November 2, 2012

Retired agent helps usher in new era

Nelson Soule, 92, joins other dignitaries on the Downeaster's inaugural run north of Portland.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

FREEPORT - It was a somber day, Sept. 5, 1960, when Nelson Soule stamped the last passenger ticket at Freeport Station and boarded the Maine Central Railroad's last passenger train to Brunswick.

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Nelson Soule, 92, of Cumberland, rides the Amtrak Downeaster with his wife, Margaret, as it makes its inaugural run north of Portland to Freeport and Brunswick on Thursday.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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This is the last ticket that Nelson Soule, Freeport's last station agent, stamped for himself before taking a final trip to Brunswick on the last day of passenger service on Sept. 5, 1960.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Soule had been the station agent in Freeport for about 15 years, overseeing the comings and goings of townspeople and visitors, and making sure truckloads of goods produced by L.L. Bean and other manufacturers in town were loaded carefully and on time.

Soule worked another 20 years on Maine railroads, retiring in 1980, but he never lost that ticket.

"I wanted to remember that day," Soule recalled. "It was the end of an era."

Freeport's last station agent helped to usher in a new era of train travel in Maine on Thursday, when he joined dozens of other dignitaries on the inaugural run of the Amtrak Downeaster's expanded passenger service north of Portland, to Freeport and Brunswick.

It was an extraordinary trip for Soule, 92, and his wife, Margaret, 88, longtime Freeport residents who now live in Cumberland with their daughter and son-in-law, Judi and Ed Bauer.

The couple grinned with excitement when the Downeaster blew its whistle and rounded the bend to pick them up at Wells Station for the celebratory ride.

"Oh, my golly, there's the choo-choo," Nelson Soule said with folksy humor as they made their way onto the platform.

The Soules are used to extraordinary days. Nelson Soule is probably best known for completing the 10-kilometer Beach to Beacon road race in 2002 -- at age 82 -- just four years after he fought to finish the 1998 race while having a heart attack.

Soule was part of a railroad family. He's the second of four children born to Leslie Soule, a station agent who worked on the Maine Central Railroad for 50 years, and Nettie Soule, a Western Union telegraph operator. His older brother, Delmont, worked for the Railway Express Agency, a package delivery service that operated into the 1970s.

Soule's mother taught him how to tap out telegraph messages in Morse code when he was a boy.

"She told me, 'You may never use it, but I want you to know how,' " Soule recalled. "But she warned me, 'Don't send any faster than you can receive, or they'll send as fast as you and you'll be snowed under.' "

Soule's communication skills came in handy when he joined the Navy during World War II, serving as a radio and telegraph operator. Later, his experience helped him get his first job on the railroad, working as a telegraph operator at the Lewiston Station.

Through the years, Soule worked at stations in Gardiner, Augusta and Waterville, where hundreds of college students would flood the station at the start of each holiday break, carrying luggage and looking for tickets home.

When he retired at age 60, he had been the station agent at Yarmouth Junction for about 15 years. He remembers seeing Canadian National Railroad trains hauling a hundred cars filled with potatoes grown in northern Maine.

As a railroad employee, Soule and his family were able to travel across the United States and Canada for free each year. High points included annual trips to Florida with their three kids, a transcontinental excursion to Vancouver, B.C., and a memorable visit to New Orleans, La., where they saw Boots Randolph play tenor sax on Bourbon Street.

Thursday's ceremonial ride from Wells to Freeport and Brunswick ranked right up there for the Soules, rolling past Royal Junction in Yarmouth on refurbished tracks and pulling up to new platforms in Freeport and Brunswick.

"Gosh, it was great," Nelson Soule said after the trip. "It was exciting to be back on a train and see passenger service running up here again."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:


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Additional Photos

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The Freeport train station around the turn of the 20th century.

Photo courtesy Nelson Soule

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The Freeport train station in 1950, with trucks filled with L.L. Bean packages ready to be loaded onto freight cars.

Photo courtesy Nelson Soule

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This is the schedule board from Freeport Station the day the station closed in 1960.

Photo courtesy of Nelson Soule

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