West of Woolwich: Reading the Rails

Posted Wednesday, April 27, 2011 in Opinion

West of Woolwich: Reading the Rails

Re-learning Our Infrastructure – Part 2

by Fred Kahrl

In the summer of 1944, my father was teaching war veterans at Bowdoin College in the V-2 Program and tidying up his Ph.D. thesis for publication. My parents and my two older brothers were living in Georgetown in the old house they had purchased in 1937 as a summer retreat. My mother was in her 40s and worried about having complications with her “accidental” pregnancy, which had now come to term. Like her mother before her, she had miscarried twice already, and her mother had died giving birth to my mother’s youngest sister. As a precaution, Mother decided to take the train to Boston to stay with friends, and go to Boston's "Lying-in Hospital" (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) when labor started. The men in the family stayed in Maine. The week after I was born, Mother and I returned to Bath via the Maine Central Railroad. I choose to mark that as the start of my affectionate and appreciative relationship with Maine’s railroads.


My ailing knees are supplemented on a regular basis by an industrious eighth-grader named Zach who, as required, brings a cousin or able-bodied friend to lend a hand here at Phantom Farm. Zach has been working for me for more than three years now, and has become accustomed to me quizzing him (and his startled companions) about the infrastructure of our community as it slips by the car windows.

One of my earliest pop quizzes was about the odd dangling apparatus, seen from the overpass on the Nequasset Road, hanging above the Maine Eastern Railroad tracks.

Dangling lines

Perhaps because there is something similar at the McDonald’s drive-thru, my “students” make some pretty good guesses. Yes … it is to warn people on the top of the train that a low overhead is coming. However, the “why” of there being people on top of the train has been a stumper.

No, I am not a true railroad buff, but I do have the advantage of having spent most of my misspent youth in movie theaters, and there watched many old black-and-white classics where humor or tragedy was spiced by desperate men trying to turn the reluctant brake wheels on runaway boxcars.


George Westinghouse put an end to this dangerous chore in 1872 with his patented air brake, which could be operated by the engineer from the front of the train. Soon after the turn of the 20th century, Congress mandated that all railcars be provided with air brakes, which launched George on the path to becoming one of the nation’s manufacturing giants.

George Westinghouse

Meanwhile, back in Maine, the Rockland Branch rail line had been put into service, and its overpasses and other low clearances appropriately were supplied with “tell-tales.”

And now, more than a century after “brakemen” were rendered obsolete by the air brake, these dangling monuments to rail history are still hanging in a few places, including Woolwich, Maine. 

In our contemporary world of rapid technological change, these artifacts of our nation’s railway heyday invite us to reflect on the significance of forgotten events like the humble air brake.

For context, let’s reflect on my favorite medium, the great American movie, and its continued telling and re-telling of the opening and settling of the American West. How many times did I grit my teeth and clench the arms of my theater seat, confounded that the engineer and fireman couldn’t put on enough steam to outrun the Savage Redmen or Train Robbers that were easily overtaking the train on their horses, for Pete’s sake!

Well, truth be told, the great Iron Horse of the American West was only a paper pony. It could only pull a few cars, especially through the mountains, and a kid on a bicycle could keep up with it on the flat … especially when the engine was burning western softwood instead of coal.

It is true that slow speeds and short trains made the brakemen’s chores easier, but there were still misunderstood whistle signals and poor footing that led to many horrendous accidents, both for the brakemen and for the trains.

The air brake changed all that, causing all the cars to brake and release at the same time, a feature without which trains could not have grown longer and engines stronger and faster. The transistor may have made America smarter and richer, but it was the air brake that gave the nation the speed and muscle to play its indispensable role in two world wars, at a time when the majority of the nation’s roads were still unpaved.

Our railroads bound the new nation together and fueled its development. West of Maine, railroads are still strong and competitive. West of the Mississippi River, the lines serving the West Coast are so busy that some lines are doubling their tracks.

As Maine struggles to revive its own rail infrastructure, we are challenged to lift our eyes from our HD TVs and hand toys, and consider what tales the “tell-tales” still have to tell, not only about what railroads provided to building Maine, but what they can do now to help revive our prosperity. The story is far from over.

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