The Saint John Valley Heritage Trail is a newer recreational corridor established in 2000 along a section of the old Bangor & Aroostook Railroad in the northern reaches of Maine. For more than a century this system (also referred as the “BAR”) faithfully served its home state, transporting a wide range of freight. It was the only notable railroad to operate lines in Maine’s isolated northern territory, and one of its final major extensions was the route into St. Francis, which is now the trail. Throughout its existence, the BAR relied predominantly on agriculture and timber traffic to sustain itself. By the 1990s, much of this freight was no longer available either because of loss of customers or competition against trucks. Also during the ‘90s the line to St. Francis was abandoned, and in the early 2000s, the Bangor & Aroostook itself disappeared into bankruptcy.
Incredibly, through the late 1880s much of Maine’s northern territory remained isolated from the rest of the state and country. There were no reliable roadways of any kind, and the only rail service available was via the Canadian Pacific, which operated across central Maine connecting Saint John, New Brunswick, with Montreal. In an effort to open up this region, which offered significant timber and featured a climate ideal for growing potatoes, Civil War veteran and businessman Albert Burleigh incorporated the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad Company on February 13, 1891. The new system was chartered to operate a 154-mile main line from Brownville to Caribou, with branches extending to Fort Fairfield and Ashland. It was also granted rights to lease the Bangor & Piscataquis Railroad as well as the Bangor & Katahdin Iron Works Railway, which nearly gave it access into Bangor via Brownsville, with an extension to Greenville. It took trackage rights over the Maine Central to actually reach Bangor.
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By 1896, the Bangor & Aroostook (whose reporting became “BAR” to avoid confusion with the Boston & Albany, which was already known as the “B&A”) had completed its initial charter and immediately became a respectable system of more than 200 miles. Its completion finally opened the Aroostook County region, allowing the potato and timber industries to flourish. The railroad continued to expand into the early 20th century. In 1902, the BAR incorporated a subsidiary known as the Fish River Railroad, which would extend 58 miles from Ashland to Fort Kent, providing the railroad with an additional route through Aroostook County. In 1905, it reached the port of Searsport via a wholly owned subsidiary known as the Northern Maine Seaport Railroad.
What is today part of the Saint John Valley Heritage Trail was known as Bangor & Aroostook’s St. John River Extension. This new rail line began construction in 1909, extending from the railroad’s farthest northern point at Van Buren to Fort Kent (linking here with its Fish River Railroad line) and St. Francis, following the St. John River the entire way. Completed in 1910, it encompassed 61.4 miles. The new line offered more agricultural, paper, and timber traffic for the BAR. Additionally, Van Buren became an important connection with the Canadian National when an international bridge was completed over the river to St. Leonard, New Brunswick, in 1915, allowing more timber traffic to flow over its lines. The project also proved to be one of the BAR’s final major extensions, giving it an over system of around 858 miles.
The railroad’s interchanges with other notable railroads included the Canadian Pacific, Canadian National, and Maine Central. The Maine Central in particular was very important since it was the BAR’s only American connection to the outside world. The railroad weathered the Great Depression relatively well compared with the industry in general and was quick to embrace the diesel locomotive after testing in July 1946 greatly impressed company executives. It purchased its first diesel locomotive in 1947, and by June 1951, steam made its last run on the railroad. The 1950s witnessed the BAR attempting to further develop its lucrative potato business while eliminating modest, but unprofitable, passenger services. In 1950, it ordered a fleet of 500 insulated boxcars to ship potatoes and keep them fresh in transit. They earned near celebrity status thanks to their bold paint scheme of red, white, and blue with “State of Maine Products” proudly displayed on their sides. In September 1961, the “Potatoland Special” made its final run.
The 1960s turned out to be a rough 10 years for the Bangor & Aroostook. After the formation of Penn Central in 1968, service along its system became so bad that the massive railroad was losing entire trains, something which the BAR witnessed firsthand. The railroad depended on the PC to get its potatoes to market. During the winter of 1969, an entire season’s crop was lost when hundreds of carloads sat at Penn Central’s Selkirk Yard near Albany, New York, and froze or rotted. This bankrupted many of Maine’s farmers because they could not get restitution from Penn Central after it declared bankruptcy a year later. As a result, remaining farmers not surprisingly elected to discontinue shipping their product by rail. Potatoes had been big business for the Bangor & Aroostook and it never truly recovered from the loss. In 1969, with the railroad on unstable ground financially, it was sold to the Amoskeag Corporation.
During the 1990s, the line was sold twice more before Iron Road Railways acquired it in 1995. In 1996, they were granted permission by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to abandon 16 miles of the St. John River Extension from Fort Kent to St. Francis, now the Saint John Valley Heritage Trail. In 2003, the Bangor & Aroostook disappeared itself when it filed for bankruptcy, and much of its remaining system was sold to other parties.
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.