The history of the Maine Central Railroad is as old as railroading in Maine itself. The first railroad to be built in Maine was the Bangor and Piscataquis Canal and Railroad Company, which completed its line from Bangor to Old Town in 1836. This railroad operated the first steam locomotive in Maine, the Pioneer, an 1832 product of Stephenson & Son in England. The primary role of the Bangor & Piscataquis was to transport lumber and other forest products, a traffic base that still accounts for a large amount of tonnage on the line to this day. Through the course of several leases and mergers, in 1882 the line became part of the Maine Central Railroad.
The Maine Central itself had been chartered in 1856, and became an operating railroad in 1862 when it consolidated the Androscoggin & Kennebec and Penobscot & Kennebec railroads. The two lines combined formed a railroad line running from Danville Junction to Bangor, a distance of slightly over 100 miles. At the time, the railroads in Maine were a mix of standard and 5'6" gauges, and the choice between the two was more a matter of corporate rivalry and connections with friendly railroads than engineering benefits. Because the railroad connected with an existing 5'6" gauge railroad to Montreal, it too had been built to the wider gauge. When MEC later assumed control of rival Portland and Kennebec, which had been built to standard gauge to facilitate connections with railroads to Boston, MEC decided to convert its own lines to standard gauge as well, completing the conversion in 1871.
The late 1800s were a period of brisk expansion for the Maine Central. In 1884, the MEC had the distinction of being the largest railroad in New England, operating a 524 mile system. The profitable road continued to grow rapidly by leasing and purchasing connecting lines, some of which had gone bankrupt after failing to generate enough return to pay for construction debt. One of the most notable examples was MEC's acquisition of the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad, which added the rugged Mountain Subdivision through Crawford Notch, New Hampshire onto MEC's map in 1888. Even the diminutive two-foot gauge railroads of Maine did not escape MEC's snowballing growth -- the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad came under MEC's umbrella in 1911, and the Bridgton and Saco River followed suit the following year.
When the United States Railway Administration took over operation of the MEC and all other US railroads in 1917 due to World War I traffic levels, the Maine Central empire was at its greatest. The railroad owned a far-flung, 1,358 mile system. The Maine Central's flag flew from Portland, Maine to Vanceboro, on the Canadian border; Eastport, the easternmost trackage in the US; through the rugged White Mountains to St. Johnsbury, Vermont; and even all the way to Lime Ridge, Quebec, situated between Quebec City and Montreal. The railroad owned two resorts -- the Mount Kineo House on Moosehead Lake and the SamOset at Rockland, it had built up a sizeable trucking and bus subsidiary, and even possessed a fleet of thirteen steamboats and four coastal ferries.
During World War I, the Maine Central participated in the war effort by forwarding Canadian troop trains over its line between Mattawamkeag and Vanceboro, which served as a portion of the Canadian Pacific's shortcut across Maine from Montreal to the Maritimes. The United States was neutral at that time, so this practice was actually quite illegal, and was loudly and vigorously opposed by Germany. When the trains kept rolling, a lone German army lieutenant was sent to Vanceboro to try to stop them. He walked up to the Maine Central's St. Croix River bridge on the US-Canadian border in full uniform to avoid being executed as a spy, and proceeded to wire it with dynamite charges. Fortunately for the MEC, the would-be saboteur was apprehended by a county sheriff just as he was making final preparations to blow up the bridge.
In the years after World War I, the Maine Central's growth slowed greatly, and the railroad began to shrink due to ever-increasing competition from automobiles and trucks. The MEC-controlled two-foot gauge lines fell into receivership in the 1920's and the Maine Central sold what is now the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad to the city of Belfast. In 1927 the railroad discontinued its ferry operations, and the coastal steamer service likewise shut down four years later. Through the late 1920s and into the 1930s the railroad made a few additional acquisitions, but discontinued many other routes and sevices.
The Maine Central's dieselization effort got off to a slow start. The first non-steam locomotive was delivered to Maine Central in 1932 in the form of a tiny gasoline-powered Whitcomb. The engine was less than 20 feet long and was chain driven, but the railroad recognized it as the pioneer it was and numbered it Maine Central #1. Between 1932 and 1939, the railroad took delivery of another tiny shunter, an oil-electric doodlebug, and co-financed the "Flying Yankee" streamliner with the B&M. In the meantime, MEC subsidiary Portland Terminal jumped right into dieselization with three Alco HH-600s in 1936 and a fourth in 1938. Maine Central's first diesels were a pair of HH-600s delivered in 1939. MEC acquired only three more diesels -- an S-1 and a pair of 44-tonners -- before the War Production Board began limiting new locomotive deliveries in April 1942.
The Maine Central entered into a period of joint management in 1933 with the Boston and Maine Railroad. During that year, the two railroads inaugurated a new airline, Boston - Maine Airways, which offered service between Boston and Bangor. Meantime, the railroad continued its practise of simultaneously acquiring some rail lines while abandoning others. Many of the tourism-oriented routes and services did not survive this period -- by 1938 the railroad had abandoned the short branch which had once brought travelers in hordes to Bar Harbor, and tore down the Mount Kineo House. The SamOset was sold off in 1941.
In 1940, Boston - Maine Airways was sold and eventually became Northeast Airlines. The railroads maintained a controlling interest in Northeast Airlines until the Civil Aeronautics Board ruled that the railroads could not exercise practical control over the airline and forced the MEC to greatly reduce its holdings in the airline in 1943.
After the end of World War II the Maine Central, like most other railroads, stepped up the pace of its dieselization program. The railroad once again began receiving new switchers of various types in early 1945, and took delivery of its very first road diesels - four EMD E7s - in June of 1946. MEC then acquired eight F3A and two F3B units in 1947 and 1948, as well as three more E7s in 1948. In 1950, the railroad started buying GP7s, and within three years amassed a fleet of 20 Geeps (including one Portland Terminal GP7 which was soon transferred to MEC). These Geeps soon became a hallmark of the Maine Central, and although their numbers have dwindled in recent years a few still roll on home rails, albeit with "Springfield Terminal" painted on their flanks.
The last passenger train to operate behind steam power ran in 1954. The maid of honor on that day, MEC #470, was saved from the scrapper with the assistance of a local railroad preservation group and now rests in Waterville. Although the railroad could boast through sleeping car service from Ellsworth to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC in 1957, passenger service on the Pine Tree Route was short-lived. The very last Maine Central passenger trains operated on Labor Day, September 5, 1960. An F3 headed the last Portland-Bangor run, and a GP7 brought the return train back to Portland. Soon after, MEC sold off its big E7s and much of its approximately 50 unit passenger fleet, including a dozen Pullman-Standard streamlined cars which were only thirteen years old.
In 1975 the Maine Central took delivery of 10 "Independence Class" GE U18Bs. These "Baby Boats", each named for a famous person or battle during the American Revolution, soon became perhaps the best known locomotives ever to wear the Pine Tree herald. They also proved to be the last locomotives purchased new by the MEC. The railroad then turned to buying used power, picking up four more GP7s and a group of U25Bs. The very last locomotive acquired by an independent Maine Central was #450, which was acquired from Algoma Central Railway in late 1980. It was MEC's first GP9, and also held the distinction of being the very last GP9 ever built.
In 1980, the Maine Central Railroad was purchased by US Filter Corporation. That company was merged into another corporation that evidently did not want to be in the railroad business. On June 16, 1981, the Maine Central was again sold to Guilford Transportation Industries, a new holding company headed by Timothy Mellon. Mellon's vision was to construct a strong regional system in the Northeast to compete with Conrail, and by 1984 the MEC, Boston and Maine, and Delaware and Hudson railroads were operating run-through trains and consolidating shop facilities, although they technically remained separate railroads. In 1982, the first locomotive to wear a new unified Guilford system livery of orange and gray was rebuilt MEC GP7r #470, which had started life as MEC #564 thirty-two years previously.
As Guilford began to rearrange operating patterns and practices on its railroads, it also sought to rid itself of marginal trackage. This wave of abandonments hit Maine Central especially hard, as over one-third of the pre-Guilford MEC's 800 mile system was disposed of within a four year period. In September 1983, regular operation of the 131-mile Mountain Division ceased when GTI rerouted traffic in favor of the B&M mainline through Massachusetts. The last regular train on the Mountain Division ran on September 2, 1983. Several special moves and work trains operated sporadically on the line until October 1984. Ten years passed until the Conway Scenic Railroad acquired a portion of the line and began running tourist trains there.
The abandonments continued into 1985, when the 56-mile Rockland Branch and 133-mile Calais Branch were both abandoned (pictured at left is the Machias freight house and a 40ft boxcar left behind after the Calais Branch abandonment). The Calais Branch abandonment isolated the line from Calais to the paper mill in Woodland, which was still in service. To preserve service to the mill, operation of the branch was contracted to an obscure B&M subsidiary called the Springfield Terminal Railway. This would prove to be a glimpse of the future of the entire Maine Central.
The early years of Guilford Transportation Industries' control of the MEC were tumultuous, as GTI struggled to modify labor work rules and cut costs. The condition of the railroad declined as the number of trackworkers was reduced through layoffs from 400 to slightly over 100. On March 3, 1986, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Engineers, which represented the MEC's trackworkers, struck Maine Central and Portland Terminal. The strike soon spread to all unions on MEC, and spilled over to sister railroads B&M and D&H as well.
The MEC continued to operate with non-union and management crews, and the sharp reduction in service alienated many shippers and caused a great deal of business to be lost. On May 17, 1986, President Reagan ordered the 3,500 striking employees to return to work. About 2,500 of these employees returned only to be given pink slips by Guilford management and shown the door again due to the severe loss of business inflicted by the strike.
In yet another effort to cut labor costs, on February 1, 1987, 85 miles of the Maine Central's east end were leased to Springfield Terminal in an agreement similar to the lease of the Woodland Branch two years previously. Springfield Terminal had much more liberal work rules, and by leasing the railroad and equipment to ST, MEC employees were forced to work under the new rules, which generally resulted in a big pay cut and elimination of some separate craft distinctions. MEC GP7 #590 appeared from the Waterville paint shop as Springfield Terminal #10, the first MEC locomotive to be transferred to ST. Shortly thereafter, sister GP7s #591 and #592 became ST #11 and #12. Later that year, all of the MEC's switchers and several more GP7s were transferred to ST, and all of the Maine Central itself had been leased. Although the Maine Central Railroad was still very much a corporate entity, it no longer operated trains.
In the years since 1987, what was the Maine Central Railroad has continued to operate under Guilford control as Springfield Terminal Railway's District One. No further major line abandonments have occurred, and the labor unrest and frequent operational changes of the late 1980s have quieted. Today's operations have settled into a fairly regular and predictable pattern. Track maintenance is still below what is needed, and the entire MEC carries speed limits under 40mph, but recent trackwork on parts of the MEC carries promise of more frequent investment in the physical plant. Several Maine Central branchlines which had been abandoned are still in use by shortline railroads, and other lines, most notably the Calais Branch, are being preserved while plans are actively drawn up to restore rail service in the future. Recently, a portion of the former MEC Lower Road through Augusta was restored to service under the auspices of the Maine Coast Railroad, which also operates the former Rockland Branch.
Although the Harvest Yellow and Pine Green paint scheme disappeared from locomotives by the early 1990s, many of Guilford's most recent locomotive acqusitions wear MEC reporting marks, and hordes of Maine Central freight cars can still be found proudly wearing the Pine Tree herald. After nearly 20 years of Guilford control, the Maine Central is still very much alive.
Copyright ©1997 - 2001 Jonathan N. White. All rights reserved.