The state of Maine has a rich heritage with railroads thanks to its thick forests and fertile soils, which created the need to move timber and agricultural products. What is today the Kennebec Valley Trail is situated on a former railroad corridor that once handled significant timber traffic from the time it was constructed in the early 1870s until most of the rail was removed about a century later. Throughout of the 20th century, the route was owned by one of the state’s largest and best remembered systems—the Maine Central—where it was an important branch on that railroad for many years. The result of more stringent environmental regulations during the 1970s and a declining customer base caused freight tonnage to drop sharply. As a result, the northern section of line, including what now is the trail, was abandoned later that decade.
The history of this right-of-way begins in 1860 with the chartering of the Somerset Railroad, which had dreams of pushing rails into Quebec via southern Maine. It took a number of years to secure enough funding to begin actual construction, but by 1873, service from West Waterville (a nearby connection with what became the Maine Central was soon opened via Oakland) to Norridgewock (about 13 miles) had been established. Two years later, roughly 8 additional miles of railroad had been laid to Madison, and by 1877, it had reached North Anson, giving the Somerset a total of 21.3 miles on a gauge of 5 feet, 6 inches. Unfortunately, financial troubles struck the company in 1879 when it defaulted on its loans and was reorganized as the Somerset Railway in 1884. Shortly thereafter, it was standard gauged (4 feet, 8 ½ inches). Within five years, the Somerset continued its march northward, reaching Solon in 1889 and Bingham by 1890, 41 miles from West Waterville.
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After nearly a 15-year hiatus, construction continued north of Bingham in 1904, thanks to additional sources of funding. In 1906, the line had reached Moosehead Lake via Moxie Lake and other small hamlets, such as Deadwater, Rockwood, and Skinner. In all, the Somerset Railway boasted a system stretching 91.5 miles between Oakland/West Waterville and Moosehead Lake, although the latter would prove to be its farthest northern reach. Virtually the entire line skirted the banks of the Kennebec River. In 1911, the Somerset Railway was acquired by the Maine Central and became known as its Somerset Branch (a.k.a., the Kineo Branch). The Maine Central (MEC) operated a system spanning several hundred miles throughout the southern half of the state, connecting such cities as Bangor, Portland, and Vanceboro, as well as reaching into New Hampshire and Vermont. While it did host a small fleet of named passenger trains, nearly all of these served the southern coast with connections to Boston and New York.
Its freight traffic lay primarily in the form of paper, timber, lumber, and agriculture. The Somerset Branch became an important source of all four; at Madison there was a paper mill, while sawmills were located at Deadwater, Bingham, and Lake Moxie. During peak logging years, the mills at and north of Bingham were producing more than one million board feet of lumber annually. Perhaps Solon offered the most diverse source of traffic; here there was a pulp mill as well as a potato house and corn cannery. Soon after the line opened to Moosehead Lake, a large resort hotel was built at the site known as the Mount Kineo House. During summer, the branch carried thousands of passengers to reach this vacation destination. The extension to the lake, however, survived only until the early 1930s, in part due to the downturn caused by the Great Depression.
The entire line north of Bingham was abandoned in 1933, which also eliminated an interchange connection with the Canadian Pacific at Somerset Junction located a few miles south of the lake. After this time, the Somerset Branch relied solely on its freight traffic (several thousand carloads annually). By the 1970s, few customers remained, and new environmental regulations during the decade ended the practice of log driving on the Kennebec River, resulting in a loss of additional freight business on the branch. The largest customers still being serviced by the Maine Central at the time was a paper mill in Madison and a lumber mill in Bingham.
With no considerable forms of traffic available north of Madison, once the mill at Bingham closed, service on the line north of this location was suspended in 1978; a year later the rails were removed. Today, about 21.3 miles of the original Somerset Railway between Oakland/West Waterville and North Anson are still in place and operated by Pan Am Railways, successor to the Maine Central.
Railroad attractions near the Kennebec Valley Trail include the Boothbay Railway Village in Boothbay; Downeast Scenic Railroad in Ellsworth; Maine Eastern Railroad in Rockland; Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum in Portland; Oakfield Railroad Museum in Oakfield; Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes Railroad in Phillips; Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport; and the little Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway in Alna.