A Rail Lover's Lifelong Dream Chugs Back to Life

ALNA, Maine -- When Harry Percival bought the ribbon of land, 66 feet wide and 22 miles long, with a plan to rebuild the historic narrow-gauge railroad that once ran along it, most people thought he was crazy, according to the Boston Globe. But look out his living room window, and just below the gravel drive you'll see two shiny steel tracks slicing through the snow. Listen and you'll hear the shrill blast of a train whistle as an unusually slim locomotive rounds the bend.

It has taken 16 years and more money than his wife, Clarissa, cares to count, but this is the scene - straight from the turn of the century - that the 71-year-old Percival saw daily. He died yesterday, after fulfilling a lifelong dream to bring the train back to Maine.

He and his co-workers have managed to restore a mile-and-a-quarter stretch of the original 44-mile Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway. And the effort has begun to accelerate, with volunteers from around the globe set this spring to lay more track.

But just as the railroad was finally coming to life, the man who built it spent his final days in an adjustable bed in his living room, his voicebox silenced by a tumor, his lungs choked from asbestos breathed long ago.

"It really is an incredible story," said Larson Powell of Lenox, Mass., head of the new railroad association's board. "To think this guy was up there, all by himself, starting this. Everyone thought he was nuts, but he stuck with it."

The narrow-gauge railroad is a distinctive sight. The 2-foot wide track is less than half the width of standard rails, and the slim trains run a pokey 25 miles per hour and seat just 35, with a single column of chairs on either side of the aisle.

The trains, which once connected this rural hamlet with larger railroads across the state, stopped running in 1933, just three years before Percival was born.

Growing up along the tracks in the small town of Weeks Mills, Percival dreamed even then of restoring the railroad. About the time he started school, the rails were ripped up for scrap. When Percival was 9 he set out to rebuild them.

"He took some of his father's 6-by-6 timbers and was going to use them as ties," said his wife. "When his father discovered the boards were missing, that job ceased."

The dream never did.

It remained through electrical engineering school, through building destroyers at Bath Iron Works, through the Army in post-war Europe. After returning home, marrying, raising three children, and going to work for the electric company, the dream only intensified.

In 1974, when Percival built a house for his family in Somerville, a town 30 miles north of Wiscasset, he designed the entire downstairs as a train shed - complete with an 8-foot-deep grease pit under the floorboards. The goal was to salvage engine number 9, the only remaining locomotive from the railroad and the oldest narrow-gauge engine in the country.

Owned by Alice Ramsdell, whose father was the last man to own the railroad, the engine was stored in a barn on a farm in West Thompson, Conn.

"I can remember the first trip I took down when I was about 4 or 5," said Percival's youngest son, Chris Percival, 31, of Waldoboro. "You walk into this vast, dark barn and expect to see cows and pigs and here's this hulking steam engine."

At home, Percival stored blueprints of the engine beneath his desk. "Every once in a while, I would pull out a corner and just look," Chris said. "It was like the Holy Grail."

Nevertheless, Percival couldn't convince Ramsdell to part with the old machine, not until she was certain it would be properly restored.

Her opposition softened in 1985 when Percival bought all the land that was left of the original railroad for roughly $8,000. Percival began surveying the overgrown property to find the centerline of the old rail bed and then set out with hammer and nails to build a train shed.

"It looked like an ungodly huge outhouse," said Chris. "I remember going to my next door neighbor's house, and he thought my dad was nuts."

Slowly the project gained momentum. Friends and neighbors stopped by to help. Train enthusiasts chipped in. Word spread. He started a railroad association about 10 years ago; it now has 750 members, some from as far as Germany and England.

Not long ago, on a rise just above the tracks, Percival built his house - a small cape with the giant picture of a locomotive laid out in shingles on the roof. While he still owns the land beneath the railroad, the operation itself is now run as a museum and run independently by a board of directors.

Today, Percival's front lawn includes a replica of the original train station laid out along the lines of the old foundation, two new bays on the enginehouse, a freight shed, four train cars, and four locomotives - including engine number 9. It came on the back of a flatbed truck one freezing winter night in 1995.

Chris Percival remembers standing with his dad and a handful of railway fanatics that night. "As an engineer, having such a rational mind, my dad was never one to get emotional," he said. "But I would say he was pleased."

The WW&F is not the best known narrow-gauge railroad in the state. To find it, you have to wind through the woods, down a gravel road, and over a swamp. Nor is it the busiest. Trains run only on weekends and only on Saturdays during the winter. But after a decade of volunteers coming to clear trees and lay steel, it does claim the longest stretch of track in the state built on its original route.

For $3 you can ride to the end of the line in about 10 minutes. Then it's another 10 minutes back to the station - riding backwards, since the train can't turn around. Some passengers are so enthralled by the herky-jerky motion of the train and the billowing clouds of steam, they ride up and down the rails repeatedly.

"It is a living history museum," said Bob Longo, a member of the association who lives in Syracuse, N.Y. Rather than build a Disney-style railroad, Percival wanted an authentic reproduction.

"All the rules of the road, all the signaling, all the braking, everything is done like it was in the 1900s," said Longo, who hauls a truckload of coal for the engines every time he comes up.

As more people became involved, Percival took more of a backseat. The "real crazies" come up every weekend, even during the winter, plowing snow from the track, clearing trees to lay more rail, rebuilding number 9.

But Percival remained engaged. Over the summer, after recovering from an earlier bout with cancer, he directed 30 Marines as they constructed a 12-foot-tall and 30-foot-long railroad trestle that he designed.

"He led the project with complete precision," said Jason Lamontagne, 23, who has been volunteering since he was 14.

Despite his earlier illness, Percival always seemed indomitable.

So friends were shocked this fall when he suddenly grew very ill. Aggravated by asbestosis, the cancer was back. Percival spent his final month confined to bed, moving between hospital and home as he fought to breathe.

Last weekend, a record 200 visitors gathered at the railroad for a pre-Christmas run up the tracks. Volunteers brought ham, stew, and mulled cider. Lamontagne built a fire in the engine of locomotive number 10, just the way Percival taught him - perfect sticks of kindling laid at 90 degrees with a single piece of paper in the middle and two matches.

All the while, Percival watched out the window.

Chris Percival said that even though his father's dream has not been fulfilled completely, it's amazing how far it has already come.

"If I were to pick my wildest dream, what are the chances that I would ever achieve it?" he said. "Look what he's got."