Business and Labor

The Ghost Locomotives of the Great Maine Wilderness

ghost-locomotives

Deep in the heart of Maine’s Allagash region sit two ghost locomotives silently rusting in the wilderness. The hulking machines are miles from any road or railhead, visible to only a few intrepid canoers, hikers and snowmobilers.

The ghost locomotives were the work of the last of the great independent loggers, a Quebecois called King Ed Lacroix.

Lacroix built a 13-mile railroad in the middle of the Allagash -- some would call it nowhere -- to haul pulpwood to Maine paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket.

One of the ghost locomotives

One of the ghost locomotives

When the locomotives cooled down for the last time in 1933, they were simply left in the woods. "Allagash canoodlers stop and stare in disbelief at the ninety-ton locomotive, still standing there, way to hell and gone off in the woods, and wonder what kind of men brought it there, and why," wrote Robert Pike in Tall Trees, Tough Men.

King Ed Lacroix

King Ed Lacroix

King Ed Lacroix

Edouard Lacroix would go wherever he thought he could make a buck cutting down trees.

At one time he employed more than 3,000 workers -- clerks, scalers and lumbermen -- mostly French-Canadian. And unlike some other logging barons he had a reputation for honesty, fairness and hard work. He paid his men decent wages and gave them modern equipment, comfortable living quarters and hearty meals.

King Ed often worked for the Great Northern Paper Co., which owned the world’s largest paper mill in East Millinocket, Maine. The mill produced a stupendous amount of newsprint, 300 tons a day, enough for nearly every newspaper in the United States. (It’s now shut down.)

In 1925, Lacroix made a deal with the Great Northern Paper Co. to deliver 125,000 cords of pulp per year from the Allagash to feed the giant Millinocket mills. Lacroix was undaunted by the prospect of moving mountains of pulpwood from a wilderness miles from civilization.

The Allagash posed a further complication: It was in the watershed of the Saint John River in New Brunswick. The mills sat on the banks of the Penobscot.

The East Millinocket mill

The East Millinocket mill

To solve the problem, the logging industry had managed to dam two lakes, Eagle and Chamberlain, so they drained into the Penobscot and not the Saint John. But the dam between the two lakes blocked logs floating to the Penobscot.

For a while, oxen hauled lumber from Eagle Lake to Chamberlain Lake. Then in 1902 a tramway was built to carry logs. It was said the lumbermen kept their boardinghouses heated all winter by burning the ox yokes.

Remnants of the tramway still survive in Maine’s Tramway Historic District, which is part of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

The Tramway was an elevated track along that moved cars filled with logs. A steam-driven cable moved them from Eagle Lake to Chamberlain Lake 3000 feet on the upper track, then returned the cars on the lower track. Click here and scroll down for a diagram of how it worked. It functioned well from 1902 to 1907, when the Lombard Steam Log Hauler made it obsolete.

Ghost Locomotives

Tramway remnants

Tramway remnants

When King Ed LaCroix got the contract from the Great Northern in 1926, he decided to build a 13-mile long logging railroad from the eastern end of the old Tramway to Umbazooksus Lake, which connects to the Penobscot River.

He assembled his men and supplies in Lac-Frontiere, Quebec, and in Greenville Maine. He moved 60 railcars, a 1500-foot steel trestle a 72-ton and a 90-ton steam locomotive on giant sleds over icy logging roads and frozen lakes to Eagle Lake. He built three 225-foot-long conveyors that picked the pulpwood out of the lake and onto the cars. Each conveyor could move a cord of wood from the water to the railcar in 90 seconds; a 32-foot-long railcar could be filled with pulpwood in 18 minutes.

To power the locomotives, barrels of oil were floated by scow across Umbazooksus Lake.

King Lacroix never got to run the Eagle Lake and West Branch Railroad. The Great Northern Co. bought him out in 1927. The railroad worked well, hauling 6,500 cords of pulpwood a week. (To see a video of a ride on the Eagle Lake & West Branch RR in 1966, click here.)

By 1933 the Great Depression had depressed demand for newsprint, so the Great Northern abandoned the Allagash, the railroad, the rolling stock and the ghost locomotives.

By the time demand for paper picked up, it was more efficient to use trucks to haul logs.

Aftermath

The ghost locomotives sat in a train shed for years until the Maine Forest Service mistakenly burned it down. The state, along with volunteers, shored up the ground underneath the locomotives and painted them to prevent further rusting.

The Allagash wilderness today is a remote and scenic with a 92-mile waterway protected by the State of Maine. National Geographic calls canoeing down the Allagash one of the 50 best adventure trips in the United States.

King Ed Lacroix was elected to Canada’s legislative assembly, leaving politics in 1945. His grandsons, Robert and Marcel Dutil, are successful Canadian businessmen.

During his heyday as a logging baron, one of King Ed’s employees – a log scaler -- wrote a poem about him.

The Man of the Hour

These lines are composed by a scaler, it seems,
Who is scaling the pulp wood at Thoroughfare Stream,
Where the young and the old and the low and the high
Are singing the praises of Edouard Lacroix.

He sure is some hustler to corral all these means
In order to purchase such costly machines;
His mountains of pulp are a wonderful sight,
And tractors are humming by day and by night.

Photo of the ghost locomotives: By Will leavitt - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42271454

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