UNITY — To be in a community where adults are committed to keeping magic alive for the younger ones is a special thing. No time is that clearer than around Christmas.

This year, volunteers at the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad have embodied this spirit, offering the nonprofit’s first-ever Santa’s Snowbird Express train ride experience for children and families.

The two-hour trip takes passengers from the Unity station to Thorndike’s Farwell Mill and back. At least three trips — including one with a locally sourced lunch — have run each day of the weekend since Thanksgiving.

Sunday marks the last day of the rides. It is also the 148th anniversary of the Belfast and Moosehead Lake railroad. The route first opened on Dec. 23, 1870, according to conductor Joey Kelley, who has written a book about its history.

On the Snowbird Express, Santa requests the help of children on board.

“I stand up and say, ‘Look! The reason we’re going here is we’ve gotta find the naughty elves who ran away and are having a party somewhere. If you see reindeer tracks in the snow or you see a green hat or a green shoe, then we know we’re getting closer,'” said Dennis Harrington, also known as Saint Nick. “If you can smell the Christmas trees — ’cause the elves smell like Christmas trees — you’ll know that we’re close to them. And then (the elves can) go back to the North Pole. They’ll make the toys and everybody’s going to get their presents.'”

The excitement was palpable on the Saturday lunch train. A wood stove warmed the passenger cabin while kids took turns ringing jingle bells, to the amusement of their parents and grandparents. Two-year-old Gloria Yorks-Christle, of Frankfort, said that Santa was her best friend.

This year, the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad was hit hard when two of its trains had mechanical failures on the first day of the Common Ground Country Fair, when the service is typically at its busiest. Engineer Peter Reny said that on that September weekend, about 20,000 passengers ride the train over the course of three days, with trains running every 25 minutes. Santa’s Snowbird Express originated as an idea to make up some revenue, Reny said. But each staff member on the train Saturday agreed: This seems to be the beginning of an annual tradition.

“We definitely will do the Christmas trains again,” Reny said. He has been a railroad employee for 52 years, getting his start at Central Maine Railroad Co.

The workers who run the Belfast and Moosehead Lake train are all volunteers.

“We do it because we love it, we believe in history and we want to bring Christmas magic into some kids’ life,” Kelley said. “That’s all the payment we get and all the payment we need.”

“My salary doubles every day!” Reny joked.

Harvey Magnusson, who was helping Reny operate the train Saturday, loves the railroad so much that he commutes from Randolph, Massachusetts, twice a month throughout the year.

The train itself is a string of cars from different eras, with one dating to 1924, one from 1960 and a locomotive from 1959. The second passenger car, from around 1918, is ornately painted. It had been a cafe and an office space before volunteers at the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad re-commissioned it to the tracks. At one point, the railroad was funded in part by each community that it passed through.

“The name is actually a misnomer,” Kelley said. “It never got within 100 miles of Moosehead Lake. It never went any further than Burnham. But at the time (of that decision), it already had its name. I think they didn’t want to do more paperwork.”

In its prime, the route carried produce and poultry to the Belfast harbor and brought back a variety of other products in return, according to Magnusson.

“Pulpwood was a huge commodity,” Kelley added.

The mid-point stop of the Snowbird Express drops passengers off at the Farwell Mill in Thorndike, home of one of the state’s first electrically powered grain mills. There, a team of dedicated volunteers is hoping to raise money to restore the property’s buildings and open a museum.

Harrington said he thinks that after 40 years of being Waldo County’s Santa, this might be his last season on the job. As the train left Thorndike, no faster than 20 mph, he captured the heart of the Snowbird Express experience.

“It’s really a blast to be a part of this,” he reflected. “There’s some kind of magic to being on a train anyway. People who never would have met are talking to each other. It’s like a little … community. And then it disappears when we get to the station; but for two hours, it was magical.”

The Snowbird Express will run two trips on Sunday, leaving at 1:30 and 4 p.m. from 180 Depot St. in Unity.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins


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