By: Greg Reid
Volunteer Chester Gabriel doesn’t mince words about the year-old partnership between the Seashore Trolley Museum and the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. “I think this is the best thing to happen to this museum in a long time,” he said. “It allows us to show people what these trolleys actually did – get people from one place to another, for a purpose.”
On an early August day my son and I were shuttled out a mile and a half to Talbott Park, in the northeast corner of the museum’s 330-acre campus. From there, we disembarked with our bikes and rode a mile on an abandoned railway bed into the 12-mile trail system winding through the Edwin L. Smith Preserve – at 1,100 acres, the trust’s largest holding.
While the trolley museum averages roughly 100-200 visitors per day, Aidan and I were the 60th and 61st visitors in the past year to ride the trolley to explore the neighboring trails. And we were the first to take along our bikes. The museum has been working to encouraged hikers, birders and, in winter, snow-shoe and cross-country skiers, to ride the rails to explore the far reaches of the preserve. New this year is the call for mountain bikers and dog owners. In addition to the bike rack newly mounted on car 1160, visitors will find both an additional bike rack in the museum parking lot, and dog cleanup stations throughout the museum grounds.
“Some people will be drawn to the novelty of taking a trolley out to the trails. Most of them have never been here before. Once they’re here, I know they’ll like it,” said Sally Bates, the museum’s executive director.
As we slipped away from the station, our gaze was drawn to the lush lawn perfect for dogs, the vast car barns, idle street cars and out-of-service buses rolling by. With clouds thickening overhead and our energy level high, Aidan and I thought it best to hit the trails first. It’s a good thing we did. We would need every ounce of our energy when the trails hit back.
“One of our goals is to build community by collaborating with neighbors and other nonprofits, so it was a natural fit to work with the trolley museum,” said Lisa Lassey, associate director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. “The trolley takes you up to a pretty remote part of the trail system. It’s a great way to provide access from another point for people who want to explore in there.”
Bates and Lassey both credit Brandon Gillard with bringing the groups together. Involved in both organizations, Gillard manages Kennebunkport Bicycle and counts among his riding partners former president George W. Bush. Gillard helped design and build both the Smith Preserve trails and the path linking the properties.
The wide, sandy track of the rail bed trail is a terrific warmup for a day in the saddle. As you turn onto Trolley Trail and enter the preserve, the first thing you notice is a sense of solitude. The canopy of towering pines cuts visibility to a few hundred yards. The only sounds to be heard are the whirr of tires on the narrow earthen path, the pounding of your heart and your steady grunts as you navigate roots, rocks and turns. And, of course, there is the constant buzz of mosquitoes and deer flies swirling around your head.
But there’s no faint rumble of highway traffic. No hum and whine of lawnmowers, no buoys clanging or ship horns sounding in the distance. It’s just you and the narrow, mushroom-lined paths, babbling brooks, winding bridges and occasional broad flat rocks. Suddenly, it is not so hard to believe that out there in the darkness is a mixed habitat for moose, bobcats, coyotes, turkeys, deer and fishers.
The trust protects 2,200 acres, which has come largely from donations from the town of Kennebunkport and private landholders, along with the support of the Trust for Public Land and a grant from the Land for Maine’s Future Program. It is part of a 3,000-acre block of undeveloped land, the largest such coastal piece between Kittery and Brunswick.
Lassey says improved access to the Smith Preserve is an important step toward the trust’s long-term goal of piecing together enough parcels to create a greenbelt that can be traversed by foot or bike from the northeast corner of Kennebunkport, near the Arundel and Biddeford town lines, to Cape Porpoise on the southern coast.
“We’re getting there,” she said, “little by little.”
About 40 minutes in, we welcomed the rolling patter of heavy rain showers and their cooling relief. We picked up the Steele Trail and carried on. It’s worth noting here that bikers should pay close attention to the map, and plan their trip accordingly. Know your ability and what your bike can handle. Novice and recreational riders will want to keep to the Trolley, Steele and Fox Den trails. Following ski course conventions, these are the easiest of the trails, and designated by green dots. The Brook Trail, for those a bit more advanced, is marked by a blue square. The nearly 3-mile Bobcat Ridge is marked with a black diamond, every inch deservedly so.
Also, there are no shortcuts. The designated gates won’t lead you to a nearby road or easier path. They simply show where you are leaving the Smith Preserve for other undeveloped land.
Our hybrid bikes held up well enough, but frankly, we weren’t as prepared or as experienced as we should have been for our ride. The blame falls squarely on me. As a lifelong flatlander, I failed to read the map correctly. At marker 11 on the Steele Trail, we opted to pass through a gate, intending to find a shortcut that didn’t exist. After a 20-minute detour into uncharted territory (Google Maps offered little help), we doubled back to Steele Trail.
Wet and tested but in good spirits – 12-year-old boys find adventure in just about any circumstance – we opted to take Bobcat Ridge Trail back to the museum campus. I hesitated about riding a trail designated as a ridge but put it out of my mind. The point of the trip was exploration, right?
Pushing off, Aidan smiled and called over his shoulder, “It can’t be any harder than that wrong turn, Dad.”
Rain started again, so I stuffed the map in my bag and followed, all the while failing to notice the little black diamond beside the words “Bobcat Ridge Trail.”
With all its dog legs, switchbacks, steep inclines and sharp dips, both the ridge and black diamond became evident. Simply hiking the path offers a challenging workout amid its serene beauty. In retrospect, I can almost see the designers’ joy in jacking up the trail’s degree of difficulty at points.
It wasn’t long before Aidan and I dismounted and walked our bikes for a good 80 percent to 90 percent of the trail. The last thing we needed that far out was a twisted ankle or broken collarbone. On foot, we did get to enjoy the scenery a bit more. Our pace slowed further by walking our bikes, we took the time to study bright red mushrooms and dense blueberry patches. We even paused to try to locate critters skittering through the brush.
We were relieved to reach the Trolley Trail again, where we mounted up and sped with newfound energy out of the preserve and along the path to Talbott Park. A few minutes later, trolley car 1160 chugged to a stop. We loaded the bikes and took our seats among museum goers. A little boy eyed the mud and the blood on my legs and pressed closer to his mother.
“It’s OK, buddy,” I said. “We just went on a really cool bike ride.”
The ride back and a stroll around the museum grounds was the perfect close to the afternoon. Volunteer conductor Edward Dooks stopped at Meserve’s Crossing, to let off a young woman, who crossed the field to the house beyond a stand of trees. Dooks told us of a time when Mainers in these parts commuted by trolley cars for work and for entertainment on weekends. His talk spanned the cars’ 100-year history from Richmond, Va., to Brooklyn, N.Y., Brookline, Mass., and on up to Biddeford and Portland.
Revived by ice-cold drinks for sale in the museum store, we walked out among the colorful, bright trolley cars. (This one came from Glasgow, that one from St. Louis.) I remembered my own distant ties to this world. For some 40 years, my grandfather was an upholsterer for rail cars running out of Boston’s South Station. Perhaps his handiwork was on display in some car here?
We made our way back to the car, tired yet content.
With its blend of heart-pounding excitement along the trails and tranquil passage into public transportation’s past, one thing is certain about this unusual but logical partnership of neighboring organizations: It’s an opportunity for an adventure unlike any other you’ll find in southern Maine.
Throughout 2014, the museum is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Bates and her colleagues have compiled an impressive list of events to mark the milestone, including a vintage costume day and ice cream social, staging a Prohibition-era speakeasy and playing host to an antique auto show. Fall events include a Pumpkin Patch Trolley (Sept. 20-21 and Sept. 27-28), Transit Day (Oct. 11) and a Christmas Prelude (Dec. 5-7 and Dec. 12-14).
Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $7.50 for children age 6-16, and free for children 5 and younger. Details on memberships are found at the museum website, trolleymuseum.org. Complete information about the trust is at kporttrust.org.
Greg Reid is a freelance writer in Portland. You can find his work at ScribblingMadly.com and follow him on Twitter @gregreid820