A pair of abandoned, standard-gauge steam locomotives of the Eagle Lake & West Branch Railroad stand in a small clearing deep in the north woods of Maine. This is a guide to finding them.
To get there by way of the Golden Road:
(There are directions further down for getting there by way of Chamberlain Lake.) The map positions listed at the bottom of this description are taken from my old handheld Magellan GPS, which I use mainly to mark significant spots, rather than to navigate. All coordinates are in the form degrees – minutes – seconds north latitude by degrees – minutes – seconds west longitude. You can recalculate all coordinates to decimal equivalents if you wish.
You can’t depend on a GPS for navigation when you’re in the north Maine woods, because there are no addresses or landmarks like major highway intersections. It’s a wilderness owned and managed by numerous private landowners, who collectively permit access under the organization called North Maine Woods, also managed by the Maine Forest Service and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It is a wilderness without manmade landmarks, criss-crossed by private dirt roads, and the roads that are labeled on Google maps are often known differently by the locals, if you can find any locals. Obvious natural features in the woods, such as streams (with bridges), lakes, and hilltops, are ignored by a navigation GPS.
You can use a GPS, however, to zero in on a given set of coordinates. You need a copy of the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer or the appropriate USGS maps up here. I’ve never plotted exact distances or driving times, so the distances below are taken from guesses and memory and eyeballing the Gazetteer. You’re looking at two, or up to three hours of driving time from Millinocket, but that’s a wild guess too, and depends on how much time you spend walking around at various attractions along the way. There are only two reasonable ways to take this trip from May to September. From mid-September through November, not only is it hunting season for moose and deer, but the weather makes hiking and boating especially hazardous, especially if someone gets soaked, which can happen for more reasons than you can imagine. In the winter, there are reliable snowmobile routes, a third way of getting there for those who like winter adventures.
In the fairer seasons it’s best to take two days (departing from Millinocket), and go prepared for one night of primitive camping. I recommend hiking in to see the locomotives on the first day and camping overnight near Umbazooksus Dam. You can also do it in one day, leaving early from Millinocket (or Millinocket Lake) and returning to your starting point that evening, however you will not have time to explore the other end of the rail line or the sites in between.
From Millinocket follow signs for Baxter State Park. There is a built-up area on the way to the park, about seven miles from Millinocket (North Woods Trading Post, Big Moose Inn, campground, boat launch) all jammed between Millinocket Lake and Ambajejus Lake. Where two roads run parallel at this built-up area, cross over to the left road and continue on the Golden Road. Follow the Golden Road for twenty-some miles, and when you reach the Chewonki camps and campground (formerly Big Eddy campground) on the right, begin watching for a right turn onto the Telos Road, a few hundred yards ahead.
Take the right onto the Telos Road, which immediately crosses a short bridge over the West Branch of the Penobscot River. (An interesting diversion lies just after the bridge, a parking area and short hike to the river’s edge.) Soon after the bridge, the pavement ends, and from there onward you’re on dirt roads, but for most of the distance these are well-maintained for two-way traffic and log trucks. Enjoy the ride and watch for moose, especially in a large sand pit about eight miles up on the left. Seven miles or so after the sand pit you will come to a checkpoint for North Maine Woods, with a cluster of little buildings on the left. Stop and go inside and register your intentions. There is a day use fee, and if you intend to camp overnight, you can get information about available campsites.
After the checkpoint, it’a about ten miles straight north to a ’T’ in the road. If you go right at the ’T’ you will come immediately to Chamberlain Bridge, on the channel between the extreme south end of Chamberlain Lake and Round Pond/Telos Lake to the south of Chamberlain. There is a boat launch at the bridge, if you intend to run the 15 miles or so up the lake. If you plan on hiking in to the locomotives, which I recommend, then at the ’T’ go LEFT. There are opportunities to take a wrong turn, but you’ll realize it shortly if you do.
Go six to seven miles west-southwest and take the swing to the right onto what the map calls Grande Marche Road. If you continue straight here instead, it’s about a mile to Umbazooksus Lake. This was the southern terminus of the Eagle Lake & West Branch Railroad, and there are relics here. Walk across the short dam at Umbazooksus and you may find railcar wheel sets in the gravel along the lake’s west shore. It takes some searching. The rail line ran up the east shore of the lake, and you can find the undulations in the ground where the cross ties used to lie, on the very southern tip of the lake next to the road. It’s not feasible, on a casual visit, to follow the old rail bed, for reasons that will become apparent if you try. (Swamps, dense growth, trunks of dead trees across the way.) But there are some easily-accessed stretches where you can follow it for a few yards or further, as much as you can tolerate the difficulty. I once intended to hike the 13-mile length of the rail line, but that proved completely insane without bringing heavy equipment, or at least a chain saw and lots of gas.
Once you’re on Grande Marche Road, watch for the spot where the tracks would have crossed the road, about 3-4 miles up (see Crossing under ‘Coordinates’ below). The road is newer than the railroad, so it was not a crossing when the railroad was running. At what is now the crossing, Great Northern Paper, which used to own these woods and roads, apparently tore up the rails for some distance back from the road and even piled some rails next to the road, although I expect that some day I will go by there and the pile of rails will be gone. But, if you hike into the woods at the crossing, especially to the east, you will come to the original rails on the original roadbed, which are almost hidden for good in the grasp of the ground which is swallowing it all up. To the west of the crossing you can, with effort, reach the north shore of Umbazooksus Lake.
From the crossing, continue about another 10 miles on Grande Marche Road, keeping to the right when presented with an unclear choice, until you cross a short bridge over Allagash Stream. Within a mile or so, on the right, there will be two lesser roads. Skip the first, less-passable one and take the second, which is in better condition (First Right under ‘Coordinates’). Proceed on this one for a little over a mile, maybe two miles, to another road that turns south (Second Right under ‘Coordinates’). There are false turns here, so use the GPS coordinates provided to guide you. At the turnoff, as you look down the final road, you’re looking downhill (not a steep hill) and, depending on the encroaching undergrowth, you can see quite a long distance down this road. At the point I call “Park” under ‘Coordinates’ there are sometimes large boulders placed across the final road, and sometimes they’re not there. If they’re not there, go as far as your vehicle will safely take you on this southeasterly road and then park without obstructing the way. (Someone may have parked farther in than you’ve gone, so you need to allow them space to get by.) It’s now a hike to the southeast of about two miles to reach the locomotives, depending where you park.
Regardless where you park, you will still walk a distance on this southeasterly remnant of a road until you find the trail. It’s not marked well, but easy enough to guess at when you see an excess of marking tape on the scrub brush on the left. (Two spots are marked On Path N and On Path S under ‘Coordinates’).
The path from this last road to the clearing which holds the locomotive is not a marked trail. If you’re used to following faint trails through the woods, you’ll make it, and just trust your coordinates anyway. What’s more, if you stay on a southeasterly tack you will absolutely come to the cable tramway and the wide trail that runs alongside it, because it spans the entire distance between the two lakes. From wherever you reach the tramway you can go left to the locomotives and Eagle Lake or right to the tramway equipment and Chamberlain Lake. It’s all flat trail terrain with no elevations to deal with but plenty of wet ground. The trail I normally take, provided I can find it and stay on it, actually runs down a stream bed for some dozens of yards. Waterproof hiking boots that come over your ankles are useful here.
If you stay near the Eagle Lake side of the isthmus between the two lakes, as I do, then as you draw near to the clearing where the locomotives sit, you will begin to see relics in the woods, and eventually you’ll find yourself walking right between the rails that the trains once ran on. The rails are sinking into the ground and there are mature trees growing up between them. The locomotives are near the shore of Eagle Lake, along with much other equipment (Tramway under ‘Coordinates’). Just 25 yards beyond the locomotives you will find what was once a small rail-yard populated with the remnants of log-hauling railcars and other gear. A few yards further is a channel that was dug from Eagle Lake to the site where a large structure once stood, now gone, where the logs were pulled from Eagle Lake to be loaded onto the tramway. Among the other relics here are a large boat propeller and the crankshaft from an internal-combustion engine (look on the north side of the dug channel). There are also a few fossil brachiopods within the rocks strewn on the beach.
Before the standard gauge railroad was built to haul logs to Umbazooksus Lake, a 3000-foot conveyor was used to move the logs, in a continuous line, from the shore of Eagle Lake to the shore of Chamberlain Lake, to the southwest. There is a pleasant highway of a hiking trail alongside the remains of this conveyor, the actual tramway, which is the word often used to refer to the whole place where the locomotives and all the relics now lie. The tramway consisted of a cable pulling a continuous string of wheel sets, resembling tiny railroad wheels, along tiny rails, and each wheel set held up one end of a log. So it is just over a half-mile hike to reach the other end of the tramway at Chamberlain Lake, well worth the time to see the equipment (and restoration under way) there.
There are some historical placards on the locomotives and among the relics explaining that this whole operation was built in the 1920s (and abandoned in the 1930s) because Eagle Lake feeds the Allagash River, which flows northward. The paper mills, which used the timber cut in that region, were located to the south. Chamberlain Lake feeds the East Branch of the Penobscot River, which flows south, while the other lakes to the west of there all feed what is known as the West Branch watershed, the southward-flowing West Branch of the Penobscot River. Therefore, logs that had been cut to the east of Eagle Lake were floated across that lake to the dug channel where they could be transferred by tramway to Chamberlain Lake and later, by train, to Umbasooksus Lake, from which they could be conveyed by river to the mills at Millinocket and East Millinocket. Log drives like this, though, ceased in the early 1970s and that’s when the Golden Road was extended to the border with Canada to the west and into the Allagash region to the north.
Allow yourself enough time to hike out to your vehicle before dark.
Umbazooksoos south shore
46d 08’ 52”N
-69d 20’ 49”W
46d 11’ 54”N (46.198333)
-69d 22’ 36”W (-69.366667)
46d 19’ 54”N
-69d 25’ 29”W
46d 20’ 41”N
-69d 24’ 37”W
46d 20’ 29”N
-69d 24’ 21”W
On Path N
46d 19’ 48”N
-69d 23’ 29”W
On Path S
46d 19’ 40”N
-69d 23’ 27”W
46d 19’ 25”N
-69d 22’ 31”W
To get there by way of Chamberlain Lake:
First, look up the rules at https://www1.maine.gov/dacf/parks/park_passes_fees_rules/aww_rules.shtml, because you can use a motor up to 10 h.p. on Chamberlain Lake, but only on a craft defined as a canoe. Mine is a 21-foot Scott canoe, square-stern, powered by a 6 h.p. Johnson. Second, be equipped for an unexpected overnight stay. I have gone up Chamberlain Lake when it was glassy calm in the morning and there were whitecaps on two-foot breakers 20-feet apart by early afternoon. Third, there are hazards on the western shore of the lake, which is the lee shore in a normal gale, such as submerged rocks, so when the wind is up in the afternoon, the hazards almost force you to ride the rough seas out in the open instead of hugging the shore the way you’d like to.
You launch at Chamberlain Bridge, (go RIGHT at the ’T’ mentioned above), then park your truck and trailer a short distance back the way you came, beyond the ranger station. You head north up a mile-long thoroughfare, which resembles being on a wide river. There are ten or so primitive campsites spaced along the west shore of the lake, and a couple on the east shore as well. The northernmost campsite on the west shore is called Crow’s Nest, if I remember correctly. I’ve used this one. It is near the pilings which are remnants of the low trestle that carried the railroad over the Allagash Stream inlet, and on the rise above Crow’s Nest, fifty yards up from the rocky beach, lies the roadbed to the old railroad. The rails are pulled up here, but the undulations in the earth tell you where the cross-ties used to lie. There are relics, and you can hike a fair distance in either direction (back toward the trestle, for instance).
To get to the tramway by way of Chamberlain Lake, you head into a swampy cove, a half mile across at its opening, located on the northeast end of the lake. (Follow the eastern shore into this grassy swampy cove until you come to a barely-discernible landing, which you can guess at because there is a bright clearing on the shore to aim for.) When you come by lake, you will be at the Chamberlain end of the tramway conveyor. There is a pair of standing boilers here, similar to steam locomotive boilers but stationary. A lot of other equipment is located in this clearing, and a team of volunteers has begun to reconstruct the tramway mechanism on this site. From here you would hike the 3000-foot distance to the Eagle Lake on the highway of a trail that I mentioned earlier, to get to the clearing with the locomotives.
I cannot responsibly publish these directions without some serious warnings: You MUST take proper equipment with you, and this can be much more than you suspect. You MUST carry certain extra equipment in your vehicle or boat, such as spare socks, spare drinking water, and so on. (Life preservers in a canoe, and if it’s over a certain length and powered, then also lights, horn, flares, and whatever else is currently required by boating law.) You MUST carry certain items in a bag or backpack as you hike. These would include a compass (make sure you can find the four cardinal points if nothing else), two ways to start a fire, a reliable full-tang fixed-blade knife, a whistle, a map (even a hand-drawn map) of where you’re going, GPS if you’re using one, and something to eat with protein in it to sustain you for a few hours. I urge that your backpack also include a rain parka, a “space” blanket, spare socks, a 24-hour supply of your daily medicine, and a spare layer such as a jacket, which can be stuffed into the pack or tied around your waist when it’s too hot to wear it.
Why all this stuff? Imagine breaking your ankle and waiting six hours to be carried to a waiting vehicle for the two-hour ride back to Millinocket. Assuming nothing goes wrong, you will also need to pack a meal and snacks for each person on the trip, as well as water to drink. Camera, binoculars, toilet paper. I carry a small-caliber sidearm to use for signaling and to discourage intrusive critters if I end up stuck in one spot too long, (not to kill an animal unless for safety or unless I need the food, but to frighten an unwelcome pest). You MUST be equipped to unexpectedly stay overnight anywhere in the woods. You MUST be prepared for NO CELL PHONE SERVICE six miles after leaving Millinocket. The list could go on and on, but please give this serious thought before striking out as if going to a museum in a city. Automobiles can take us to places where we would never be complacent if we had to get there by foot or horseback. And if the automobile fails, or if someone becomes lost or injured, that’s when it suddenly becomes serious.
You could, of course, hire a Guide, who would look out for all of the above for you.
Let me add a few final words about the engines themselves. One is a 2-8-0, the other a 4-6-0, both apparently coal-burners. Being a rail historian, I have tried to learn their origins. I cannot determine either the builder or the original purchaser (original railroad) of either. The cab on the 4-6-0 is missing. The other is intact, more or less. There has been a little cosmetic work done on them since 2005, by whom I’m not sure, and frankly it’s hopeless. I do believe, though, that there will be recognizable remnants of them there for the next 500 years or so. Perhaps at some future date I will publish an article summarizing what I know about the locomotives and the railroad itself. (I have tried to obtain a copy of Eagle Lake and West Branch Railroad by Richard N. Symonds, Jr., and have even contacted the author, but the book is out of print and he knows of not one copy available.)
Here are a couple of web sites with more information, which you may be interested in:
I welcome comments and corrections to this set of directions. -David A. Woodbury, Registered Maine Guide-