Heritage Units and Childhood Memories

Posted by Justin Franz
on Thursday, December 07, 2017

Central Maine & Quebec heritage unit No. 9017 at Jackman, Maine. Photo by Justin Franz.
"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." -Thomas Wolfe, 1940

The memories of our childhood are often our most vivid. Almost anyone who reads this blog or subscribes to Trains Magazine likely has some vivid memory of the first time they saw a train or was invited into the cab of a locomotive or walked a station platform. It’s a memory that you can isolate as the moment a lifelong fascination began.

For me, it’s not a single moment but a collection of moments, so many of which feature red, gray and black locomotives with the name “Bangor & Aroostook” written along the side.

The B&A was never my hometown road, but as a kid I frequently joined my Dad on his railfan adventures to places like Oakfield, Millinocket and Searsport. By the 1990s, many railroads were starting to look at camera-toting railfans with a certain level of suspicion, but never on the B&A. Up north the crews would always wave you up to the cab or invite you into the yard office. The tower at Millinocket was always one of my favorites. From the second story office of the yardmaster, you could look out across a yard full of boxcars loaded with paper from the mills getting ready to be added to trains destined to Montreal and points west. Unlike some of the short lines my Dad frequently liked to visit, the B&A always seemed like it was part of a massive system that stretched far beyond the feeble understanding of a 7-year-old; like it was the most important railroad on earth.

As a kid, the B&A seemed everlasting. Soon after I started visiting with my Dad, the red, gray and black locomotives started to appear in new colors: blue, gray and yellow, a retro-throwback to the railroad’s first paint scheme. The B&A was also growing, having been purchased by Iron Road Railways, and combined with the old Canadian Pacific’s lines east of Montreal. Some of my most cherished memories of my adolescence was spent along the former CP’s Moosehead Subdivision, a remote line across the mountains of western Maine connecting Brownville Jct. with Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Back then, in the late-1990s, it was possible to see three or four trains a day, all of them led by freshly painted locomotives.

But as I grew older, my blissful arrogance of reality began to fade. By the early-2000s, the number of boxcars loaded with paper started to dwindle in Millinocket Yard. Northern Maine’s economy was in decline and it didn’t matter how fresh the paint looked, the B&A was in trouble. In 2002, the railroad filed for bankruptcy. Less than a year later, the B&A was a fallen flag.

In its place came the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, the creation of Wisconsin Central veteran Ed Burkhardt. For a brief moment, there was hope that maybe the man who had created a regional powerhouse in the Midwest could do the same in New England. But the cards were stacked against Burkhardt almost immediately; within hours of taking over operations, the railroad’s largest customer, Great Northern Paper, announced it was filing for bankruptcy and shuttering its mills at Millinocket and East Millinocket. The railroad cut wages immediately in a frantic effort to survive. The next 10 years would be one of highs and lows for the MM&A until it filed for bankruptcy in August 2013.

In its place came the Central Maine & Quebec Railway. The railroad was much smaller than it was a decade earlier - MM&A spun off the northern portion of the old B&A to the State of Maine that in turn selected J.D. Irving Limited as the new operator - but it had survived to fight another day. The railroad began operations with a mismatched group of leased locomotives hauling short trains of whatever business they could scramble. But slowly, the number of carloads started to grow and those borrowed locomotives were replaced with a fleet of old CP SD40-2Fs wearing a flashy new paint scheme. An optimism began to emerge from the old B&A that hadn’t been seen since my childhood.

By the time the CMQ began operations, I had moved away from Maine, but I continued to watch the developments from afar - both as an enthusiast and a journalist. Occasionally, I would talk to CMQ officials for stories in this magazine and would hear news I never thought I would hear again: traffic was growing.

Last month, while home for Thanksgiving, I decided to see this for myself. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I got up early and drove north - the same drive I had made countless times with my Dad. By sunrise, I had arrived at the small community of Onawa along the old CP Moosehead Subdivision. I parked the car and hiked through the woods to a swamp and waited as the sun melted the morning frost. Not long after, the silence of the Maine woods was interrupted by a low rumble from the east. The rumble grew louder until three blue and gray CMQ SD40-2Fs burst out of the woods and across a long causeway. The chase was on.

I had so much fun along the Moosehead that first day that on the Saturday after Thanksgiving I went back with my Dad. That day the train featured something extra special: A red, gray and black heritage unit painted in tribute to the Bangor & Aroostook.

I don’t know what the future holds for CMQ - I’m old enough to know now that railroads don’t survive on fuzzy memories and fresh paint - but I do know that thanks to them I was briefly able to relive my childhood. Thanks to them, I was able to look back at the very colors and name that captured my imagination all those years ago.

Thanks to them, the B&A once again seemed everlasting, if only for a moment.

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