The Portland Phoenix

Letter from Aroostook: Finding ghosts

The Ghost Train of the Allagash connects Maine to its timber-harvesting past. (Courtesy Janet Marie G. Cyr)

Ever since we moved to The County almost 15 years ago, I have had my eye set on making a jaunt out into the North Woods to see the Ghost Train at the north end of Chamberlain Lake. 

We’ve camped the area south of it, explored the backwoods road that leads to it, but never actually made it there. But those who have say it is an experience everyone should have. 

This was to be the fall to make the trek out into the woods to see the two steam locomotives, abandoned but not forgotten in the Allagash – itself, likely one of the wildest parts of the state. It’s a hard run over dirt roads and a considerable amount of hiking, but the two trains provide a peek into a time long past when men and steam engines moved millions of board feet of lumber during the heyday of timber harvesting in the northern part of the state.  

Although they are technically in Piscataquis County, Aroostook holds the trains close to its heart because of the long history of timber harvesting in The County. The steam locomotives are what is left of a 13-mile railroad that ran from Eagle Lake to Umbazooksus Lake, connecting to the West Branch of the Penobscot River via Chesuncook Lake, where cut timber could be floated downstream.

By the 1960s the railway had been long abandoned, and the trains, too heavy to be moved, were left there, victims of weathering, theft, and vandalism. But in 1969 the Maine Parks and Recreation Commission painted the engines to slow the rusting, and since then the Allagash Alliance stabilized the engines and continue to maintain the locomotives as a critical part of the area’s history.  

It is a trip to be made, even by snowmobile, offering a new adventure for snow sledders. The country is wild and desolate, but accessible, and offers views of some of Maine’s most beautiful backcountry, Mount Katahdin, and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Wildlife sightings including bald eagles, deer, and moose are common, but anyone making a winter trip in should understand snow is deep, and temperatures are cold.  

Janet Marie G. Cyr, a born and bred County gal, made the trek in during late fall from Madawaska, on the Canadian border, and said it was a four-hour drive but well worth it. In late summer, hubby and I made it about halfway and decided we needed two full days out and back.

Now my long-held dream of seeing the trains is again on hold, largely because we’ve already seen snow and we don’t snowmobile. But that shouldn’t stop braver souls. 

For those coming up from the south on snowmobiles, the trip, often started at Millinocket,  easily takes a full day out and back, so it’s often wise to plan a two-day trip, staying overnight at one of the numerous camps and lodges, open in the winter throughout the area, and easily found at North Maine Woods in Ashland, which provides a wealth of information, including maps, directions, and regulations for the area. 

For me, it will be another year before I get to see the locomotives, and I’ll likely plan two days, maybe even three, just enjoying the wild and the history that marks the vast woodlands of Northern Maine.

Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former reporter for The Forecaster. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.

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