An appointment with No. 9

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, January 8, 2019

WW&F No. 9 runs around its train near Alna, Maine on Dec. 29, 2018. Photo by Justin Franz.
Even though my marriage is just six months old, I’ve learned a few things to help keep both parties happy. One of them is not subjecting my wife to too much time trackside. That’s not to say she will protest an unplanned stop when we happen to see a train on a scenic Sunday drive, but I recognize that railroad photography is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. In fact, one of those instances arose a few weeks back when we were home for the holidays. I was scrolling through Facebook one evening when a post from the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum caught my eye.

“Hello Friends!” the message read. “We will be running steam trains this Saturday.”

From the onset of our weeklong trip to Maine, I had no intentions of doing any railfanning; there were just too many people we had to see and I wasn’t going to leave my wife with her in-laws for a day while I went down to the tracks. But the news that the WW&F would be running their recently-restored 0-4-4T on a snowy December day quickly altered those original intentions.

“What do you think about taking a train ride tomorrow?” I asked.

Any other steam locomotive and I may have never even asked the question. But WW&F No. 9 isn’t just any other steam locomotive; it’s the only surviving locomotive from three of Maine’s iconic two-foot gauge railroads.

WW&F No. 9 at Alna, Maine in 1995 just a few months after returning to the Pine Tree State. Photo by Justin Franz.
No. 9 was built in May 1891 by the Portland Company for the Sandy River Railroad, one of the routes that would eventually form the core of the state’s most recognizable narrow gauge pike, the Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes. Mainers have always been frugal and in the late 1800s, a two-foot gauge railroad was a cost-effective way of expanding transportation into the remote corners of the state. From 1879 until 1943, five different two-foot gauge railroads ran in the Pine Tree State.

The locomotive — first known as Sandy River No. 5 and later SR&RL No. 6 — had an eventful career in Franklin County, including numerous run-ins with disaster, including a roundhouse fire back in 1923.

In the 1920s, the locomotive was sent to the tiniest of two footers, the Kennebec Central. The KCRR was just 5 miles long and connected Randolph with Togus, home to the first American veterans facility. On the KCRR, No. 6 became No. 4 and spent the next few years moving coal and soldiers back-and-forth until the automobile made the tiny pike obsolete. No. 4 was parked with an uncertain future in June 1929.

But its fortunes would change a few years later after a government inspector condemned all five steam locomotives on the nearby WW&F. Instead of spending the money to repair the locomotives, the WW&F’s ingenious owner purchased the entire KCRR and scrapped everything but the two steam locomotives. No. 4 was trucked down to Wiscasett in January 1933 where it was repainted and given the number 9. The 18-ton locomotive ran on the WW&F — by then given the nickname the Weak, Weary & Feeble Railway, according to historian and author Linwood Moody — for just five months when a cracked frame sidelined it. A month later, the WW&F called it quits.

WW&F No. 9 running on compressed air in 1997. Photo by Justin Franz.
It looked like the end had finally arrived for No. 9, or so they thought. In 1936, two railroad enthusiasts, William Moneypenny and Frank Ramsdell, purchased the locomotive and moved it to a farm in Connecticut. The two men had big dreams of having their own backyard railroad, but like so many similar efforts, it never came to fruition. While four other surviving two-foot gauge locomotives (two from the Monson Railroad and two from the Bridgton & Harrison) ended up at the Edaville Railroad in Massachusetts, No. 9 sat in obscurity. Offers to purchase the locomotive were always rejected and it almost never ventured outside, save for one weekend in 1974 when railfans helped rebuild the track underneath the locomotive in return for a few photos of it in the sun. Those efforts were chronicled in a 1983 articled called “An appointment with No. 6.”

Harry Percival, founder of the WW&F Railway Museum, also frequently made the drive to Connecticut to help maintain No. 9 and other railroad equipment, which by then was under the care of Ramsdell’s daughter Alice. In the early 1990s, Percival purchased a WW&F flatcar from Alice and moved it back to Alna for restoration. When Alice passed away in 1994, the family reached out to Percival and the museum about bringing No. 9 back home to Maine. Things moved quickly and in February 1995, nearly 60 years after it had left Maine, locomotive No. 9 was loaded onto a flatbed truck and headed north. The boomer of Maine’s two-foot gauge railroads was finally home.

I first saw No. 9 a few months after the locomotive arrived in Alna. At the time, the locomotive looked more like a scrapyard survivor than a museum piece, but Percival was none-the-less excited to show the locomotive off. He even cracked open the smokebox door so an 8-year-old railfan and his dad could see what the inside looked like. The folks in Alna quickly got to work on a cosmetic restoration and within a few years were even able to run the locomotive with an air compressor.

WW&F No. 9 under restoration in 2015. Photo by Justin Franz.
The next time, I remember seeing (and photographing) No. 9 was in 2015. The rusting hulk I had seen 20 years earlier was now just weeks away from being fired up. The broken headlight I seen back in 1995 had been fixed and was sitting atop a brand new boiler. In December 2015, just a few days before Christmas, No. 9 was fired up and run under its own power for the first time since that cracked frame sidelined it back in 1933.

Three years after the restoration, I was finally able to see it for myself. As we pulled up to the museum a few weeks ago, steam wafted through the cold air as the crew readied No. 9. A few minutes after we arrived, No. 9 whistled off and slowly rolled through the yard to fetch a coach from the car barn for the day’s run. After buying our tickets, we climbed aboard and within a few minutes we were heading north. While my wife looked through the frosted windows at the passing countryside, I was fixated on the sounds of No. 9 as it roared through the woods. Every once-in-awhile the scent of coal smoke would drift into the car. 

WW&F No.9's builders plate. Photo by Justin Franz.
At the other end of the line, I asked the conductor if I could hop off to grab a few photos of the locomotive running around the train and so that I could see the locomotive in action for myself. Twenty-three years after it came home to Maine, locomotive No. 9 was steaming through the woods on a cold, but clear winter day just like it did more than a century ago. It was hard to believe that this was the same locomotive that I saw as an 8-year-old kid. But considering what else the folks at the WW&F Railway Museum have done, it’s not surprising at all.

Back in 1995, there was just a few hundred feet of main line, a small flag stop depot, half a shop building and a rusty old steam locomotive. Now, in 2019, there’s 2.6 miles of main line, two steam locomotives, a shop, a turntable, multiple stations, a water tower, a carbarn, and numerous freight and passenger cars. The WW&F is, in my mind, one of the most complete historic railways in the United States, on par with places like the Nevada Northern and Cumbres & Toltec Scenic.

And the little locomotive that once sat forgotten in a barn in Connecticut is the star of it all.

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