FARMINGTON — Historian Guy Rioux has completed his fourth and final volume on Franklin County’s narrow gauge railroads, “The Next Stop is Farmington,” after more than 20 years of research or what Rioux calls dumpster diving.
“The dumpster diving doesn’t stop. It never stops,” Rioux said in a phone interview. “Once you get interested in something, I mean, something is always popping up, a photo, a document, a map, that changes what you think is going on.”
Rioux holds no particular fascination for railroads, despite working for the Guilford Rail System as a train conductor on a route from Waterville to New York; despite devoting two decades of research on the United State’s longest, 118 mile, 2 foot railroad system established in 1879.
“I never had a train set when I was a kid,” he said. “Trains never interested me, but I am a history buff and I have a strong history background.”
Rioux’s volumes focus on different Franklin County narrow gauge trains and are titled under town names, Rangeley, Kingfield, Phillips and most recently, Farmington. The books are not only an expansive history of these quaint freight and passenger trains, but of booming, early 20th century mill towns.
“I have what I call a triangular approach. There’s railroad history, there’s local history and there’s business history,” Rioux said. “So you’re going to learn about the corn factory in Strong during their bumper year that they put out 750,000 cans of corn.”
Rioux is full of colorful details that make Franklin County settlers come to life, including the startup story of the narrow gauge railroads founded by George Mansfield and Samuel Farmer.
“The original Sandy River [railroad] was a utopian dream. There was very, very little outside money,” Rioux said. “It was mainly farmers and local people within Franklin County.”
Mansfield and Farmer would attend town meetings and schedule follow-up appointments with residents during which they’d convince people to invest in one to three railroad shares.
“Basically, for a lot of these people, that was their entire life savings and they couldn’t go without having that money tied up that long, and they wound up selling out,” Rioux said.
The dream of connecting Western Maine industry towns and transporting tourists to the Rangeley Lakes via train came to a halt in 1935 due to the rising popularity of automobiles.
To study Franklin County’s five decades of locomotive history, Rioux poured over court records in the state archives in Augusta.
“Some of my biggest bonanzas, hitting grand slams, have been out of the court documents,” Rioux said, who learned that Mansfield was busted three times for selling booze during prohibition years.
Rioux estimates he spent about 10-14 days at the special collections department at the University of Maine at Orono flipping through archived books with pages as thin as onion skins.
“Some of these books haven’t been cracked open for probably 80 to 90 years,” he said. “The leather is turning into dust and it gives you a weird headache as you breathe it in through your nose, and about every hour you gotta go wash your hands and they’re red, because of the leather.”
Rioux also relied heavily on local historical societies’ archives and resources, scouring journals, old photographs and archived newspapers.
“It’s [a historical society] a local resource. It’s there, you might not need it now, but there may be a family question or whatever,” Rioux said. “You’d be surprised what these groups have saved over 100 plus years. It’s absolutely shocking.”
The admiration Rioux holds for historical societies carries over to his book sales, 100 percent of which go towards six groups that helped him throughout his research. All profits go to the Farmington, Strong, Phillips and Rangeley Historical Societies, the Maine Forestry Museum and the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Foundation.
As Rioux has published narrow gauge volumes over the years, he’s come up from his home in Newton, Massachusetts to visit these historical societies and give public talks about the railroads. To coincide with the release of the Farmington volume, he was scheduled to give a talk at the Titcomb House in Farmington.
The talk has been canceled to prevent a crowd gathering during the pandemic, which Rioux said is ironic considering this last volume has a section on the 1918 flu pandemic.
After studying newspapers from that year, Rioux learned that Redington, a township northeast of Rangeley that was once only accessible by train, was one of the hardest hit areas by the 1918 pandemic. Based on archived articles, Rioux noted about 1 to 2 deaths were reported a week.
“In early November of that first fall, one week alone of the 135 school kids at Redington, 84 were out sick that week,” Rioux said.
Despite the current pandemic, Rioux will still make the trip to Farmington for a book signing so long as his COVID-19 test comes back negative. On Saturdays, Dec. 5 and 12, Rioux will be at the Titcomb House at 118 Academy Street from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the Farmington Historical Society’s (FHS) annual wreath sale.
“The Franklin County Narrow Gauges” books alongside the FHS’ handmade wreaths will be available for sale to directly benefit the historical society.
“Anybody who wants a book and wants to help support the historical society, I’ll be signing them. And if you want it as a gift for someone, we can sign it right to that person,” Rioux said. “And all of the money goes towards the historical societies, especially in a year like this.”
FHS balsam 12″ wreaths are $24 and 30″ wreaths are $30 and will be sold at the Titcomb House every Saturday until sold out. Rioux’s books will be sold at the wreath sale for $54 and can also be ordered through FHS by emailing [email protected]