The Moose that Stopped the Train: An Incident in North Bridgton Railroad History

Prepared by Michael J. Davis

*It is worth noting, at the close, that the actual whereabouts of this accident are somewhat contested.  North Bridgton is the traditional location where this accident is placed, and is indeed where I first heard it described.  A North Bridgton location is supported by many of the period newspaper editors, who describe the incident as having taken place in Bridgton on the route to Norway.  While the B.& S.R.R did not run to Norway, it did continue as far as Harrison, and an accident in this region would certainly provide those two names to any unfamiliar editor looking at a map of major towns in our region. Likewise, the time and distance the train travelled both fit very well with a North Bridgton location, and certain physical evidence preserved in the archive of Bridgton Academy, (which we will touch on later) adds stronger credence to the traditional assessment of locale.  But it must be said that there is one report we have seen, admittedly not a news report but a letter to the editor from one who did not live in Bridgton, which places this accident at Sandy Creek in South Bridgton.  This is the only report we have seen which contradicts the commonly held belief, but the doubt it generated in our minds was enough to warrant the inclusion of this note.  Further research is certainly needed, as the stock of information presently available is by no means complete.  All that being said, it is certain that the accident occurred, that it took place in Bridgton, and that anyone living along the railway line (including hundreds of our citizens in North Bridgton) would have heard about it.  For now, we have elected to cleave to tradition as that assumption is supported by the bulk of the evidence.

Our story begins with a small group of people, on a cool night, on the very eve of October; near enough to the last days of the Nineteenth Century to all aboard reflect on the events of the last 100 years.  The technological advancements which characterized the Nineteenth Century, and the vast differences of lifestyle and experience which its people could now enjoy as compared to the bygone troubles of an antique age, must have weighed in their minds as our nation silently prepared itself for the dawn of a new century.  It was a century which promised growth, a century which promised peace; one in which development and technology were sure to continue their upward rise in the advancement of mankind and the taming of nature’s wild forces.

It was September 30th, 1899, and this travelling party, not more than 30 in number, were gathered aboard the Bridgton and Saco River Railroad, Engine Number 4, bound for Harrison.  They were coming from a variety of places; Bridgton, Hiram, Portland, and beyond.  Some were relatives, returning to family homes in the country for an extended holiday season.  Some were schoolchildren, arriving for the newly begun term of Bridgton Academy.  At least one was a poet, a member of the Pine Tree State Author’s Club of Boston, having just wrapping up an item of business in Naples.  These men and women were gliding along on the newly completed railroad spur to Harrison; completed less than a year earlier, this track was a marvel of modern engineering.  Everything around them was modern and up-to-date, in newly refurbished train cars, pulled by a state-of-the art new engine, crossing streams and ditches on trestles of steel instead of the old granite abutments found everywhere else in town; so new in fact was the whole experience that the paint on the new stations at North Bridgton and Harrison had been dry for just three months.  It was a journey of about five miles from Bridgton Center to Harrison, and they were just over three and a half-miles into the journey, just about to hit the slow downhill grade which would take them into the little village of North Bridgton, which sat just before the border into Harrison.  Many were doubtless beginning to rustle in their seats, in anticipation of the end of a long journey.  Little did they know that ahead of them, around a slight bend in the track, the mightiest beast of Maine’s forests, the last bastion of a forest primeval, stood waiting for them.  It was a bull moose, old and powerful, far older and far larger than the bulk of the herd it led, and as it stood along the forest’s edge it felt the shaking of the ground as they came, it heard the shrill cry of their whistle, and in its notes it heard the rage of an enemy, the challenge of a creature larger and stronger than itself. 

It was a challenge that demanded an answer. 

The moose leapt onto the track and turned its head towards the burning eye of the creature, which let out a loud cry as if of fear.  The beast lowered its head, resolute against the familiar charge of a contesting enemy, even as the creature let out a keening growl as somewhere deep within it, unknown to the beast, engineers pulled hard on their break-levers in vain effort to stop the train before it hit the moose which stood defiant on its tracks, dimly lit by the engine’s gas head-lamp and unmoved by even the warning cry of its loud steam whittle.  The eyes of the moose were black, unreflective, uncomprehending.  The train could not stop in time.

Inside the train cars, the passengers were jolted from their reflection by the sudden, lurching effect of the breaks, while through the cool glass of the windows came the protesting scrape of iron on steel.  They would not have had time, even, to ask the startled attendant what was happening before the impact was upon them.  Descriptions of other accidents which later took place along the Bridgton tracks let us know that luggage was often not very well tied down, and that usually such sudden jolts had the effect of launching hatboxes and brief-cases down atop the heads of the passengers inside.  Whether this happened here is unclear, but what is certain is that the train, for all its gleaming steel and motive power, had been stopped dead on its tracks.  The moose lay prone before it, caught on the iron skirt at the helm of the engine.  It had been dragged many yards down the tracks, but owing to this “cow-catcher” it had been prevented from being dragged under the wheels and was still largely intact.  Its antlers had been neatly snapped off at the base, doubtless shattered in the climactic collision, and by the time engineer Caswell made his way over to it the life had faded from its dull eyes.  The moose was dead, the tracks were blocked, and as the passengers dis-embarked to view its immense bulk the woods around them must have seemed a wild and boundless jungle. 

In later days the news came out, first to a paper in Portland.  When the passengers had finally made North Bridgton an hour or so later, after handcars had been sent up the tracks from that station when the train did not arrive on time, word had been sent by telegraph back the tracks to Bridgton Centre and ahead of them to Harrison and, further afield, the larger town of Norway.  These two telegraphs would later prove very important to the story of “the moose that stopped the train.”  When the initial message reached Bridgton, it was picked up by Wasson Bacon, proprietor of the Cumberland Hotel.  The telegraph station at Bridgton was located in the Cumberland House, and indeed had been since at least 1874, having been instituted there by Marshall Bacon, Wasson’s father and the founder of the hotel.  Wasson forwarded the message to the railroad station at Bridgton, who began to formulate a rescue mission.  Meanwhile, when the message hit Norway, it was received at the office of the Norway Advertiser, that town’s telegraph station, who immediately wrote up an account of the accident and forwarded it to all the newspapers of Portland.

These papers, in turn, ate it up.  It was a piece of news ready-made to generate interest.  The incident, the first killing of a moose by a train in Maine’s history, was noteworthy enough, but made mores by the recent decision of state game authorities, a few years earlier, to forbid the killing of any moose in Maine.  Hunting moose was, in 1899, completely illegal, and concern at the time was that the population was so small that it might never recover from the excesses of the big game hunts during the 1870’s and 80’s.  The press of Maine made much out of this fact.  The story, as it was immediately told in the Portland Daily Press, the Portland Advertiser, and other coastal papers as far north as the Belfast Republican Journal, declared;

“The other day a bull moose was run down and killed by the regular passenger train between Norway and Bridgton, and hardly a week passes that deer are not killed in this way.  It would seem to be pertinent to enquire whether railroads are amenable to the game laws.  Can they be fined for killing game out of season, or for exceeding the number of deer it is permissible for individual sportsmen to kill?”

Unfortunately for our own paper, the Bridgton News had published its daily edition that very morning, and so it was that when the News first published its report on the accident a full week later, it had already been “scooped” on breaking news from its own town.  The Shorey’s got the last laugh however, drawn at the expense of the bigger papers, by the ready effort they made in pointing out the obvious mistakes.  They write on October 6th;

“The interesting incident of the killing of the moose by the Bridgton Railroad was telegraphed from Norway and nearly all the papers put it, as to location, between the Norway station and Bridgton.  Well, hardly, it was in Bridgton – and Norway, not at all!

The Naples game authority write the Press that the moose killed by the Bridgton Railroad is believed to be the leader of a herd recently seen in the near vicinity, also on the eastern shore of Moose Pond, and in the Mt. Pleasant region on the outskirts of Bridgton center.  He further says:

‘This is the first moose ever killed in Cumberland County since the days of the old “punkin” pine forests that covered the whole face of Mt. Pleasant region and down to Moose Pond, once the favorite haunts of the big game.’

The four years close time on the big game of Cumberland County ought (the game laws properly enforced), provide royal sport in 1902.  Today the Mt. Pleasant region in the near vicinity of Bridgton, but in Oxford County, affords rare sport to the initiated.”

If there is anything positive to be taken from the accident, it was the outpouring of local moose reports which it seems to have motivated.  As the Naples game warden described, there had been a large herd recently seen near Moose Pond, of all places, and the News of 13th following expanded on the town’s efforts to track the herd;

“There is much verbal “moose” talk in our town, as well as newspaper ditto elsewhere in the state, brought out by the widely disseminated stories of railroad moose killing of late.  That the specimen struck and killed on the Bridgton railroad was not a lone wayfarer, is evidenced by the seeing of other members of the moose family hereabout since then.  In the Valley and Moose Pond region, Clifford Smith and Luther Douglas each, at different times, saw a good-sized moose; following which spectacles, George Harriman and Joseph Lord Saturday afternoon saw what may have been the same animal strolling westward over the former’s pasture towards Dearborn Hill.  They followed at some distance, but moose disappeared from their view.  We learn that a moose was lately seen in Naples, also.”

The note mentioned in this article, about the recent “stories of railroad moose killing,” was at first a question for us, as we had earlier read that this incident was supposed to have been the first in state history, but further research revealed the unlikely answer.  The North Bridgton incident was indeed the first time a moose was killed by a train; the second time took place just a day later, in Bath.  From the Bath Independent of October 14th, we draw the following pithy remark;

“Two bull moose were killed on railroad tracks in Maine; one by the Bridgton and Saco R.R. Saturday evening, Sept 30, the other by the B. and A. next day.  Each weighed about 500 lbs. and the Bridgton bull was sold for the benefit of the State game fund, it being close time.  Moose are generally hard to find and after Oct. 1 moose hunters would do well to sit rifle in hand, on the moose catchers of engines on up country railway trains.”

The death of the moose by the train, and the interesting circumstances which surrounded it, generated enough media interest that some locals saw fit to commemorate the occasion.  The first to do so was Wasson Bacon; ever on the watch for attractions to help draw customers to the Cumberland, as soon as he had forwarded the message to the station he next sat down and wrote “the sheepskin king of New England,” A.B. Clark, a Massachusetts businessman who had purchased the Bridgton Leather Works less than a week earlier.  Clark was still in Bridgton finalizing the buy-out, and Bacon wanted a tribute to the moose, a trophy he could mount by the door and show off to guests in his dining room.  As the Bridgton News later reported on March 23rd;

“When this unique incident had occurred – the killing of the first moose by a railroad train in Maine – Wasson Bacon secured the handsome animal’s hind leg for a relic.  Mr. A.B. Clark, proprietor of the Bridgton Leather Works, took it with him to his tannery in Peabody, Mass., and had it subjected to a preserving process, then his brother-in-law mounted and engraved it in nice style; it was then returned to Mr. Bacon.”

This leg, which survives today in the collections of the Bridgton Historical Society, is two feet in length and consists of everything below the knee.  It is in a remarkable state of preservation, from tip-to-toe the perfect appearance of a moose leg in life.  At the top, capping the joint where it was taken, is a large silver collar upon which the legend of the incident has been neatly engraved: “This moose was killed on the Bridgton & Saco Railroad, September 30th, 1899, About three and one half miles from Bridgton Center.”

But this, incredibly, is not the only piece of this moose which has survived to present day.  While the persistent rumor that the entire moose was taxidermied and a piece given to every station along the railroad line is totally unsubstantiated – indeed the Bath Independent’s article reveals that the moose meat was sold at a charity auction for the warden’s office – not everything beyond Bacon’s leg ‘went the way of all flesh.’  In North Bridgton at the time there lived one James Carroll Mead, a noted sign painter, antiquarian, and general outdoor enthusiast.  He made a name for himself in the stocking of sport fish in local lakes, and likewise in his accurate paintings of them, and was also a member of the National Audubon Society.  His interest in ornithology had resulted in his having become a very good bird taxidermist, and Bowdoin College today holds a large portion of his surviving work.  He had become interested in the putting together of a taxidermy collection at Bridgton Academy to serve as a national history museum, and the result of his efforts there, in conjunction with Headmaster Chessman C. Spratt, was the still extant Spratt-Mead museum.  In this museum there is preserved the head of a bull moose, missing the antlers, and academy records indicate that this is the head of a moose “which was killed by the train.”  In the intervening decades some playful scholar or well-meaning archivist placed a pair of deer antlers onto the head, which fill in stumps where its own antlers used to be.  The fact of the missing antlers, combined with the provenance and area connection of North Bridgton, makes us confidant enough to place it in company with the foot preserved in Center Bridgton.  Might they one day, for a special museum event, be re-united?

But these preservations were not the only tribute given to the moose which stopped the train, and in closing this episode we feel there is no finer eulogy to offer than that mournful ode prepared for the occasion by someone who had actually been there to see the death.  Among the passengers on that fateful night was one Charles Ross White, a local poet of no slight reputation in his day, who had in the weeks which followed been inspired to write up a tribute to the moose, and the sad death of nature’s finest creature at the hands of the very symbol of man’s progress.  It is, perhaps, a poem which finds its meaning in more than the simple death of an animal; today we find it comes, over a century later, as a fitting commentary on those darker things which progress brings and sometimes eliminates from the natural world.  The great promise which technology offered man in 1899 was soured by the horrors of mechanized warfare during the First World War; the Great Depression killed the dream of comfort for all which those passengers hoped a modern world might bring; and as we today still struggle with the environmental impact which comes arm-in-arm with the conveniences of modern life, we find much to reflect on in the story of the moose which, at the dawn of the twentieth century, halted for an instant all the works of man and returned a wildness and a danger to our swiftly tamed frontier.  Here is the story, as it first appeared in the Portland Daily Press on October 12th, 1899;

Death of the Big Moose

Down from the north the grey wolf came,

     The tall moose and fallow deer

They heard the red-man had left the trail

     And had little cause for fear.

Long had the hunters left the trail,

     The trappers had gone before,

And the bear trap beams were rotted down

     Hazed level with the moor.

The tall moose trotted the trail by night

     By river and creek he came,

Shy of the track of the loping wolf

     Now keen from hunger and pain.

Often he doubled and swam the ford,

     And breasted the granite hill,

His mate lay close in the tangled swamp

     And the calf moose call he feared.

He had gallantly coursed a hundred leagues,

     And outwitted the grey wolf’s game,

When a sudden light gleamed through the night

     And a thunderous challenge came.

Down swung his head to avenge his own,

     His feet flew down the grade,

To meet with death by the night express,

     Where its gleaming lantern swayed.

His forest training had served him ill,

     His strength his weakness then,

His nobleness his downfall proved

     In the teeming haunts of men.

Charles Ross White

Naples Me. Oct. 7th, 1899.

© 2020 by the North Bridgton Historical Society