Friday, December 6, 2013
Peter Reny climbs the steep steps into the train, sits in his perch by the open window and starts the locomotive.
Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad train engineer Peter Reny throttles an engine along the Passagassawakeag River in Belfast during a recent scenic ride.
Staff photo by Amy Calder
It rumbles and spits and rolls into a rhythmic hum, warming up for the two-mile trip along the Passagassawakeag River, which empties into the ocean in Belfast.
Reny, 66, of North Vassalboro, has engineered this scenic trip on the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad hundreds of times, but this will be his last, at least on this stretch of track.
The city of Belfast plans to rip up the track and turn it into a walking trail, a move Reny finds disturbing.
“I feel sad about it — really sad because every time you pull up a piece of rail, it’s never going to go back and you’ve lost the potential of passenger service, loss of freight,” Reny says.
He has cause to be disheartened, having done just about every railroad job imaginable since he started working for railroads in 1966. He also was president of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen many years.
“Today is my anniversary with the railroad 47 years,” he says. “I was 19 years old when I started and I had to have a note from my mother to go to work. I started as a laborer for Maine Central Railroad off College Avenue in Waterville. I cut up box cars for the stores department — the purchasing department.”
Reny, wearing a blue and white striped engineer’s cap, keeps his hands on the throttle and brakes and, when he crosses a road or bridge, sounds the bell and blasts the whistle. This locomotive is pulling three coaches, an open air car and a caboose over the old tracks as it carries about 100 passengers on its last trip along this shore.
The open air car next to the locomotive is packed with people of all ages standing at the rail or sitting on benches, taking photos and soaking in the striking orange and red fall foliage on this bright October Sunday afternoon.
Sea gulls skim the salt water off in the distance, where houses are perched on rocks beneath a blue and sunny sky.
“This is the best part of the whole trip, right here,” Reny says. “It is the thing people love to see.”
We crawl along at between 5 and 15 mph in the cab of the old locomotive, whose conductor this day is Thor Swenson, 39, also of Vassalboro.
Reny explains that it is a diesel electric locomotive, built the same month and year he was born — November 1946.
Reny grew up in North Vassalboro, the seventh of eight children. He was drawn to all things mechanical and started working on cars at a young age.
Today, he has 60 classic and antique cars, trucks and tractors that he shows at various events and volunteers to take to nursing homes for people to enjoy.
“I was probably just starting school and my father had me taking things apart, like farm tractors,” he says. “My father was a farmer and he also worked in a textile mill — the American Woolen Mill (in Vassalboro).”
Pete Reny’s first car was a 1933 Plymouth — like the one in the film “American Graffiti.”
“I was 15. I started collecting cars at 17 — I had a Model A Ford. It drove my father crazy. He was neat as a pin. My mother had to stick up for me. She said, ‘At least he’s not running the streets — we know where he is.’”
Reny knows cars well and is well-known around the state by auto aficionados. He and his wife, Jackie, have a lot of friends who stop at his busy Route 32 shop to check out his collection and latest acquisitions.
They also like to hear his train stories and all about the colorful characters he worked with as he moved up the ladder in the railroad, from laborer to car repairman, welder, air brakeman, car inspector, engineer and supervisor.
Reny worked mostly for Maine Central Railroad, but also for the Bangor & Aroostook, and St. Lawrence & Atlantic railroads. He retired in 2007 but continues to volunteer as an engineer on the Belfast & Moosehead. In addition to the scenic rides, he also takes passengers to and from the annual Common Ground Fair, an event hosted in Unity each fall by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
The Belfast train, he said, was owned by Maine Central Railroad in the 1800s when it hauled freight, passengers and mail.
“I came here as an engineer in 1989 and hauled freight — mostly wood, oil pearlite and some coal.”
As we amble along the tracks on this last trip to the ocean, the car wheels squealing and scraping against the rail, Reny is uncharacteristically quiet.
I know he is committing every rock, tree, hill and turn to memory.
We enter the station at City Point and he rings the bell and blasts the whistle as he always does.
But this time, I detect a tear in his eye.
While the massive diesel engine continues to idle, it is clear that an era has ended.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column is published every Monday. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.