was built into Umbazooksus Lake with the rail system on top of it. The rail system on the man made point was made with one of the railroad rails six inches higher than the other. This made it so that logs could be dumped easily from the cars into the water for the trip to the mills. The railway ran for 12 hours a day and each cycle of full and empty cars took 3 hours. The railroad operated for over four season until the supply of timber was once again exhausted from the area.

In 1930 the engines were backed into the repair shed that housed them and their boilers were shut down for the last time. The incredible and nearly impossible task of building and operating a railroad in the heart of Maine's north woods was then abandoned and the forest started to close back in on the railway and the engines.

Our trek started a few weeks earlier as the Rovers needed some tweaking before the trip and items like snow chains and such needed to be checked and load up. Due to the remote nature of the deep woods in Northern Maine, we also installed a computer based GPS system into ECR 3 (a 1997 Defender 90 Station Wagon) for the trip. Luckily one of our trek participants, Geoff Cox, just happens to have a Phd in this field and fitted the D90 with a state of the art differential corrected system that basically put our actual position within a meter.

Here you can see the brush proof antenna mount system we made for the GPS and differential beacon antennas on the D90.
We could have driven the D90 with this software if it had an automatic pilot system.
The rest of the crew from this trek will be familiar if you have read any of our other trek articles, as they are the usual suspects. Mike Smith and Geoff Cox would be taking ECR 3, Jason Tyler would be taking his heavily modified Range Rover, and Ian Cooke would be piloting his Series IIA 88 coil hybrid. The next step was to load up and head out early for Northern Maine.
We left ECR early in the morning to get a good deal of miles done during the day so as to be able to set up camp that evening in the daylight. Our trip took us through the middle of the state on mostly back roads from Warren to the Greenville area. Once you leave the Greenville area and head north you are on roads that are rarely used except for logging operations. The other thing to remember is that once you leave Greenville, you are on dirt roads of varying condition and you won't find any more gas stations or stores until you hit the Canadian border. This meant extra fuel for the Rovers had to be carried on board just to make it in and out. Greenville in the winter is a snowmobilers paradise, and our plans to take trucks north of Eagle Lake in February were given more than few doubting laughs by the snowmobile riders we met at the Greenville gas station.

Downtown Greenville is at the southern foot of Moosehead Lake, a famous summer sporting area. Moosehead lake is also home to the old passenger vessel "Katahdin". In the summer months the vessel takes people for tours of the lake, but at this time of the year she is solidly frozen in. We paused for lunch overlooking the frozen lake and then headed out of town and out of civilization towards the settlement of Kokadjo, and then on to Eagle Lake. As the crow flies the GPS told us we only had about 70 miles to go until we reached Eagle Lake, but even the best outfitted Rover can't drive as the crow flies in Northern Maine, so that meant we'd drain the full fuel tanks we had, and have to refill off the gas cans before we got back to Greenville. For those of you who know Defender 90s that means upwards of 300 miles before we'd see a town again.
Leaving Greenville we headed northeast bound for the logging roads. Once you pass the settlement of Kokadjo the roads get smaller and smaller until you reach what is called the Golden Road.

Outside Kokadjo the views start to get great. At this crest in the road Big Spencer Mt. looms in the distance. The Golden Road is a large dirt road that crosses the state of Maine from the East to the town of Millinocket (the base for a lot of paper companies) and it is used in logging operations. It is maintained year round and we knew we had a good shot at Eagle Lake if we could get to the Golden Road.

We had done a scouting trip a few weeks earlier to the logging roads above Greenville, Maine to make sure that the trip would go as planned, but as with any trek things change, and you have to be ready to change with them. The eastern route around Moosehead Lake had become buried in snow, and even our Rovers with chains and lockers could not make it through the snow on the way to the Golden Road, so we had to head back for Greenville and attempt to use the western approach around Moosehead Lake to points north.

On our return toward Greenville one of the locals, a yearling moose, decided that the road was a much better place to walk, rather than trudge around in the snow, and it took him a few minutes before he decided that we were OK to let through. In a last minute change of heart he had a quick lunge at the fender of the lead Defender, but he thought better of it and headed off into the woods.

Once we got back to Greenville we headed west to Jackman, and then north to the Golden Road. We found that although the roads were glare ice that they were passable and we made it to the Golden Road.
The problem was that the Golden Road was not even the halfway point for this leg of the trek. We had to push on into the evening and make it to Eagle Lake, or else the trains would be out of our reach on this trek. We had to have a full day for the trip in and out of Eagle Lake, and if we couldn't make camp near Eagle Lake, or at least close to it, we wouldn't have enough daylight to safely make the hike into find the trains.

Once we made it to the Golden Road we stopped to check our distances and confirm just how far away we were, and what type of speeds we were making, and would need to make according to the GPS. Picking up the speeds to recover time lost on the failed attempt up the east side of Moosehead Lake proved to get a lot of our time back, and also provided a lot of "spirited" ice driving and we really got to test our winter driving skills at the limits of our vehicles.

Geoff did some quick calculations and we knew we could make Eagle Lake, but we'd get there well after dark to set up camp.
We arrived near Eagle Lake after dark and went about setting up camp.

Winter camping isn't as bad as you think. You quickly get used to it and with the right equipment it can be a great experience. Geoff and Jason set up the tent while Ian and I gathered firewood. The peacefulness of being in the heart of the Maine woods in the middle of winter is a wonderful experience. One of the best things about winter camping is that you don't have to worry about the bugs. Coyotes are another story... in the morning we found parts of a Moose that the coyotes had eaten a little too close to our camp site for comfort.

A quick dinner and then it was time to sit around the fire and rest up for the next days hike.

Click the link to "Day 2" below to continue.

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