UNITY — The old Unity train station property north of Depot Street is quiet and there’s a for-sale sign out front.

That’s nothing new: 140 years of service came to a halt three years ago when the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad Co. folded operations.

But with the recent sale of the remaining assets of the former Belfast-to-Burnham rail line — a locomotive, passenger cars and the train station property — the disappearance of the historic rail service is now in sharp relief.

The locomotive and coaches have been winterized and will be taken this spring to a new home in North Carolina.

“It’s clearly the end of an era,” said Larry Sterrs, chief executive officer of the Unity Foundation, which donated all the trains and equipment to start the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad Preservation Society in 2006. “The railroad here has been under various ownerships, operating for many years, and unfortunately that will all be lost as a result of that transaction. The good news is, we were able to find a home for the equipment.”

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad of Bryson City, N.C., along with Rail Events Inc., purchased the remaining assets to the railway. The sale price was not disclosed.

The deal, announced in December 2010, involves a Swedish-made steam locomotive, which was built in 1913 and exported to the U.S. in 1994. Also included in the deal are a Budd Rail Diesel Car, capable of seating up to 84 passengers, and nine coaches.

Once arriving in Bryson City, the locomotives will receive minor repairs, according to a statement from The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. The Maine assets will be added to four diesel electric locomotives and passenger equipment operating on the rail line, for excursion trips.

“There is also an ongoing effort to revive additional steam locomotives owned by the GSMR through a partnership program with a newly formed nonprofit group who will assist in fundraising efforts for the restoration and continued operation” of steam locomotives, the company’s statement said.

According to the company statement, the 4-acre train station property was sold to REL Development of South China in December 2010. Robert LaMontagne, the former president of Unity Property Management, is named as a principal in the company.

LaMontagne, who operated and managed the railway as president of the preservation society, said there are currently no firm plans for the property.

Managing the railroad “was certainly a great experience,” he said.

“I worked with a lot of great people, and we provided service and entertainment to a lot of folks throughout the state of Maine,” LaMontagne said. “People seemed to enjoy it considerably and that was very rewarding.”

According to published reports, Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain originally chartered the line during his term as governor in 1867. The railroad had several different owners and it continued to carry freight until the 1980s, when it began serving mainly as a tourist attraction.

The train was originally intended to run all the way from Moosehead Lake to Québec, but with a money shortage forced the rail to stop in Burnham, where it could exchange with other trains.

Maine Central Railroad sold the business in the 1920s to Belfast, Brooks, Thorndike, Unity and a group of private investors, making it one of three municipally owned railroads in the nation. Belfast continued to operate the train until 1991 when the line was sold to private investors and then ultimately to Unity businessman and philanthropist Bert Clifford.

The Unity Foundation, which Clifford started, donated the equipment and property to the nonprofit preservation society in 2005. Its members volunteered time to operate and manage the station.

Lamontagne has previously said there was always been great sentimental interest in the train, but never been enough financial support for the society to break even.

To be financially sustainable, the railroad would have needed to supply freight passage to create additional revenue in the off-seasons, Sterrs said.

But even then, it may not have been enough, he said.

“The biggest factor is geography,” Sterrs said. “Where you’re located, you don’t have the ability to get spontaneous mass of people on a regular basis to sustain very high operating costs. The society formed a nonprofit to sustain the operation by grants and volunteer labor, but that didn’t work out.”

“It’s just a very tough, grinding business; we gave it a good try,” he said.

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

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