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Kilkenny Cove and the Old Pond Railway Trail: Maine’s Past, Present, and Future in an Afternoon (Part 1)

July 6, 2023

Old Pond Railway Bridge in Hancock, ME

Downeast Maine is a land of illusions. The lights of foxfire in the dark, island mirages hovering above the waves, the disorienting embrace of sea fog–these are things that remind us that, even in our modern world, not everything is always as it seems. Yet perhaps the greatest illusion exists not just in our present, but also our past and future. The natural landscapes of Maine often seem almost uniquely primordial, as if humans have only just begun to carve a society from within the conifers and maples. It is, after all, the most forested US state (1), and the most rural (2), and the least densely populated east of the Mississippi (3). 

But this, too, is not as it seems. 

Today, I’ll be discussing the Old Pond Railway Trail, a peaceful 2.9 mile out-and-back through forests, salt marshes and a tidal arm of Frenchman Bay. The trail, which is owned by Crabtree Neck Land Trust, connects to FBC’s Kilkenny Cove Preserve. The trail crosses over the Old Pond salt marsh, which is a shared conservation priority region for Frenchman Bay Conservancy, Crabtree Neck Land Trust and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. But equally important to the trail itself is an understanding of its history. What started as my summary of the hike soon spiraled into a search through 19th-century news sources. I found myself constructing timelines, unearthing scandals and drawing connections to our modern day–all derived from this quaint preserve. For that reason, I’ll be splitting this rather long post into two parts. But, through this process, I have gleaned the lessons of the Old Pond Railway Trail: the forgotten damages of the past, the exceptional drive of conservation in the present, and the uncertain state of Maine’s future. 

A Peaceful Walk Through the Woods

For the typical visitor, dropped on the Old Pond Railway Trail with no knowledge of its history, it may appear rather unassuming. There is a trailhead at both ends (Hancock and Kilkenny Cove), and, for no particular reason, I began my hike at the former. Starting in the center of the town, it slips from the bustle of modernity into forests and half-hidden marshes before opening rather dramatically into a large tidal cove: the eponymous Old Pond. Here one crosses an old iron-and-lumber bridge newspapered with graffiti while following a ridge above the tidal flats. Past this it continues along the ridge into steeper forest, dropping off from the sides in haphazard valleys and clefts. Next comes several cradles of jagged stone through which it passes. Then the landscape flattens slightly, becoming somewhat marshy in places, before crossing several private roads (don’t forget to stay on the trail!) and finally ending. The Kilkenny Cove access trail shoots off from here, running northwards through an otherworldly cedar forest towards the parking lot and west access trailhead. For anyone who’s hiked the Downeast Sunrise trail or any similar linear trails in the area, it all seems pretty par for the course.

Cedar forest at FBC’s Kilkenny Cove Preserve.

But wait–why is it called the Old Pond Railway trail? And why is there a rusted old bridge crossing the cove? And what’s with all the wooden slats and metal pipes?

Well, as you may have guessed by now, the Old Pond Railway trail follows the path of an old rail line: the Maine Central Railroad’s Shore Line. And thus we approach the illusory veil of Downeast history.

Maine: A Brief History

The modern visitor to Hancock County experiences the past in fragments. They may learn about a few moments or years of significance–the Rockefeller era, the creation of the National Park, the 1947 Mount Desert Fire–and little beyond that. Rather, it is the natural and geological history that draws much of the focus. But the area’s human history is far richer and more cyclical than one may imagine. 

The first several millennia of coastal Maine history belong to the ancestors of the modern Passamaquoddy and Penobscot (This topic deserves far more attention than I can give in these few pages, but I’d highly encourage further learning into their pasts and presents). After decades of European conflict and the marginalization and near-destruction of its native people, Maine was ceded to the fledgling United States at the close of the Revolutionary War. Soon came a wave of soldiers and farmers granted land in this newly-acquired chunk of Maine territory. One independence from Massachusetts and a Civil War later, and we arrive at the era of the Shore Line Railroad. 

The Workings of a New Age

While hiking, you can still see remnants of the old railway along the trail.

Let’s set the stage. Maine, like much of the post-war nation, was experiencing rapid industrial growth. Our forests–full of desirable lumber–were falling to eager axes, the state’s rivers were choked with rafted logs, and mills and factories were arriving. But something new and strange was developing as well: tourism. The first major wave of out-of-state seasonal visitors were drawn to Mount Desert Island. The Island proved a perfect destination for those fleeing the hustle and bustle of the city: clean air, cool temperatures, and natural beauty. By 1870, the Portland Daily Press boasted of “fourteen hotels at Bar Harbor, with three at South West Harbor, and one at Somerville [Somesville]”. Famous names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt and Ford began constructing palatial cottages along its shore. A railroad was built to the top of Green (now Cadillac) Mountain. A new era had arrived.

But that’s a story to be continued in Part 2.

Written by Michael Monaco-Vavrik, FBC’s 2023 Outreach and Education Intern. This blog is a part of his summer series, where he’ll be visiting many of FBC’s preserves and sharing his casual first-hand experiences. These may cover topics ranging from flora to fauna to history to general thoughts. By writing these pieces, he is hoping to inspire readers to go out and experience these preserves themselves. Is there a preserve you’d like him to cover? Send him a note at Michael@FrenchmanBay.org.

(1) Forest Resources of the United States, 2017

(2) GIS Portal: Rural America Census

(3) Population Density of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico: 1910-2020