Deep in the heart of Maine’s Allagash region sit two ghost locomotives silently rusting in the wilderness. Only a few intrepid canoes, hikers and snowmobilers can see the hulking machines, miles from any road or railhead.
The last of the great independent loggers, a Quebecois called King Ed Lacroix, put the ghost locomotives there.
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.
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
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 didn't quail at 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.
To solve the problem, the logging industry dammed the Eagle and Chamberlain lakes 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 the logging companies built a tramway to carry logs. The lumbermen supposedly kept their boardinghouses heated all winter by burning the ox yokes.
Remnants of the tramway still survive in Maine’s Tramway Historic District, part of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
The Tramway consisted of an elevated track along which log-filled cars moved. A steam-driven cable took them from Eagle Lake to Chamberlain Lake 3000 feet on the upper track. Then it returned the cars on the lower track. Click here and scroll down for a diagram of how it worked.
The tramway functioned well from 1902 to 1907, when the Lombard Steam Log Hauler made it obsolete.
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. On giant sleds he moved 60 railcars, a 1500-foot steel trestle and a 72-ton and a 90-ton steam locomotive. They traveled 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.
The ghost locomotives sat in a train shed for years. Then the Maine Forest Service mistakenly burned it down. The state, along with volunteers, shored up the ground underneath the ghost locomotives and painted them to prevent further rusting.
Today, the Allagash wilderness is 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.
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. This story about the ghost locomotives of Maine was updated in 2017.