Odyssey of the Eagle Lake Tramway

The description of the construction of the tramway is a first-hand account by O.A. Harkness, published Nov. 1927 in The Northern magazine by Great Northern Paper Company. Harkness was in charge of tramway operations.

One of the great feats of northern entrepreneurial ingenuity came about at the turn of the last century, when a tramway was built to procure wood from deep in the interior of Maine at Eagle Lake to bring to Millinocket paper mills. The tramway connected two great river systems: the St. John and the Penobscot.

The problem of moving logs to market from remote forests vexed timbermen for decades. Using the river systems was an answer.

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A hand-drawn map showing The Tramway and route of the Eagle Lake & West Branch Railroad and Chesuncook & Chamberlain Lake Railroad.  This map was originally published in the November 1927 issue of The Northern magazine.

In 1901, A.O. Harkness, then working for Eastern Manufacturing Company in S. Brewer, wrote that he’d heard rumors of a proposed tramway to be built at the head of Chamberlain Lake. Fred T. Dow of Bangor surveyed the spit of land that separated Eagle Lake of the St. John River system from Chamberlain Lake, which flowed into the Penobscot River drainage. The distance was about 3,000 feet.

Different types of possible conveyors were studied, then a contract was made with Taylor Iron and Steel Company of High Bridge, NJ, the first in the country to manufacture manganese steel castings. All of the trucks, castings, and clamps of the tramway were made from this.

Harkness writes that nearly all of the machinery was taken across Moosehead Lake to Northeast Carry in the fall of 1901. When the lake froze over, what was left in Greenville was taken across with teams by H.N. Bartley. Brown and Wiggin, of Patten, contracted to move the machinery from Northeast Carry to Eagle Lake. The cable itself weighed 14 tons. It wasn’t possible to move it all in one piece, as originally intended, so below Smith’s Halfway House on the West Branch it was cut into two pieces.

In March 1902, Mr. Dow and a crew began building the foundations for the boilers and heavy machinery on the Chamberlain side. He had a small rotary saw to cut out timber that he ran with a donkey engine, as the crankshaft on the large engine had been broken on the way in. Harkness built a tow boat at Chamberlain, which was ready to take logs from the tramway on May 10, 1903.

The tramway was built of steel cable, was 6,000 feet long, and fastened together to connect Eagle Lake and Chamberlain Lake. At intervals of 10 feet the trucks were clamped on. The trucks consisted of a steel saddle onto which the log rested, and two 11” wheels that ran on steel rails 22” apart. There were two tracks, one above the other. The loaded one went on the top track and empty one returned on the lower track. Halfway between the trucks there was a steel clamp. Both the clamp and the truck fitted into the sprocket wheel, situated at the Chamberlain end of the tramway. This wheel made nine revolutions per minute, so the logs traveled at the rate of 250 feet per minute. The sprocket wheel was geared to a Westinghouse Compound engine, designed specifically for electric light plants. The engine made 255 revolutions per minute with 100 lbs. of steam. Wood was used to fuel the two boilers furnishing the steam for the engines. It took a lot of power to start the machinery, but it rolled easily once it was in motion.

The crew ran into some problems before the tramway was practical to use. Each of the 600 trucks and 600 clamps were fastened to the cable with four 7-8” bolts, making 4,800 bolts in all. It was discovered that the threads on the bolts weren’t cut down far enough to allow the nut to be tightened sufficiently. When the tramway was loaded with logs, the trucks and clamps began to slip. Each of the 4,800 bolts had to be removed and run with a hand die then replaced.

The tramway was used for six seasons, under the management of Harkness, until 1909 when all available timber had been extracted. He said they managed an average of 500,000 board feet for each operating day, the day beginning at 4 a.m., ending around 8 p.m. He said the total amount of lumber taken over the tramway amounted to about 100 million feet. He called the tramway an excellent bit of machinery, very efficient in doing what it was designed for.

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A long abandoned locomotive rests in the woods, a relic from the Eagle Lake & West Branch Railroad. In an average week, more than 6,500 cords of wood were hauled from Eagle Lake to Umbazooksus Lake, where it was then taken to market on the Penobscot River drainage. A pair of railroad cars, by 1933 obsolete and left abandoned, remain as symbols of that logging era.

By the 1920s timber was again ready to cut. The tramway was determined to be obsolete, no longer able to handle the volume of wood that could be cut. It was never used again. Instead, the answer was railroads. In 1926 a railroad was designed near the tramway, laid on the west shore of Eagle Lake to Allagash Stream, along the west shore of Chamberlain Lake, to the headwaters of Umbazooksus Lake. It’s said the most incredible feat was the moving in of two steam locomotives, each weighing almost 100 tons. The trains ran four seasons, hauling pulpwood from one watershed to the next, until the area’s surrounding timber had again been taken. By 1933, train use ended. Roads began being built into the interior for logging.

Today, hikers may visit the site. It’s a long drive. It is not easy to get to, but the curious will find remnants of the long lost tramway and a pair of tremendous full size steam locomotives resting among the trees.

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Today logging trucks move wood along a network of private roads owned by timbering companies.

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