June 2, 2011
Path to Prosperity in Downeast Maine
by Mark Cheater
As a child, Bill Robinson used to ride his bike out to watch trains rumble slowly by on Maine Central Railroad's Calais Branch line, which bisected his family's property in northeastern Maine. Today, Robinson—now 39—has a new way of greeting traffic through his land: he's built a cozy, watertight wooden shelter, picnic tables and two campsites next to the former rail line, which was recently reborn as the 85-mile Down East Sunrise Trail.
"It's for people to get out of the weather, stop and take a break," says Robinson, a fourth-generation Maine hunting-and-fishing guide in Edmunds Township, only a few miles from the Canadian border. But Robinson's handmade red-pine shelter isn't purely altruistic. He's stocked it with brochures about area businesses—including his own (his family runs both the Dennys River Guide Services and Robinson Cottages). "Since salmon and hunting are not what they used to be, we're now looking at accommodating the public for recreation. This Sunrise Trail is a great opportunity."
Robinson has already seen a small—but welcome—bump in business from the trail, which opened in September 2010. The gravel-surfaced path, which runs from Ellsworth (near Acadia National Park) northeast to Ayers Junction, was very popular with snowmobilers this winter, Robinson reports, and he has high hopes for ATVers and cyclists this summer. In addition to building the new facilities to welcome trail users, he and has wife recently bought and assembled six new mountain bikes to rent.
"We see it as a very appealing to recreationists who like to bike," Robinson says. "The trail offers excellent photography, beautiful views, streams, forests, plenty of wild game—and you can get to great canoeing and kayaking spots easily from the trail."
Built in the late 1800s, the 127-mile Calais Branch once brought tourists, mail and freight from central Maine to towns in Washington and Hancock counties. It turned around in Calais and brought wood products, fish and other freight back to markets farther south, serving as a vital economic artery for this isolated area.
But, like other railroads, the Calais Branch faltered as cars and trucks became the preferred means for moving people and freight. The last train traversed the route in 1984, much to the chagrin of Robinson and other residents. "When the trains stopped running, everyone felt the same way—that it would start again soon. But as the railroad's financial problems became known, it became clear that it wasn't going to come back."
The state bought the rail right-of-way in 1987 and then announced plans to rip up the rails and ties and sell them. That spurred locals—including Robinson's father, Jim—into action, and they began lobbying state officials to turn the corridor into a rail-trail. After more than two decades of work, their dream became a reality last fall.
Robinson and other business owners hope the Sunrise Trail will light up the local economy, which has been lagging for years. "There's no big industry here," he points out. "A lot of people are self-employed. If visitors come for the trail and buy fishing licenses, groceries, fuel; stay at local motels and cabins; eat seafood; and so forth, it has very good potential to support an economically depressed area. It will benefit everyone."
RTC's Carl Knoch, manager of trail development in the Northeast Regional Office, agrees. "This is something we see along trails all over the country—bike shops, bike rentals, delis, bed-and-breakfasts have all sprung up to serve the needs of trail users as rail-trails have opened," he says. "I think Bill Robinson's effort is a shining example of someone who understands the economics of trails and what they mean in terms of business opportunities."