The Star-Herald

Trolleys and the Gould connection

Presque Isle Historical Society is occasionally asked why we have a trolley.  Obviously, the first answer is that it is great fun.  The second part of the question is does Presque Isle really have any history of trolleys?  The answer to that is yes. 

While Molly the Trolley is technically a trolley bus, a trolley is basically an electric train.  And Presque Isle did have an electric train, the Aroostook Valley Railroad, or AVRR.

The official grand opening of the Aroostook Valley Railroad was on July 1, 1910 in Washburn.  Washburn declared this its “greatest day.”  The big red trolley cars were greeted very enthusiastically with bunting and flags, speeches, dignitaries, and music.    A welcome banner was also placed across the main street in Washburn.  Presque Isle even declared the day a “holiday” with shops and businesses closed so residents could attend the event.  Rides were given hourly until late into the evening.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about the Aroostook Valley Railroad without talking about the contributions made to our area by Arthur Gould. Arthur Robinson Gould arrived in Presque Isle from East Corinth in 1886.  Gould, who traveled through our area frequently while acting as a salesman for his brother’s fruit and tobacco company, recognized the need for formal banking services in Presque Isle.  His initial goal was to open a financial institution here.  Instead, he became the owner of the lumber mill and the manager of the Presque Isle Electric Company.  He later served as a Maine and U.S. senator.  In fact, our hospital, Northern Light AR Gould, is named after him to honor his contributions to this community.  

The idea for the electric railroad came to Gould in 1905, while searching for lumber for his mill and wanting to access lumber not directly on the river as well as looking for a cheaper way to get the logs to the mill.  He felt that coal would be too expensive and thought an electric railroad was the way to go.  

The process was somewhat of an uphill battle.  After a less than enthusiastic reception by local businessmen, he directly approached the group that controlled the Aroostook Falls in New Brunswick.  In addition, there was a special law on the books of the State of Maine entitled An Act of Aid of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad.  The law was designed to protect the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad from the risk of building a railroad in such a rural area as Aroostook County by reducing competition as all would-be competitors had to be approved by the B & A.  

Once the AVRR opened for business in 1910, passenger service was offered via six trains a day in each direction:  four between Presque Isle and Caribou; two between Presque Isle and New Sweden.  Freight service consisted of one train every day covering the entire route.  Freight revenue was approximately $60,000 per year, double that made from the passenger service.  Outbound freight typically consisted of potatoes, lumber, starch, and hay while inbound freight was fertilizer, grain, and flour.  The railroad often stored the freight in the winter.  At one time, the AVRR had 63, 50-foot warehouses (typically potato houses) served by the tracks.

The line originally ran 10.8 miles from Presque Isle to Washburn. In 1911, an additional 11.3 miles were laid to reach New Sweden. With the approval of 7.13 miles on June 29, 1912, the city of Caribou was joined with the AVRR and the line grew to service over 32 miles of the Aroostook County area. 

During World War II, an extension was built to the Presque Isle Air Force Base.  The steel span crossed the Presque Isle Stream.  Although the steel has been removed, the concrete piers are still visible today from Riverside Drive and the State Street Bridge.

Gould’s original plan was to have the railroad expand across the top of Maine.  He had already secured the cooperation of the Canadian Pacific Railroad to guarantee the interest on bonds to pay for the project as well as the agreement of landowners for right-of-way.  Surveys were completed at his own expense.  The route was to go from Washburn to Lac Frontiere where it would connect with the Quebec Central Railroad.  The expansion, however, never received the necessary approval.

Gould sold his controlling interest to the Canadian Pacific for $225 per share in 1932 and agreed to stay on for a time as president.  The Canadian Pacific later discontinued use of electricity and switched to diesel.

Presque Isle’s passenger station was located on Riverside Drive on the corner of what is now State Street.  As an interesting side note, of the three railways that once served Presque Isle (the Canadian & Pacific, Bangor & Aroostook and the AVRR), this is the only original depot building still standing.

As roadways improved, the needs for train passenger and freight services declined.   Passenger service was discontinued on Aug. 7, 1946.  The last AVRR freight run was made in April of 1996.  The engines and passenger cars were sold to collectors and the track lanes are now snowmobile trails.  A couple of AVRR cars (an engine and passenger cars) are currently to be found at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Kimberly R. Smith is the secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society.

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