Is there a future for the Narrow Gauge in Bridgton?

By Mike Corrigan
Special to The News

One morning in 1922, a small boy stood on the berm above Sandy Creek, shifting foot to foot, waiting for the little steam train to pour on past, so that he could wave at the engineer.

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When the Maine Narrow Gauge & Railroad Museum sent out requests for proposals to move its operations from Portland to another Maine town, there were 75 expressions of interest. But only three RFPs were received before the December deadline; Bridgton’s proposal came in three months afterwards, to put four municipalities in the hunt.

None of the proposals, including Bridgton’s, offer any financial incentives, beyond “staff support.” The nonprofit museum is thinking of leaving its current location behind because its Fore Street digs are expensive to rent; the MNGRR&M operates a museum and carries 25,000 visitors on train rides on 1.5 miles of track near the Portland waterfront.

Proposals were received from:

Portland, which likes its little train. But the narrow gauge home is basically offering the current deal, which boils down mostly to track use and permitting.

Monson, which once had its own narrow gauge train. There are a couple of sheds and offices still standing. A community room is offered, and some track right-of-way should be available.

Gray would like to reinvent its section of the old Portland-Lewiston Interurban Railway, proffering a couple of miles of right-of-way and space in a local mall.

Bridgton, which would permit a museum and train HQ at the old rail yard site at the turn of Depot Street, has a 4.5-acre parcel, which would have to be taken over from SAD 61. (This has long been the town’s plan, though there are several ideas forwarded for the use of the iconic property.) Right-of-way behind the school to the Chamber office, at least, could be used for a short train experience. Historical integration with downtown tours and facilities could be easily worked out, according to the RFP, which keeps referring to the narrow gauge line’s “Actual Historic Location.” Most of the equipment owned by the nonprofit group comes from Bridgton, also, which was sold in 1941 and quickly moved, lock, stock and barrel, to the cranberry bogs of eastern Massachusetts, where it stayed for 50 more years, before coming to Portland almost 20 years ago.

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All through those evermore-endless minutes, the lad knew he had to relieve himself, but he opted to stand right there for his daily interaction with the larger world of industry and romance and far-off places, such as Brownfield Junction. He waited, he waved, he wet his pants — not exactly veni, vidi, vici, but a good family story nonetheless. Later, he admitted to his mother, “I made the wrong decision.”

Bridgton made two fateful decisions regarding railroads.

One was starting up a narrow gauge line at all; the trains were a long time coming, and there were any number of proposals for alternate routes; there were intrigues, screaming matches, cracker-barrel discussions and back-room deals aplenty before the town at an 1882 town meeting voted to purchase $36,000 of railroad stock. The first cars arrived at Bridgton Depot in January of 1883. The total cost of the line had come to just under $200,000.

At a 1941 town meeting, the second fateful decision was made, to unload the line, lock, stock and barrel. The 1920s and 30s, and highways and cars, and the Great Depression did the Bridgton & Saco River in. While rail fans now say the line never should have been sold, few believed then that America would become the Land of Leisure Time, and Maine truly Vacationland. The decision to unload was made in the interests of practicality and Yankee common sense.

However wise or un-, that decision had the practical effect of preserving the equipment. For decades, the miniature train ran on its two-foot tracks on the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts. My friend, Elaine Rioux, remembers riding on those tours in the days when her hair was yellower. The Christmas tours were particularly memorable. But the owner, Ellis Atwood, used the trains mainly for moving equipment and product through the cranberry fields. Hauling freight, in fact, was the line’s original rationale, and sustaining purpose. But eventually, the hard-working Bridgton & Saco became the hardly-working Bridgton & Harrison. After that, it became historical, and Atwood took over.

Many remember riding the narrow rails past the stations at Rankin’s Mills, Twin Lake and West Sebago, however. “The Dinky” was my friend Betsy Moriarty’s introduction to the Lake Region in the Thirties, as she traveled each June to her mother’s camp, Accomac, on Peabody Pond. The campers hung out the windows, the brush and little rivers drifted past, and it was a neat little ride. But there was smoke, too, and sometimes cinders would just about have some kid fully-involved before the conductor arrived to put him out. That little train wasn’t a toy. The narrow gauge line was part of Maine’s industrial, economic and social past. And for 50 years, that's where it stayed: in the past.

At least, that’s where it stayed until 1993, when the nonprofit Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Company and Museum bought the cars back from the Edaville Railroad. The museum is housed in an old manufacturing plant on Fore Street. If you want to ride the little trains, you can, on weekends in the spring, and on some weekdays when summer arrives. But rent is high there, and the nonprofit has hundreds of pieces of equipment and a lovely museum to market; last year, the MNGRR&M began looking for a new home. Bridgton, Monson, Gray and Portland submitted proposals. Nobody offered financial inducements, though all the towns mentioned “staff support.” Monson, Gray and Bridgton also offered land and room space or leases. Bridgton’s proposal focuses on 4.2 acres at Bridgton Memorial School — the former railyard. There is an adjunct plan for downtown tours and contingent attractions, and offers to allow the museum to build replica ancillary buildings. The funding would be up to the nonprofit.

Though narrow gauge officials were supposed to meet Tuesday afternoon at the site in Bridgton, negotiations have moved slowly. Rail fan Bill Shelley, executive director of the local nonprofit, Return of the Rails, is circulating a petition that would move Bridgton off the dime in negotiating with the museum and working railroad group. Return of the rails has already arranged for display cars in Bridgton, and has set up its own nonprofit, with the mission of “bringing the trains,” as Shelley says, “back where they belong.”

Back to Bridgton?

Should the museum and working train come to Bridgton, operating out of the old site, will we see shadowy figures moving from cornfields to ghostly trestles? A build-it-and-they-will-come scenario?

Well, it’s more mundane than all of that. Today’s is a bottom-line world, after all. Still, romance can be good business. Romance-that’s-good-business often offers a connection to the long-gone past, which, after all, was always glorious, at least in retrospect. Many rail fans are rail fans because the world where the old trains ran has vanished almost completely, and they loved that world, and loved being young in it: looking at old schedules and collecting dinged signal lanterns and restoring steam engines and booming down the track on a two-footer, these are ways of returning to a past that remains important to people.

Then there are the younger generations, who may have listened to a former trainman’s glory-days stories, or had a grandfather who was a brakeman on the old B&O. From these shards of second-hand memory, they have built a sort of false-front, Our Town, ice cream parlor version of the past that is no less vital to their image of the world — and trains are a visible and powerful symbol of the world they think America used to be. They imagine Dharma Bums. By the alchemy of memory, they conjure lonesome freights howling through the million miles of American night. It all seems more full of the promise of life than anything that contemporary America can offer. And so they bring their kids to museums, and take them on train rides behind Little Engines That Still Can. (One of those engines soon may be be old Bridgton 7, a 1913 Baldwin, now being restored by the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad volunteers.)

And then there are people who know that railroads, like the rest of industrial America, offered a difficult life, but an honest living, and rumbled along as the very beating heart of the American Dream. The Bridgton & Saco River was one such line, helping to pull Bridgton into the modern world. In this category are many of the rail fans. And they travel station-to-station across America; a new Bridgton Depot might fit right into their itineraries, geographically located between the working tourist trains in Portland and North Conway. Portland’s working train, running along a 1.5-mile track along the inner harbor, provided 25,000 rides last year.

In Portland, while prized, the narrow gauge museum and train would be listed behind the cruise ships and the Old Port and Portland Head Light and the shopping opportunities. In Bridgton, wouldn’t a high-quality museum and working trains on Depot Street, also visible from Route 302, be an attraction listed right up there with the lakes themselves?

And, oh yes — that little boy by the train track, lingering too long on that sunny morning so that he could wave at the train? He is no romantic stereotype out of the past. That boy was Donald K. Saunders, my late uncle, who was born nearly a century ago now, right there by the train tracks and the mill in Sandy Creek.

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What does the petition for the narrow gauge railroad’s return to Bridgton actually say?

“1. Do you support the Town Selectmen accepting title to the 4.5 acre parcel of land where the Bridgton Memorial School is located, when and if the current owner of said property, SAD 61, offers it to the town?”

“2. Upon acceptance by the Town of Bridgton selectmen of the 4.5 acre parcel of land where the Bridgton Memorial School is now located, do you support the Town Selectmen entering into good faith negotiations with the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum to relocate the Maine Narrow Gauge and Museum operation to said parcel in the Town of Bridgton?”

To be assured of an appearance on the town warrant in June, the petition needs just over 200 valid signatures. Signatures must be collected by this Saturday, to be presented in time to beat the deadline (45 days before annual town meeting). There are petitions at Landmark Inn, 207realty.com, Macdonald Motors and Chris McDaniel’s garage.

Bill Shelley, the local old-time rail buff who has brought display equipment back to the Chamber and done other local rails projects, is leading the petition drive. He said last week, “The only reason we’re going this route is to assure that Bridgton has its chance to get the railroad equipment, that started out here 127 years ago, back into town. This is our opportunity, and the door won’t be open forever. Do we want to make Bridgton a destination point, or just another town people pass through on the way to somewhere else?”

Shelley will be at the Chamber of Commerce this Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1 from 10 a.m. to noon to answer questions regarding the petition.

Shelley said the most common objection he’s heard to the idea is that it might cost Bridgton money, in tight times. The only local expenses would be “in-kind” staff support. The money to do the Bridgton project would come from the nonprofit museum group, through grants, revenues, fundraisers, etc. The Portland-based group is looking for a new home.

“Every time they had a charette they had on what to do with Depot Street, a lot of local people mentioned that they’d like to see the railroad back here, if possible,” Shelley said last Friday. “Well, this is our chance — and we may not get another one.”

Town officials were scheduled to meet with narrow gauge museum officials at the Depot Street site this past Tuesday afternoon.

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