International Railway of Maine
The International Railway Company of Maine was a historic railroad constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) between Megantic, Quebec and Mattawamkeag, Maine, closing a key gap in the railway's transcontinental main line to the port of Saint John, New Brunswick.
Winter alternative to Montreal
The CPR completed its route from Montreal, Quebec to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1885. In the decades prior to the use of ice breaking ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River, the port of Montreal was closed from December to May, limiting any advantage that the railway might have over its competitors.
CPR's primary Canadian competitor, the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), managed to avoid the winter ice problems in Montreal by using the ice-free port of Portland, Maine, accessed by a route constructed by the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railway which the GTR had purchased in the mid-1850s.
The Delaware and Hudson Railway ran a feeder route down the valleys of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to New York City. The Maine Central Railroad operated an arduous route over the White Mountains from St. Johnsbury, Vermont to Portland.
Looking 350 miles directly east from Montreal however, CPR surveyors saw the Canadian port of Saint John, New Brunswick was underutilized (dwarfed by the growth of Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Saint John was accessible by a route across northern Maine which was less mountainous than other options for reaching the Atlantic coast.
Some sections of a direct railway route between Montreal and Saint John already existed in the 1880s:
- The International Railway began operating in 1875 between Sherbrooke, Quebec and Lac Megantic, Quebec to service the forest industry. As suggested by the name of the company, its buiders envisioned extending into Maine. This company was the successor to the St Francis and Megantic International Railway Company .
- The European and North American Railway was constructed as part of a plan to link the Maritime provinces with the North American rail network at Portland. Organized as separate companies, the E&NA had built a section from Shediac, New Brunswick west to Saint John in the late 1850s but had gone bankrupt and the colonial government had assumed its operation. The E&NA built a western extension from Saint John to the International Boundary at St. Croix, New Brunswick and Vanceboro, Maine during the 1860s, while the E&NA in Maine had built from Bangor up the Penobscot River valley and then across the lowlands of eastern Maine to the border at Vanceboro-St. Croix in 1869. Another bankruptcy at the E&NA saw the New Brunswick portion from Saint John to the border purchased by the New Brunswick Railway and the Maine portion from Bangor to the border leased by the Maine Central Railroad.
Building the International of Maine
A roughly 100 mile gap between Mattawamkeag and Megantic required new construction to complete the Montreal-Saint John direct route.
The CPR acquired the International Railway in the mid-1880s and surveyed a line running directly from Megantic to a point on the E&NA (then leased by the Maine Central) at Mattawamkeag. This portion of new railway would cross the International Boundary between Megantic, Quebec and Jackman, Maine, thus the CPR organized two separate companies:
- The International Railway Company of Maine was incorporated federally in Canada for the portion between Megantic and the border. In 1887 it was placed under the Atlantic and North-West Railway Company, a CPR subsidiary.
- The International Railway Company of Maine was incorporated in the state of Maine for the portion between the border and Mattawamkeag and assumed the charter of a previous company of the same name that had been organized in 1871.
Construction began in 1886-1887 and proceeded in both directions from various points on the route. The new line opened in June 1889 and CPR obtained trackage rights over the Maine Central from Mattawamkeag to Vanceboro, and purchased the New Brunswick Railway to acquire control of the route from Vanceboro to Saint John, as well as a branch line network in western New Brunswick and northern Maine.
The new CPR line across Maine to Saint John was the last link in created a transcontinental railway, although the section from Mattawamkeag to Vanceboro was operated under trackage rights. In the 1950s, the Maine Central purchased the E&NA shares for approximately $3 million USD and in 1974, CPR purchased the Mattawamkeag-Vanceboro portion from the Maine Central, finally securing ownership and operation of its entire transcontinental network.
The CPR operated its new line across Maine as its International of Maine Division for many years; the International Railway Company of Maine existing on paper for operating purposes, however the track and all operations became seamless in the CPR system.
The Quebec Central Railway anticipated that the new CPR main line across Maine to its winter port of Saint John would result in traffic to Quebec City, thus the QCR built a line from Megantic north to Vallee Junction in the Beauce River valley.
The north-south oriented Bangor and Aroostook Railroad created an interchange with CPR at Brownville Junction, Maine. In addition to interchanging with CPR at Vanceboro and Mattawamkeag, the Maine Central also had an interchange with the CPR further west of Brownville Junction near the lake and ski resort community of Greenville, Maine.
Passenger and freight service
The new route was served by CPR's passenger rail service between Windsor Station in Montreal and Union Station in Saint John, where passengers could continue on the Intercolonial Railway to Moncton and Halifax.
Until the early 1960s, traffic on the International of Maine Division was extremely heavy and the railway was well-used.
The 201 mile section of railway across the state of Maine was operated directly by CPR from 1889 to 1988. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1958 and the provision of icebreaking services for the port of Montreal by the new Canadian Coast Guard after the 1960s saw the importance of a winter port at Saint John diminish.
Vanceboro sabotage attempt
During World War I, the CPR line became infamous for being the sabotage target of a German army officer. The United States was still a neutral country at that point and CPR was not permitted to transport war material and troops across US soil on the way to Saint John (most war goods were transported in Canada on the government-owned Intercolonial Railway instead. However Imperial Germany was convinced that CPR's route across Maine was being used for the war effort and sought to destroy the bridge over the St. Croix River between Vanceboro and St. Croix. The officer travelled to Vanceboro and stayed in the local hotel, then laid explosives which detonated but did not damage the bridge. He was arrested and then jailed by the US.
In 1955, CPR created a limited stop express passenger train named The Atlantic Limited. This daily train operated overnight from Montreal to Saint John and vice versa, with full service diner, observation and coach/sleeper cars.
Government investment in the 1970s for an intermodal container terminal and various improvements at Saint John resulted in some freight traffic increases and CPR invested in infrastructure improvements over the route, however by the 1980s, it was in severe decline as changes in shipping patterns and cargo logistics saw CPR make less and less return on the line.
In 1978, VIA Rail Canada took over operation of CPR passenger services and The Atlantic Limited was changed to become the Atlantic and service was extended east from Saint John to Halifax. Passenger traffic increased but government cutbacks in 1981 saw the train discontinued, removing passenger service from the Montreal-Saint John route for the first time since the route opened in 1889. The Atlantic was restored in 1985 and remained in daily service until 1990 and then tri-weekly service thereafter.
In 1988, CPR organized all its lines east of Montreal into Maine and the Maritimes (including its Dominion Atlantic Railway subsidiary in Nova Scotia) under a new subsidiary called the Canadian Atlantic Railway (CAR). The CAR experiment was short-lived as its lines were still losing money, despite abandoning many of its small rural branch lines in western New Brunswick and northern Maine. CPR applied in 1993 to abandon the mainline from Montreal to Saint John but was refused by government regulators.
Abandonment and sale
In 1994 it applied again for abandonment and permission was granted for the end of that year. Shippers and communities along the route were upset and urged CPR to sell the line, which it finally did in sections on January 1, 1995. In advance of the pending abandonment and later sale of the line, VIA Rail discontinued passenger service with the Atlantic on December 17, 1994 and the line has not had dedicated passenger service since then.
The section from Saint John to the Maine-New Brunswick border was purchased by New Brunswick Southern Railway, a subsidiary of J.D. Irving Limited, an industrial conglomerate and major traffic source in Saint John. The section from the Maine-New Brunswick border west to Mattawamkeag (where it interchanges with Guilford Rail System) and on to Brownville Junction (where it interchanges with Bangor & Aroostook RR) was also sold to a JDI subsidiary, Eastern Maine Railway. West of Brownville to Montreal, the route was purchased by Iron Road Railways, the corporate owner of Bangor & Aroostook RR.
The bankruptcy of Iron Road in the early 2000s saw the western part of the system taken over by the newly organized Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, while JDI continues at the eastern end of the route.