There’s a feeling of return to a time come and gone while walking the old Mountain Division Rail.

The wind rustles through the trees as rusted railroad tracks bend through the woods near Gambo Road in Windham.

A gravel trail runs alongside where bicyclers and ambitious walkers in recent times have made the five-mile stretch to Johnson Field in Standish.

As the tracks head north, traffic from nearby roads becomes faint, overtaken by this rustle and the chirp of birds not seen but heard from hidden branches as the woods envelope the trail.

Somewhere, the whistle of a ghost train carries in the breeze.

Almost a decade ago, the state purchased the rail line from Windham to Fryeburg to preserve this once-vibrant railroad that connected with tracks running through New Hampshire north to Canada.

Following the tracks south, the state is now negotiating to buy another abandoned section of the Mountain Division Rail from Route 202 in South Windham, past the former “Depot Station” to the S.D. Warren Mill in Westbrook.

The hope is to someday revive the railroad from Portland all the way to Fryeburg for freight and passenger service as it once had decades ago.

For now, the railroad is only a trail used by many locals for an occasional walk or weekend bike ride.

A new pedestrian loop opened last year that crosses the train trestle bridge over the Presumpcot River and cuts back over the Gambo Bridge from Gorham to Windham.

The Mountain Division Alliance, a group of rail and trail advocates, is now improving the trail alongside the tracks from Windham to Standish and extending the trail south from Gambo Road to the old Depot Station in South Windham.

If the state obtains rights to the land, Windham Parks and Recreation plans to continue the trail south from Depot Station to Westbrook with grant money from the Maine Department of Transportation.

A railroad crossing signal stands next to the old Depot Station behind the defunct Keddy Mill. Two train cars sit in a driveway next to the run-down station, now used as an automobile repair shop.

Warren Carkin, 85, of Auburn, remembers the old station as a vital link to Portland and points north.

He ran the Depot Station for 30 years: counting cars, working out freight negotiations with local businesses, and selling passenger tickets on the Mountain Division Rail then owned by Maine Central Railroad Company.

“When I first started there, they had the ‘162’ passenger train leave from Portland to Windham and on to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and ‘163’ train coming back,” Carkin said. “They had regular freight trains from Portland to St. Johnsbury as well.”

Even in 1950, when Carkin began working at the station, few passengers rode the old Mountain Division line.

However, the freight trains were kept busy with local lumber shipped to the nearby pulp mill, farmers’ hay, wooden boxes from L.C. Andrews across the street and other local commodities.

In the early 1980s, Maine Central Railroad sold the Mountain Division Rail to Guilford Railroad. Guilford later abandoned the freight route except for a small section of track, from Portland to the S.D. Warren mill in Westbrook, still active today.

This ended a century of rail service on the Mountain Division Rail.

“When I retired, they closed the station,” Carkin said. “They were closing stations all along the railroad branch and you could see things going downhill.”

The only remnant of Sebago Lake Station in Standish is the rusted switching tracks near the town boat launch off Route 35.

Where the station once stood, barbed wire and chain-link fence protects a large acreage of the Sebago Lake watershed owned by the Portland Water District.

During Mountain Division’s heyday however, Sebago Lake Station was a popular destination.

In the early 1900s, steamboats, like the famous Goodridge, would pick up passengers getting off at Sebago Lake Station and ferry them east across Sebago Lake and up the Songo Locks to Naples and Harrison.

The Mountain Division Railroad began as the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad back in the late 1880s with freight and passenger service from Portland through Windham, Standish, Steep Falls, Fryeburg and on through New Hampshire.

Maine Central Railroad bought the railroad shortly thereafter and passenger service was busy until the mid-1930s with locals commuting to work, tourists exploring the region and students heading to college by train.

The Maine Central Railroad suspended passenger service in September of 1960 on the Mountain Division line after dwindling patronage. A few years later, Boston & Maine Railroad halted its service from Portland to Boston for the same reason.

Now the only passenger service on the Mountain Division Rail is done on two wheels. Local bikers routinely ride the rail trail as it runs north from Depot Station to Gambo Road and on to Standish.

Standish and Steep Falls are both working to create a four-mile extension of trail between the two towns and Fryeburg is looking to extend a trail south along the railroad to Brownfield, said David Kinsman, president of Mountain Division Alliance.

The Alliance’s motto is that “if you build these trails, people will use them,” he said.

So far, their assumption has been right with many local bikers and walkers using the trail on daily basis.

The Mountain Division Alliance pushed for the state to purchase the abandoned railroad back in 1997 with the vision of creating a “Rail-with-Trail” from Portland to Fryeburg, Kinsman said.

“The whole idea is to create a recreational trail to connect the communities with a linear park and allow people to get away from motor vehicle traffic,” he said.

Since Windham is only 12 miles outside of Portland, the vision is that someday commuters will bike to work from the Lakes Region in the near future.

In the more distant future, trail advocates are hoping the same thing as rail advocates: that the old Mountain Division Rail will be revived while keeping the trail intact.

While the state continues to preserve the rail corridor for future use, the rusted tracks of the Mountain Division Rail, for now, are the only reminder of a long-gone era in local history.

These switching tracks near the Standish Boat Launch off Route 35 are the only evidence of the old Sebago Lake Station where passengers on the Mountain Division Railroad would get off and then hop on steamboats across Sebago Lake and up through the Songo Locks.

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