Down East Sunrise Trail History

Past, Present and Future

The Past

The Down East Sunrise Trail history represents only the latest chapter in the story of the Calais Branch Railroad Corridor. Rail service on the 127-mile corridor from Brewer to Calais began in 1898. For decades trains loaded with freight and visitors rumbled to Calais and Eastport. They made the return journey loaded with fish and timber.

One of the most famous users of  the railway line was former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Roosevelts would use the train to carry them to Eastport, where they would catch a boat to visit the family’s summer retreat on Campobello Island. In 1921, the railroad was used to shuttle Roosevelt back to New York City when he was stricken with polio.

In 1984, the corridor fell silent as the train service that had lasted more than 80 years ceased.

In 1987 this corridor was acquired by the State of Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) from the Maine Central Railroad, and rail service thereafter ceased. After an economic analysis of potential for the rail corridor, the state concluded the cost of reactivating the corridor for rail service was too expensive, given the uncertainty about demand for rail freight service to the towns and cities along the corridor.

Then-Governor Baldacci on July 15, 2005 charged MDOT with developing a Trail Management and Maintenance Plan for a multi-use trail along the 87-mile section of the corridor between Ellsworth and Ayers Junction.

A New Chapter

MDOT formed the Calais Branch Trail Management Committee whose membership included:

  • Maine Department of Conservation (MDOC),
  • law enforcement representatives,
  • the National Park Service,
  • the municipalities in Hancock and Washington counties,
  • regional planning and economic development agencies, and
  • local citizen trail groups.

This committee was to develop a Management and Maintenance Plan for the rehabilitation of the corridor and subsequent construction of the trail.

This Plan recommended the Bureau of Parks and Lands of MDOC be the long-term manager of this multi-use trail, due to its extensive experience in constructing and managing other multi-use trails throughout Maine. MDOT and the Bureau entered into an agreement to oversee the corridor rehabilitation, subsequent trail construction, and long-term management and maintenance of the trail, while preserving the conditions along the corridor so that railroad use could be revived if market conditions changed.

The Sunrise Trail Coalition Enters the Picture

The Sunrise Trail Coalition, organized more than a decade earlier, was enlisted to provide public support for the trail manager and to represent the various interests of the multiple groups that use the trail.

Construction entailed removal of the substandard rails, repair of washouts, placement of decking over bridges, rehabilitation of the corridor, and construction of a 12-foot wide, compact gravel base.

Total cost was estimated to be $3.9 million, financed by sale of the rails, ties and other hardware.

Sally Martin (Cope) Jacobs Memorial

It’s no exaggeration to say the Sunrise Trail would not exist if not for Sally Jacobs. Sally began her work advocating for the development of bicycle trails in 1975. Over the next 35 years she helped procure funding to build trails connecting Orono, Old Town and the University of Maine. In 2000 she became founding president of the Sunrise Trail Coalition, a position she held for 12 years.

For Sally it was a dream come true when the 85-mile Down East Sunrise Trail opened on the rail bed between Ellsworth and Ayers Junction. Over the course of her remarkable life, Sally received more than 25 awards for her civic efforts. Sally died in 2012, and in October of 2015 the Sunrise Trail Coalition erected a monument honoring her at Machias.

A New Era Begins

Construction began spring 2008 along the easterly 49 miles of the trail from Machias to Ayers Junction. A ribbon cutting ceremony was held January 31, 2009 at Ayers Junction for the opening of these 49 miles to winter activities. Construction began in the spring of 2009 for the remaining 36 miles from Machias to Washington Junction. It was completed in the fall of 2010. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at Washington Junction in September 2010.

The final 2.2 mile segment from Washington Junction to High Street Trail head in Ellsworth was completed in Fall 2016 and officially opened  on December 2 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by the Sunrise Trail Coalition and the City of Ellsworth.

The Present

Today the Sunrise Trail Coalition works to promote use of the trail to ensure that the Sunrise Trail History is just the beginning for this treasured Maine resource.

The Future

The future of the Sunrise Trail is what you make it. The trail we enjoy today is the result of hundreds of hours of volunteer work as well as state-funded maintenance and upkeep. Maintaining and improving what we have today will require continued support and involvement of the community. You can help by joining the Sunrise Trail Coalition today.

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The Sunrise Trail Coalition: Building a healthier, more prosperous future for Hancock and Washington counties.

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