Joe Benzing, a friend from Parsonfield, was skiing beside me through the woods near Barker Pond in Hiram the other day when he turned to me and said "I'll bet we are skiing along as fast as the old narrow gauge railroad that used to run on this railbed!"
"Not hardly," I replied. "Those old trains would clip along through here at 35 to 45 mph on their way from Hiram to Bridgton. According to Brian Durham at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. in Portland some of the narrow gaugers would reach speeds of 60 mph if the grade was level and the tracks were good."
We were cross-country skiing on the railbed that the Bridgton and Saco River Railroad (B&SRRR) used during its 59 years of operation. I'll bet that when George E. Mansfield and his investors laid 16 miles of narrow gauge in 1882 for the B&SRRR they had no idea that people would be skiing on their right-of-way nearly 125 years later. Today the narrow gauge between Hiram and Sebago is popular with snowmobilers, cross country skiers and ATV enthusiasts.
The B&SRRR was the first rail service for Bridgton and connected it to Maine's railway system at Hiram where the Portland & Ogdensburg RR had a depot. The B&SRRR tracks were laid on a railbed carved out of the woods that curved around the hills and across the streams and swamps. From Bridgton Junction in Hiram it ran along the east bank of the Saco River, then swung up the Hancock Brook drainage and followed it to Barker Pond. From there it dodged around several ponds, including Middle Pond and Hancock Pond before reaching Bridgton. The railbed is mostly flat, climbing slowly in elevation from 400 feet above sea level at Hiram to 600 feet in elevation at the head of a long grade north of Hancock Pond called the "Notch".
The B&SRRR was built as a narrow gauge and was patterned after the Festinoig RR in Wales. This rail system was built in 1832 to haul slate from the mines and first used horses to pull the cars and then switched to steam in 1863. This pioneering Welch railroad used tracks that were 2 feet wide. The narrower gauge was cheaper and easier to build in the mountainous areas of Wales than the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet ½ inch would have been. The same principles of economy made sense in the mountains and forests of Maine, and there were a number of narrow gauge railroad lines built in Maine during the late 1800s, with many in service hauling passengers, freight, and logs into the 1940's.
The B&SRR was successful in hauling freight and summer visitors to Lakes Region resorts and in 1898 it was extended along the shores of Long Lake for 5 miles to Harrison. In 1930 the name of the line was changed to the Bridgton & Harrison Railroad (B&HRR), and soon thereafter in a strange twist of fate, the Bridgton to Harrison service was discontinued. The line continued to operate as the B&HRR for 11 more years, providing rail service between Bridgton and Hiram until the railroad went out of business and the rails and ties were taken up in 1941. Some of the B&SRRR rolling stock is now on display and in use at the Maine Narrow Gauge RR in Portland.
Friends Peter and Kathy Huchthausen who live near the Hiram end of the narrow gauge introduced me to the trail. Peter takes his dog Lara for a morning walk there nearly every day. I was just finishing my first cup of morning coffee and putting my snow boots on when the phone rang. It was Peter.
"Have you looked out the window this morning?" he asked. "This is a perfect day to ski the narrow gauge!"
It had snowed the night before and there were about five inches of white powder everywhere, the sky was blue and the air was crisp. It was indeed a perfect day to go cross-country skiing!
"I was just on my way out to snowblow the driveway, so give me time to do that, and Colby and I will meet you," I said. "My skis are already on the car."
"I'll start from my end of the narrow gauge and meet you at the yellow bridge," Huchthausen said. The "yellow bridge" is a snowmobile bridge over the brook where Middle Pond flows into Barker Pond, and is 3 miles from his house and 2 miles from where I start skiing at Hancock Pond.
The snow conditions were perfect and my dog Colby and I had the narrow gauge all to ourselves. When we got to the first side trail to Middle Pond no one had been there before me and I had to break trail. The snow was never more than six inches deep, however, and it wasn't any chore.
About 45 minutes into our outing, Colby, who had been ranging back and forth across the track checking out smells and tracks in the woods, suddenly took off running straight ahead. Up ahead Huchthausen's dog Lara came running toward me, with her master close behind, just my side of the yellow bridge.
"Kathy has gone back to the house and is putting the coffee on. Why don't we head back to our place and I'll drive you and Colby back to your car, " he said. The two dogs ran and cavorted in the snow and we all started towards Hiram. With the fresh snow still on the trees and the brilliant blue-sky overhead it was glorious!
Most days we have the trail to ourselves, but when the snow gets a little deeper the snowmobile traffic will increase. This trail is designated ITS89 and is one of the more scenic routes in the Lakes Region. Trail junctions are marked and the trail is groomed by the Sebago Branch Duckers club on the Hancock Pond end, and by the Denmark Draggers club on the Hiram end. The skiing is much easier on a groomed trail, especially in deep snow, and although we are cross-country skiers we support the clubs who groom the trails and maintain the bridges.
For more information on the ITS89 trail, trail maps, or to support the snowmobile clubs that groom the narrow gauge for great cross-country skiing (and snowmobiling) contact the Sebago Branch Duckers (PO Box 156, Sebago 04029, 207-787-3480) or the Denmark Draggers (PO Box 103, Denmark 04022, 207-452-2462).
For more information on the B&SRRR visit the Bridgton Historical Society (http://www.megalink.net/~bhs/nginv.html) or the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. and Museum in Portland (http://www.mngrr.org/index1.html), or read Robert L. MacDonald's "Maine Narrow Gauge Railroads" by Arcadia Publishing (email@example.com).
This article was edited and published in the Portland Press Herald on February 10, 2005 under the title "Narrow gauge line perfect for skiing".