To this day, it's still the best ride I ever had

With considerable self-laudatory hoopla, something named Amtrak tells us folks in Maine that we have a new choo-choo train and can ride from Portland to Boston and return just as we used to do back when we had trains. We had excellent railroads from anywhere in Maine to anywhere in North America, and they served us well. Then we sat back in idle unconcern and let the trucking industry beguile us into building roads for highway freight and thus make railroads desuetudinous. So also did we lay out airports from city sprawl to city sprawl, rendering null and void all train depots downtown, until now it takes longer to get from airport to city than it takes to get from Omaha to Frankfort.

With passengers and freight, the steam trains worked well and went everywhere. Highways and airlines lead only (with good intentions and great expense) to the suburbs and perdition. Take a good deep breath and exhale slowly. It is not only a privilege of age to harp on such things, but a duty: Who but the old-timers would know?

I was just telling the grandchildren how I once sailed to Maine on the SS Calvin Austin, and how now in my 90s I remember it as the best ride I ever had. Nobody today knows that Mr. Austin was the president of the Eastern Steamship Lines, a fleet of great white-and-gold steamers that plied Maine, the Maritime Provinces, and Boston with precision and comfort.

Highway and railroad aside, the steamer was the best way to go Downeast from – or to return to – the Boston States. If you bother to think about it, that was the first established route of America, already laid out by Downeast Indians going to Florida for the winter before the Europeans came. It was The Long Trail.

We in Maine could go and come Bostonwise by train before the Civil War. It cost us 2 cents a mile on the B&M, and the connecting Maine Central charged the same. But we could also go by boat, which cost even less per nautical mile. A stateroom with berth was a spendthrift $1 and a whopping great 25 cent tip to the steward. The boat was, by all measurements, the way to go.

In 1914, my father was still seeking his fortune in Boston. But as a dutiful son he spent some of his sparse salary to ride back to Maine now and then to see how his dad was doing alone on the family farm. I was 6 then, and he felt I was old enough to go along, since 6-year-olds rode free and next year I'd have to pay. I thus went to visit Grampy, and the Calvin Austin sailed from her pier off Atlantic Avenue on Boston's waterfront in the late afternoon of a quiet day. The steamship was not big, like a liner, but she carried a goodly company and was spick-and-span with new white paint. She was a paragon of wonder to a boy just starting his first year of school and excused for a special occasion.

As the steamer pulled from the wharf my father, hand over mine at the fantail, told me the grim tale of the man who almost missed the boat. He knew who the man was, and he told me his name. The man was going to Maine, just as we were, and he came running down the wharf with his suitcase swinging because he had only seconds before the gangplank would lift and the steamer would sail.

Indeed, just as he reached the gangplank, it lifted. The steamer was under way. But he threw his suitcase across the gap, and then leaped across it and landed in a heap on the deck. Two deckhands helped him stand, and he was all right, safely on his way to Maine.

Dad said that boat was the steamer Portland, and she sailed into the swirl of a northeast blizzard and was never seen again.

As you can see, nothing like that happened to us, and I fell asleep to the throb of the engines. Perhaps this tale should have bothered me, but it did not. At two in the morning, my Dad got me up and lifted me so I could look out the porthole and see the flash of the Monhegan lighthouse. The steward had told us that if all were well we would be there precisely at two. Dad said the Pilgrims went past here in the Mayflower on their way to Plymouth, and he never could figure out why they kept on going to Massachusetts.

The steward said we'd dock in Rockland in time for breakfast. Then we'd connect with the steam cars, and my Dad said Grampy would meet us at Little River. All this happened. I was 6 and had never heard of Amtrak.

We stayed two sleeps with Grampy, and then he and Tantrabogus buggied us back to the station to take the morning train to Boston. Grampy gave me a bundle I was to pass along to my mother, and it had four combs of white clover honey, the sweetest kind. As we waited for the train, Grampy told us his first ride away from home was on his way to war in 1861. He went by rail to Fall River, Mass., and then by steamship to New Jersey. He had never been away from home until then. Two days later he was in battle.

Then he told about the lady from New Jersey who came to Little River, Maine, for some reason, and took the train to go home. And she asked Linc Coolidge, the station agent, which track her train would be on. There was never but one track at Little River. So Linc looked the lady over and said, "Don't matter, Madam, it comes in on all of 'em jist like a swarm o' bees!" Amtrak can't do that!

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