Kilkenny Cove and the Old Pond Railway Trail: Maine’s Past, Present, and Future in an Afternoon (Part 2)
Welcome back, folks, to the second part of this deep dive into Hancock’s Old Pond tidal salt marsh. The weather remains gray and rainy and cold, but nothing warms the heart like the histories of century-old railroads.
For those who may be tuning in for the first time, I’m Michael MV, the Outreach and Education Intern with Frenchman Bay Conservancy. I’m getting out on FBC trails and writing about both my casual experiences and the trails’ unique histories. My most recent exploration of the Old Pond tidal salt marsh–accessible from three separate land trusts working to conserve the region–proved a treasure trove of mostly-forgotten lore. I’ll be going into greater depth on this here in Part 2, but make sure to check out Part 1 as well!
The Maine Shore Line and Hancock: On Track for Success
Now, at the time of Mount Desert’s first rise to fame, the Maine Central Railroad was the largest railroad in New England. Much of this line focused around industrial centers and interior settlements, profiting from their rapid development. However, by 1880, it was clear that this newfangled tourism industry was a gold mine. The earliest whispers of a Downeast coastal line were made public by one Colonel Joseph N. Greene at a town hall in Bangor on April 4th, 1883. The following month ground was broken on a Bangor-Ellsworth line, and soon this was expanded to include an Ellsworth-Hancock Point branch. This was to be the Maine Shore Line Railroad, built by a company of the same name and set to be transferred to the Maine Central. Control of the project was given to Joseph N. Greene. By June of 1884 this coastal spur was operating from Ellsworth to the newly-constructed Bar Harbor Ferry on Hancock Point, where the steamer Sappho would take eager guests to Mount Desert.
The town of Hancock in this era represented a hopeful dream for the Downeast’s future. Lumber, quarried granite, fish and industrial mills helped to grow the economy, and in 1874 a summer colony was established at Hancock Point by Ellsworth’s Francis Tomlinson Hazlewood. The population grew from 923 residents 1860 to 1,190 in 1890, and nearby towns were likewise developing: Sullivan Harbor was dredged in 1873, no small feat of engineering. As one visitor to a 1901 Hancock clambake stated, “New is the best for this new-time of the developments made in and around Frenchman’s bay. We cannot remain stationary; we must move with the machinery that makes progress, both in thinking and acting.”
A Gilded Age Goes Off the Rails
Progress, it seems, was likewise on the mind of Joseph N. Greene. Though the Maine Shore Line Railroad Company had transferred the Hancock spur to Maine Central, he had loftier goals. By early 1885 the Maine Shore Line was working on an extension from Ellsworth to Calais, so as to, as stated by the Republican Journal, “[bring] into prominence the great resources so long undeveloped of the best part of Washington County”. But things did not go as planned. By 1891 Greene had failed to produce the money needed for the construction of the rail line, and was not cooperating with shareholders in releasing necessary paperwork. More conflict erupted between the directors and stockholders, and Greene was finally removed from the project in early 1892. And it didn’t end there. In 1898, Joseph N. Greene was at the heart of another controversy. It was revealed that the Shore Line contract was signed in the name of his son, Lewis D. Greene, despite his son being largely absent and Joseph having total oversight of the project. Claims of owed debts and misused funds were ultimately voided, but it highlighted the questionable manner in which the rail line was completed.
The town of Hancock was to also experience a simultaneous fall from grace. Tourism slowly dried up in eastern Maine as the 20th century continued, largely spurred by new, easier modes of national and global transportation. In 1931 the Bar Harbor Ferry was discontinued, with the rail line following suit in 1957 and the tracks finally being removed in 1959. The town’s population dropped from its 1890 high of 1,190 to just 755 in 1950, and nearby towns suffered similar fates; my home of Gouldsboro has fewer people today than in 1860. Once an illustrious industrial town and summer resort, Hancock retains little but fading memories of this era.
Lessons from the Past, Warnings for the Future
But how does this relate to Old Pond, and the Railway Trail? True, it’s the site of the old railroad, but why have I spent all this time on history and controversy?
It’s because conservation in Maine isn’t always about protecting untouched wilderness–it’s about recovery and rehabilitation. Not one single Frenchman Bay Conservancy preserve is free of past human modification. By presenting an image of Maine as pristine and edenic, we tend to dissociate human beings from the natural world–a dangerous thing indeed. This quiet path through the isolated woods was once torn asunder by railcars hosting the wealthiest of America’s elite. The giant cradles of granite rock along the route were born from pick and dynamite. Coal smoke and exhaust once dyed the now crisp sea air. We must know these things if we are to properly conserve our fleeting natural world of today. And we must acknowledge that history has an unpleasant tendency towards repetition.
In 2023 we find ourselves in a time not unlike the Downeast’s first gilded age. No longer is it the railways crushing undergrowth; the SUV and ATV has taken its place. No more do steam ships ply the waters of Frenchman Bay; instead, titanic gas-powered cruise ships idle in harbor. Visitation to Acadia has nearly doubled in the last twenty years. Much of Maine’s interior lands has recently been purchased as liquid capital by investment firms and other profit-seeking groups. The threat of repetition seems ominously near.
I cannot recommend visiting the Old Pond tidal salt marsh region enough. It may not be the flashiest protected area, or the most rugged, or the largest. But it represents multiple conservation groups working together to protect land–even land once ravaged by human development–in pursuit of one common goal. Imagine with each step what existed a century before. Paint pictures from the glimpse of a rusted pipe, or the forlorn remains of a railroad bridge. Discover the beauty in what grows beside the ghosts of railroad ties.
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.