SPRINGVALE — A 150-year-old sunken railroad car has been the subject of folklore and one of those curiosities that has fascinated those who are familiar with Deering Pond, where the rail car disappeared.

Now, however, the use of technology has pinpointed what happened to a rail flat car that disappeared at the pond back in 1871. It sank in the peat bog and now it has been found.

“For 50 years I pondered where the car went down,” said botanist Gordon “Bud” Johnston, who was a biology professor at the now defunct Nasson College in the 1960s when his fascination with Deering Pond began. The pond is part of the Hall Environmental Reserve, which is owned by the Mousam Way Land Trust.

Johnston had contemplated the use of ground-penetrating radar like the sort used by surveyors to try and locate the flat car but the expense involved quickly put that idea to rest.

Then, a water pipe broke in front of Johnston’s Sanford home and he watched as a representative from the Sanford Water District used a magnetic “pin finder” to locate the utilities underground.

He called Sanford Water District Superintendent David Parent and on Sept. 5, the two went to Deering Pond to see what they could find.

Parent and Johnston investigated a number of spots around the pond and then they hit the jackpot.

“I was finding small objects like spikes,” said Parent. Then he found longer objects, like lengths of rail.

He estimated the rails at around 35 feet long and 6 feet wide.

“We didn’t expect to find something that distinct,” said Parent.

Johnston said the detector revealed three elongated masses of metal parallel to one another and spaced roughly four feet apart.

“Initially this arrangement was interpreted as the car in the center and two piles of steel rails on either side,” Johnston said. “However, research on platform cars indicated that we were looking at the frame of a car that must have had a wooden floor.”

A photograph of a platform car in Harland Eastman’s “Sanford and Springvale in the Days of Fred Philpot, A Photographic History” was used to determine the dimensions and type of car, he said

“We could not determine either the depth of the car below ground or if the car was loaded with gravel or stone,” Johnston said.

Studies of peat depth around the area suggest that the car lies somewhere between eight and 15 feet down.

“After almost a century and a half submerged in very acidic peat the frame and wheels probably are a mass of rust while the wood, most likely, is well-preserved,” Johnston said.

The rail bed where the car would have passed into the pond is the Sanford Railroad Trail, about 5 1/2 miles long as it runs through Sanford and Springvale,and is now the central spine of what has become Sanford’s trail system

“Generations of people have walked or ridden over this piece of history,” said Johnston. He said the Mousam Way Land Trust plans a kiosk to mark the spot and tell the story of the ill-fated car.

There have been a couple of printed accounts of what had happened to the rail car and some tales passed down — but they disagree.

Edwin Emery in his “History of Sanford” put it this way: “In the spring of 1871, a platform car just unloaded and standing on the rails at the foot of Deering Pond, a mile west of Springvale, but detached from the engine and other cars, was discovered to be sinking. The rails bent downward, and all went down together. The car could not be found the next day, nor was it ever seen afterward. The depression was soon filled with stone and gravel, and in a week or two, the engine and cars ran back.”

The Lebanon Historical Society’s “The Railroad, Lebanon, Maine ” states, “On May 2, 1871, there were two engines, 30 flat cars and 130 men working on the Rochester extension. About 10 days later, two miles beyond Springvale, where the track crossed a bog near Deering Pond, the ground sank and a loaded gravel car went with it. The car could not be found the next day, nor was it ever seen afterwards. The depression was soon filled with stone and gravel, and in a week or two work continued.”

“We were told that a locomotive running at full speed ran off the tracks into the quicksand of the pond never to be seen again,” said Kevin McKeon, also of the Mousam Way Land Trust.

“So all of us were to stay away for the edges of the pond and never, ever, to go swimming in the pond.

“It was very interesting to find out the real story,” said Parent.


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