Waterville Yard
Waterville Yard in 1968

Fifty years ago Railroading was far different from today. My introduction to the Maine Central started in 1964 when I went to Colby College in Waterville. Once exposed, I became fascinated by this amazing industry, the people who worked in it, and the coordination and teamwork required to run the railroad.

The Maine Central, Scott Paper, Hathaway Shirts, Keyes Fiber and Colby were among the largest employers, and Waterville was a thriving industrial community.

The Maine Central Railroad was originally known to me only as a name painted on a boxcar. I knew very little about railroading, but I had always enjoyed puzzles, and how this industry worked became a lifelong interest and hobby.

In the 1960’s, computers were used only in banks, large industries like the phone companies, and payroll offices. There were no desktop PCs, no laptops, no cell phones, no email, no texting, and no internet. And yet vast amounts of freight and passengers were delivered all around the country, efficiently, economically, and generally on time.

Upon first entering Waterville’s Yard Office, I was greeted by Conductor Arthur L. Doucette. Art joined the MEC after returning from the Korean War, and soon became a close friend.

A.L. Doucette winding down a hand brake
Art getting on a pulpwood car.
Art takes the measure of classic Maine Central 470
Art was a legend in Waterville

Waterville Yard was the Maine Central’s largest classification freight yard, and as such was the heart of the railroad’s operations. Daily local freight trains would leave Waterville to deliver, switch, and pickup incoming raw materials, and outgoing finished products. Maine had many paper mills, with a voracious appetite for pulpwood used to produce hundreds of thousands of tons of finished paper, which was then shipped by rail to printing plants all over the nation.

Operator Phil Tracy at work in Tower A

The railroad was the connection which made the paper industry possible, by delivering pulp and removing finished paper which was produced in a never ending manufacturing cycle with huge paper machines making paper 24/7/365. Delivery of pulp and shipments of paper could never be delayed or interrupted.

Returning to Waterville after a day of collecting pulpwood cars.
The Wood Job with pulpwood destined for paper mills in Jay and Rumford

Once the cars were delivered and loaded, the agents prepared a waybill, one piece of paper that contained all the information required for the car to be delivered to the customer, including the specified routing over other railroads. The waybills were handed off at every point there was a transfer.

Agent Operator “Sammy” Sampson at his desk in Newport, Maine

As cars were loaded and ready for shipment, the local trains would stop and collect the cars, and perhaps deliver new empty cars. The conductor would supervise the switching operation, and would collect the accompanying waybill. After the locals returned from their day’s work, the cars were delivered to yard tracks in Waterville Yard, and the waybills turned over to the bill rack clerk.

Now the sorting process of putting blocks of cars together, all going to the next destination or interchange with the next carrier, could begin.

The lessons learned at Waterville yard have stayed with me, and my fascination and love for railroads and the people who worked for them will last forever.

Under the direction of the Yardmasters, Waterville’s Yard Office was the nerve center of the railroad’s operation.

Burns C. Hillman, 2nd trick yardmaster

The yardmaster created switch lists, which the Switch crews (engineer, conductor, and two brakemen) would follow to gather the cars, sorted by destination and location on the line.

Switch crew planning their work

Once the cars were arranged in the proper order, scheduled trains ran between Portland at one end of the railroad, and Bangor, at the other end. B-11 and RB-1, and B-12 and BR-2 ran as through freights almost always stopping in Waterville to set off and pick up cars.

B-11 arriving Waterville

Over time, I met and became friends with the crews, and was often invited to ride along to learn more about the line and operations.

Maine Central road engineer Roger Lowe

One engineer in particular was especially welcoming, and to me he represented the epitome of the Maine Central Railroader. Roger Lowe was the quintessential railroad engineer. His cap, warm sweaters and overalls, and his eagle eye watching the road ahead showed the pride he had in his important job.

His concentration on handling his train was laser focused, watching for signals from the brakemen on the ground, with his hand on the independent brake to ease the coupling of the train ever so gently.

Roger Lowe with independent brake

Once the train was reassembled, and the brake test completed, Roger’s sure hand moved the  throttle from idle to Run 1.  The engines responded as they slowly pulled the slack out of the cars until the radio came alive with “Ya’ got ’em all, Roger”.  He pushed the throttle to Run 8, and the train gained speed headed down the lower road via Augusta and Brunswick, destination Portland’s Rigby Yard.

His concentration on handling his train was laser focused.

As the long train accelerated, the conductor was ready on the steps of his “buggy” to grab the waybills and train orders waiting for him to catch and process.

Maine Central Conductor collecting train orders and waybills as the buggy swings by the Yard Office

These friendly and generous men who worked for the Maine Central Railroad influenced me greatly. After graduation from Colby, I hired out as a tower operator for the New Haven, and later held various positions at the Long Island Rail Road before leaving for a career in another industry. But the lessons learned at Waterville yard have stayed with me, and my fascination and love for railroads and the people who worked for them will last forever.

Extra 253 West waiting for the brake test
Twilight at Tower A
Ready to head east to Northern Maine Junction

Bob HughesText and photographs Copyright 2017

12 thoughts on “A Maine Central Education

  1. Bob, this is possibly the best article I’ve read on this site, which has some phenomenal articles. Your love of the railroad and your appreciation of the people who ran it shines through your words and photos. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Bob, damn fine work sir. The photos are very nice and I really like that you captured the railroaders at work–not just a set of pretty train pics. Nice bit of writing too.

  3. Bob, the article and photographs are outstanding. They brought back fond memories of my own time at Colby as your room mate. We could hear the trains from our dorm on the Mayflower Hill campus and you would always comment: “That’s the ‘Wood Job’ right on time.” My own occasional dead heading on the locomotives (thanks to you and the great crews) most certainly were against Maine Central policies… . I sometimes wonder how we managed to make it through to graduation since you spent lots of time in Waterville Yard and I rode the fire trucks with the Waterville FD, and we both made many friends in town.

  4. Great article. My father, Ray Mulhern, was a conductor/brakeman based out of Rigby Yard in South Portland from the war until he was killed in a derailment at the Diamond National mill in Mexico in 1971. His brother, Bob Mulhern, was a car knocker (I think). Sammy Sampson was a friend of my uncle’s and I remember him being with my uncle on family trips to Moosehead Lake in the 60’s.

  5. I’m delighted that my Maine Central story struck a chord with so many people. The employees of the Maine Central were what made it such a great little railroad.

  6. Ooooh, what a beautiful recollection of railroading as it used to be. Never mind that I’m an old B&M Fitchburg division man. That’s what we remember.

  7. Bob,

    This is an excellent article and some great photos. Could I have your permission to reprint this article in the NMRA British Region bi-monthly publication Roundhouse?

    I would of course give you full credit and if you provide me with your postal address I will send the printed version to you as well.

    Peter Bowen

  8. Great article and photos Bob, thanks for sharing. Great to see how great the railroad looked back then, the immaculate right of way, and the overall character you can see in the people who worked on it. Thanks!

  9. This is truly a great presentation with a heavy emphasis on the railroader’s themselves, which so many writers do not cover in a meaningful manner, and you provided us with an outstanding article, along with meaningful photos directly related to the railroader’s. Thanks for sharing this article with us.

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