The Bethel Journals

Bethel Maine History

January 26, 2017








Bethel area history  - an online collection of  publications and photos

The Railroad Journal



According to railroad historian John Davis, the first train to reach Bethel was a contractor’s train headed by locomotive Jenny Lind pulling cars over untested rails from South Paris.  It arrived in Bethel on March 9, 1851. The Jenny Lind was a locomotive built by the Portland Co.  The first train carried additional pieces of heavy construction equipment for a temporary turntable to be installed in Bethel.

Many youngsters were invited to climb aboard for this rather exciting event. The next day, March 10, 1851 the St. Lawrence and Atlantic engine, Montreal, entered Bethel with the regular morning train from Portland to begin regular service between Bethel and Portland.

The story from one source is that Portland was chosen as a starting point instead of Boston based overland races that showed it was quicker for mail from Europe to reach Montreal from Portland’s port than it would from Boston.

Seen as primarily a Canadian railway, the track gauge was the British standard of 5 feet 6 inches. This was changed later in 1874 to an American standard gauge of 4 feet 8 and ½ inches.

For what is now the Bethel village area, having the railroad  attracted a preponderance of new settlers and particularly businesses. Bethel Hill as it was known outgrew the Middle Intervale settlements in population quite rapidly.


West Bethel Station

A second railroad station in the town of Bethel was established at West Bethel. John Fox Allen was a station agent there and at some point the station was named Allen as I understand this was to prevent confusion between Bethel and West Bethel in train traffic control. May 2, 1893’s newspaper The Democrat:  at West Bethel the Grand Trunk has been building a coal shed near the station at this place.  In the 1890’s Alpheus Bean was shipping lumber out of West Bethel’s station in huge amounts. For instance in one winter he shipped two million feet of lumber out of West Bethel (Allen Station) bound for Scotland. 


From the 1880’s until well after World War II the railroad proved to be a great economic advantage to Bethel in terms of both freight and passenger service. From the end of the Civil War until travel by automobile became common rail travel greatly aided the growth of Bethel’s tourist and vacation economy. This situation lasted through the 1950’s when many of Bethel’s summer visitors were coming to attend NTL labs.  Regular bus service to Bethel also cut into passenger rail travel.

From 1851 up to today the rail service through Bethel saw four different company names:  Atlantic and St. Lawrence, Grand Trunk of Canada, Canadian National and today it is the St. Lawrence and Atlantic RR.

Daily mail shipments and the Railroad Express Agency depended on railroads for their deliveries to towns.  Today West Bethel still has its own post office which received and sent its mail via the Allen Station during the years of mail delivered to towns by rail.

Freight shipments depended on railroads at least into the 1960’s.  With Portland as the coastal terminal of the Grand Trunk Rail Road huge amounts of freight shipments entered and departed the United States. As late as the 1970’s, early 1980’s long trains of oil tank cars passed through Bethel.

In the 1890’s Alpheus Bean was shipping lumber out of West Bethel’s station in huge amounts. For instance in one winter he shipped two million feet of lumber out of West Bethel (Allen Station) bound for Scotland.  In the fall reports indicate that as many as thirty freight car loads of canned corn were shipped by rail from Bethel village.

Other rail freight of note included incoming coal and heating oil and goods for local retail dealers plus farming supplies such as feed grain and fertilizer. Pulp wood, finished lumber, dowels, potatoes as well as corn made up another whole group of goods.

 In the 1940’s The Carver Oil Company of Bethel received shipments of heating oil by rail.  Oil tanks were located in the rear of today’s ambulance garage

In 1993 Sunday River Transportation began operation of the Silver Bullet Express Ski Train. This passenger train operated during winter months between Portland and Bethel. Skiers boarded the train at what had been the former Grand Trunk yard in the East Deering section of Portland, only a short distance away from the Roundhouse Mall which previously housed the former Grand Trunk roundhouse.  The ski train’s last runs occurred in 1996.  More recent passenger rail news

During passenger rail’s high point three passenger trains a day passed through Bethel Village and West Bethel running from Island Pond, Vermont to Portland.  The Grand Trunk passenger station was located facing India Street near all the major shipping docks.  Today the Grand Trunk office building which was next to the central station still stands. 

Train passengers arriving at Portland Union Station from Boston would at times experience making their connection to the Grand Trunk station by having a yard engine move their car from Union Station to the Grand Trunk station. See Boston to Bethel

During the 1990’s ill fated Bethel Station hotel and shopping development project St. Lawrence and Atlantic was induced to lower their freight image in Bethel village and relocated their freight yard from Bethel to Gilead.

Bethel’s 1865 railroad station closed in 1965.  Sometime after  1968 (a ‘68 aerial photo shows the old station still in place)  the building was torn down. Allen Station closed before that. 

Today’s rail traffic through Bethel consists of shipping containers moved by the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad to a transshipment yard in Auburn.  Passenger traffic ended in 1960—victim of automobiles and buses plus a population unaccustomed  to rail travel, preferring their car conveniences.



Text Box:  1891 News
In West Bethel  Several scholars attending Gould Academy from West Bethel are boarding at home (and commuting daily by train)

1953 Mail arrives at the Bethel Station.  Mail revenue helped offset declining passenger revenue for some railroads. 

The 1865 Bethel Station as it looked about 1900. Note the water supply tank and pipe as well as the circular depression in front of the station that may have been the location of a temporary turntable installed during railroad construction in 1851.  Photo courtesy Arlan Jodrey

Left:  St. Lawrence and Atlantic work train waits on a Bethel siding in  September 2015.  Above: September 2016 St. Lawrence and Atlantic maintenance crew works on repairing and upgrading Bethel’s Main Street crossing.

The Bethel Journals

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Bethel, Maine 04217

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West Bethel station, above, served the town’s second largest economic center particularly during the 1890’s and early 1900’s. Alpheus Bean’s many enterprises made up the community’s core business complex

 Photo courtesy of the Bethel Historical Society


The Gilead Freight Yard in 2011


New Hampshire’s spurt in wind farm development saw much rail to truck activity at the Gilead yard. Wind tower components made in Mexico and Colorado arrived via Canada.