Northern Maine Mania
The network of rail trails in Aroostook County is northern Maine's answer to the carriage trails of Mount Desert Island. Wide, well maintained, and free of automobile traffic, they offer access to the quiet beauty and rugged wilderness of Maine's northernmost county. The most striking difference between these trails and their southern counterparts is to be found in the number of people you may meet. From May through October, you will be more likely to encounter the tracks of moose, deer, or bear than you will the treadmarks left by a previous rider. Indeed, although these trails link some of the larger towns and cities of Aroostook County, they follow the paths once taken by trains through some of the more remote areas of the state. Though you may not be far from a road as the crow flies, the thick woods and wide rivers that border the trails make road access almost impossible except at marked junctions and intersections.
Potatoes in Aroostook
Aroostook County forms Maine's northern and northeastern boundary."The County," as it is referred to, has been described as being a land entirely different from the rest of the state. It is Maine's "big sky" land, where large farms are nestled among hundreds of acres of cleared and cultivated land that provide wide-open views for miles. The county's 6,453 square miles extend across an area of rolling agricultural land and scattered mountains. One such mountain, the 1,660-foot monadnock named Mars Hill, is visible to riders pedaling north along the Houlton-toPhair Junction railroad bed.
Other highlights of riding along this abandoned railroad bed are the trackside potato storage facilities. Potato farming is the major industry in this part of Aroostook County. These potato "houses" are a distinct form of agricultural architecture. Though they vary in size and design, they were usually built into hillsides to provide a cool, stable environment for storing potatoes. Potato houses evolved with the potato farming boom that followed the arrival of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad in 1899. Prior to the railroad, most of Maine's potato crop was consumed instate. With the extension of the railroad, production increased dramatically and one half of all the potatoes raised were shipped out of state by rail.
In addition to potato farming, the logging industry has been a significant part of the county's industry, particularly along the St. John River Valley. The town of Van Buren was one of the larger logging towns along the St. John River. Houlton, the Aroostook County Seat, was a pioneer community and the first town in the county to be reached by the railroad in 1899. Caribou was the shipping center for Aroostook potato farmers, and near Caribou, Fort Fairfield, and Limestone, many small limestone quarries once operated to make lime for cement, mortar, and agricultural purposes.
In 1993 the closure of Loring Air Force Base, the largest employer in the county, sent an economic shock through the region. However, by aggressively reusing the space formerly occupied by the air force, the towns have returned to a state of relative prosperity.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication