A Brief History
The Aroostook Valley Railroad (AVR) was a small short line located in the remote northern region of Maine, and the Aroostook Valley Trail is named for this former railroad, which uses virtually its entire right-of-way. The AVR operated for nearly a century, serving the small communities of Presque Isle, Washburn, Caribou, and New Sweden and was envisioned as an interurban—small electrified systems designed to transport local passengers over short distances. However, the company became quite successful as a freight hauler moving timber and related traffic, surviving for decades after most others like it had failed. Over the years, the railroad was cut back from its peak size of 33 miles, although it remained in service until the 1990s, when there was no longer enough freight to support the short line.
The Aroostook Valley Railroad was the dream of U.S. Senator Arthur Gould, who owned a sawmill in Presque Isle and needed a railroad to transport logs to the facility. On July 1, 1902, the Maine Railroad Commission granted his request for incorporation to construct a line from Presque Isle to Washburn and Washburn Junction, the latter offering a connection with the Canadian Pacific. Gould chartered his system as an electrified interurban, although it was always intended to transport freight. Interestingly, as George W. Hilton and John F. Due state in their book The Electric Interurban Railways in America, this move was made in an effort to sidestep state law at the time, which protected the Bangor & Aroostook (BAR) as the only standard railroad allowed to operate in Aroostook County. As it turns out, the BAR really did see the tiny AVR as a primary competitor but would eventually establish an interchange with the interurban at Washburn.
The AVR opened for service on July 1, 1910, operating on about 11 miles of track. However, it continued to grow the following year by constructing an additional 11 miles northward to New Sweden. A year later, they added another 7 miles east to Caribou. The interurban was laid with 70-pound rail and used a 1,200 volt, direct-current system; its primary substation was located at Munson Hill, 5 miles north of Presque Isle. The AVR’s initial source of freight began with the movement of lumber and logs, although it was not long until agriculture became an important source of traffic, particularly potatoes. It also transported a wide range of other commodities, ranging from grain and flour to fertilizer, coal, and heating oil. During the electrified era, the Aroostook Valley relied on a pair of steeple-cab locomotives built by General Electric and Westinghouse to move freight along, with a box motor from the J.G. Brill Company.
Its passenger services were always modest, and the AVR did not need more than a handful of cars to handle demand. According to The Electric Interurban Railways in America, four round trips daily did the job most of the time. In the 1920s, passenger traffic began to decline, and, as a result, it was during this decade that most interurbans began to disappear. With the AVR’s strong freight business, it was able to weather this loss and the subsequent Great Depression without falling into receivership. World War II saw another jump in freight traffic when the small airport at Presque Isle was converted for military use. The interurban built a 2.5-mile branch to reach the location and moved significant freight over the short spur during the conflict, continuing to serve the airport for several years after the war.
In 1931, Gould sold his interest in the Aroostook Valley to the Canadian Pacific. Electrified operations ceased during summer 1945; in July, a pair of new GE 44-ton diesel switchers was purchased to move freight, and remaining passenger services ended a month later. In the early 1970s, the railroad lost most of its once-lucrative potato traffic, the result of Penn Central’s horrendous service conditions that caused an entire season’s crop to rot in transit at Selkirk Yard in New York during winter 1969. This incident forced many of Maine’s farmers into bankruptcy, and those that remained were no longer interested in moving their product by rail. In 1983, the AVR’s system north of Washburn was abandoned. Flooding in April 1987 washed away the Canadian Pacific’s bridge over the St. John River at Perth-Andover, New Brunswick, severing the interchange at Washburn Junction. At this time, the railroad was still operating about 12 miles of its original system and was serving a handful of customers based in agriculture, paper, fertilizer, plywood, and animal feed.
The railroad also relied on incentive per-diem boxcars as a source of revenue, whereby cars were leased to other railroads and the Aroostook Valley was paid a small fee. According to the May 9, 1989, edition of the Bangor Daily News, the AVR had 320 boxcars used in such a manner. Then-president, Thomas Bamford, stated the company could not survive without this per-diem revenue. By the 1990s, the AVR’s freight constituted less than 1,000 annual carloads; lack of traffic forced it to cease operations by 1996.
Nearby railroad attractions 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.Do you have Historical Photos of the Aroostook Valley Trail?
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