Text and Photography by George Melvin
n summer 1988, the news broke that on the following September 1, CP Rail would create a separate business unit named Canadian Atlantic Railway. The railway would operate CP's remaining 500 or so miles of track east of Megantic, Quebec-what was left of the Dominion Atlantic (DAR) in Nova Scotia and the St. John Division eastward from Megantic through Maine and into southern New Brunswick. The description remaining is significant in that much of the DAR and the north-south former Woodstock Division in New Brunswick were already history.
To CP followers, the name Canadian Atlantic sounded the same knell as the alarm going off in the local fire house. The Lake States Transportation business unit, formed from a number of Soo Line routes in the mid-1980s, had play through a rather short script-a couple of locomotives were repainted, a few changes made. Then, CP sold the lines to Wisconsin Central. Would Canadian Atlantic (CAR) follow Lake States' lead?
After whining and excusing ourselves from the effort required to photograph trains on CP's scenic but remote Moosehead Subdivision in Maine, it was time to act-if CP trains were to be recorded in what are arguably some of the most scenic spots blessed with railroads tracks in the East.
In spring 1992, I and a number of friends collectively, if somewhat unconsciously, committed ourselves to shooting trains in scenic locations that we had known about for some time. Our commitment soon turned into a near-obsession as together and singly we got up at 3 a.m. to call the dispatcher for a line-up, went on scouting forays to pinpoint characteristic features of the line, and compared strategies for reaching our goal. Like hunters who stalk Maine's largest animal-the moose, which also gives the state's largest lake its name-we became rail stalkers, hunting the trains of the Moosehead.
And stalk we did, for the three obstacles of remoteness, scheduling, and distance that had kept us uninterested (lazy?) still existed.
In a typicall 3.3-hour run across this far-flung subdivision, an ME train passed through stretches of up to 16 miles between grade crossings, in tersecting a grand total of three state or federal numbered routes. This run was staged from the Brownsville junction crew change point for 17 miles through northwestern Maine, up and over the Appalachian Divide at the Maine-Quebec border, and into Lac Megantic, Quebec, where trains were handed off to crews of the Quebec Division's Sherbrooke Sub. This unfriendly and distant topography made the chase difficult at best.
Traditionally an overnight railroad, the Moosehead saw traffic from paper mills and the port at St. John launched during the evening, and, conditions permitting, the remaining one or two westbound trains would exit into Quebec before day break. Timing of east bounds, generally geared to the westbound crews' rest at Megantic, brought the opposite runs through at night as well. VIA's Atlantic, traversing the line three times per week was also nocturnal. Late trains "fell" into daylight, but with little advance warning. The advice of experienced dispatchers in the office in West St. John was invaluable as they could foresee a good shooting day on the previous evening. Hats off to Holly Grant and Freeman Gillett!
Once we overcame remote locations and scheduling, we had to face distance. Unfortunately, the old adage "living there helps to get the shot" didn't prove true. I lived closest to the line; yet, I had to drive a hard two hours to get to its nearest point. Once there, walking in and setting up for a shot could quickly eat up another two hours.
During the six-year countdown to CP's leave-taking, we had only two breaks. When severe cold in Montreal closed the St. Lawrence River port to ocean-going vessels, a number of container extras operated over the line in February and March 1993, moving six or eight shiploads of containers diverted to the ice-free Port of St. John. On a good day, that nearly doubled the line's traffic, yielding two or more trains in daylight (a real gift!). A scheduling change in 1993 also brought two trains over the line regularly in daylight, out of about 20 freights per week. This was manna from heaven for the die-hards we had become. During 1994, a couple of military extras made daylight appearances as well.
The party ended on January 1, 1995; CP sold the Canadian Atlantic line to Iron Road, which formed the Canadian American Railroad to operate the Moosehead Sub and part of the Sherbrooke Sub to the west, something of a repeat performance of the Lake States scenario.
Did our hunting pay off? You be the judge. And did I mention that the line was dominated from its dieselization in the late 1950s to the end with Montreal-built Alco designs?
If there's a spot where you'd like to photograph Canadian Pacific Railway in the East, I recommend you get busy-St. Lawrence & Hudson promises to be round three!