Sometimes good things do come in small packages

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Monday, July 22, 2019

The former Grand Trunk Railway depot in Gilead, Maine, sits back from the Saint Lawrence & Atlantic tracks.
When you explore, you just never know what you might find. Case in point: The tiny former Grand Trunk Railway depot in Gilead, Maine, a speck of a town on the New Hampshire border.

After a Fourth of July bike ride I was wolfing down a sandwich in the shade in front of the depot when a car pulled up. The driver asked if we were interested in seeing inside the station.

Of course, I told the gentleman, noting that we’d passed by many times and I’d always been curious about the depot, which sits back from what’s now Genesee & Wyoming’s Saint Lawrence & Atlantic.

Waiting inside the depot, which has been lovingly restored by the town historical society, was a much richer history than I had expected.

For starters, the depot has an unusual past. Built by the Atlantic and Saint Lawrence Railroad in 1851, the station was supplanted by a larger depot in 1893. It then was relegated to use as the baggage house, and later became home to the track department section and their tool house. The railroad planned to raze the building in 1991, but Ford Reiche of rail shipper Safe Handling Inc. saved the depot and moved it to Auburn, Maine. The building was cut in half, placed on flatcars and delivered to Auburn, where it was used as an office. Now here comes the unusual part: Safe Handling outgrew station, donated it to the town, and brought it back home in 2011. How many depots can you name that have been moved twice?

Wild River No. 1, a Lima Locomotive Works Shay, met an untimely end in the Maine woods near Gilead in 1899. The logging railroad would follow the Shay into oblivion a few years later.
Inside the depot, photos and lumberjack artifacts document the history of the area’s long-gone logging railroads. The 20-mile Wild River Railway followed the valley of its namesake river and tributaries and connected with the Grand Trunk’s Portland-Montreal main in Gilead. One of the photos shows the aftermath of an April 1899 boiler explosion of Wild River No. 1, a Lima-built Shay. Five grim-faced men stand behind the locomotive’s mangled frame, with the signature balloon stack and bell sitting amid the debris. The logging railroad was dismantled a few years later, after a fire claimed the unharvested timber in what’s now part of the White Mountain National Forest.

The Gilead depot was a favorite stop for a Maine fellow by the name of Leon Leonwood Bean. Long before he designed his signature hunting boot and began selling it by mail order, a 13-year-old L.L. Bean made his first visit to the area by train in 1885. He returned annually for several years to a hunting camp up the Wild River valley. A photo in the depot shows Bean and two others posing with their haul from a successful 1944 deer-hunting expedition.

Today passenger service is long gone and the Saint Lawrence & Atlantic is a nocturnal railroad, a point driven home by the stunning Gary Knapp nighttime photos of a quartet of orange-and-black G&W Geeps crossing the Wild River bridge just west of the Gilead depot. The Gilead Historical Society is selling the prints as a fund-raiser to support ongoing restoration efforts at the depot, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Also among the items for sale: Placemats of the Wild River locomotives, including the ill-fated No. 1.

Our encounter at Gilead served as a reminder that sometimes you can find unexpected things well off the beaten path.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @bybillstephens

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