THE TUNK POND EPISODE, by Carl C. Osgood, Vista House, Surry, Maine 1995, 203-page paperback, $19.
The program was intended to be short … but it was shortened accidentally because … the safety valve on the engine popped open with a roar that drowned out everything. … I had told both crews to make all the noise and smoke they could, and they really poured it on
no one in the County could have been unaware of what we were doing. As the pusher went by everybody cheered then hung around just long enough to finish the beer.”
That was protagonist Paul Turner’s account of the start of the first official ore train to leave the Tunk Pond siding heading west for Ellsworth and Bangor. In the cover notes Turner is listed as the hero of the novel. However, I prefer to view him as a tour guide who leads the reader from Down East Maine to California to the silver country of Colorado to the Panama Canal construction and, finally, to the Continental capitals of pre-war Europe.
Turner was born in Ellsworth in the 1870s. Unfortunately, for a book that purports to be historical fiction, the author could have sprinkled annual benchmarks a little more liberally throughout the volume. We follow his life journey from Ellsworth to studying at Orono to becoming a mining engineer. His travels and adventures such as aiding in the discovery and mining of trace metals in the Tunk Pond and Blue Hill area serve as the medium for one long train ride.
The ore mined locally must be hauled to the smelter, located in the wilds of Quebec. This creates an interesting complication in the equation. Much of the bankroll for this operation comes from a consortium of French and German companies which adds an element of intrigue as the war clouds gather in Europe. Along the way, Paul manages to give the reader a pretty good picture of what life was like in small-town Maine during that era.
With the exception of the trips to Europe, which were made by steamship, Turner and the other characters travel and ship their commerce by train. It is here that the volume raises the interest level for that class of reader who could be best termed hard-core railroad nut. For those of us who have managed to avoid committing ourselves to a 12-step program to escape that affliction, this is a very enjoyable yarn. It is the first book I ever read that has a map enclosed in a pocket glued to the last page. Maps add to the enjoyment and education of the reader when dealing with what is no longer there.
Forget about the fact that as residents of Bangor, we can chauffeur visiting flatlanders to the top of Cadillac Mountain in X minutes (the X being a product of the driver’s age multiplied by the percentage of Route 3 between the Ellsworth Triangle and the Trenton bridge which happens to be under construction at the moment).
In Paul Turner’s time, you boarded a Maine Central passenger train at the space now occupied by the strip mall on Washington Street and paraded east through Ellsworth to Washington Junction where the train headed for the pier at the end of Hancock Point. (Yes, there were rails all the way.) There you boarded a ferry, also provided by Maine Central, and sailed across Frenchman Bay to Bar Harbor. Old railroad schedules indicate that travel times were not grossly dissimilar to current ones given the variation in the percentage of modern road construction.
Buyers of this book should not expect great literature. Character development is something that Osgood leaves for the world’s Tolstoys. We know that Paul Turner is a good man who cares about his family and treats his employees well. That may be enough in a yarn, but that also may be what divides yarns from great literature. The rest of the characters enter and leave the tale without our ever knowing all that much about them.
In a society that takes launches and landings of the space shuttle as non-news events, it is good to remind ourselves (and teach our young) whence we came. The local flavor of this book does this as well as anything that I have read recently. We all should be reminded occasionally that it was not that long ago that there were two ways to travel long distances. You sailed along the coast or you took the train. The train was hauled by huge, noisy, air-polluting steam engines that were fueled and driven by men of steel. They opened America to our commerce and our dreams.