Even though Portland is the largest city in Maine, it is possible to leave it behind by taking a short walk along the shore of Casco Bay. A great place to start is the corner of Commercial and Franklin Streets, one of the busiest traffic intersections in the city, and it is also where the Portland Ocean Terminal is located. This building used to be the access point for all of the large ships coming into the city, but now its pier is usually populated by a cluster of red tugboats.
These tugboats escort tankers, cargo carriers and cruise ships to their docks, and one day each summer these hard-working vessels are scrubbed and dressed with fluttering flags. Cheering fans in team-colored T-shirts line their decks and the tugs participate in races on the Fore River and tests of strength where they come nose-to-nose mid-river in pushing and shoving games to see which one is the most powerful or skilled.
Although there aren’t rail lines evident now, this area was the result of an “enormous landfill project that created Commercial Street [and] also made way for the expansion of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad (later the Grand Trunk) that had arrived in the 1840’s [and] made Portland the winter port for Canada, bypassing the frozen St. Lawrence River. This development triggered an unprecedented period of prosperity and growth.” Grain elevators and storage buildings sprang up and new railroads laid their tracks so that they could come into the city. Suddenly there was “the need for a much broader thoroughfare to accommodate all the traffic” (Commercial).
A block further along, the Grand Trunk Railroad building stands as a reminder of this era when railroads were a driving force of expansion across this country.
With the St. Lawrence River frozen over in the winter, eastern Canada needed a reliable year-round transportation system. The Grand Trunk’s headquarters were in Montreal, its corporate headquarters in London, and their main line ran from Montreal to Portland. Other branches of the system served Quebec, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut (Grand Trunk).
After years of growth and prosperity, the railroad was “nearing bankruptcy in 1919, [and] the entire system was nationalized” with the Canadian government merging the Grand Trunk with other lines to form the new Canadian National Railways, however, the Grand Trunk lines in the United States kept their distinctive name. For any of you who are Downton Abbey fans, you might remember Episode 1 in Series 3, which “takes place during the spring of 1920, Robert, Earl of Grantham, learns that he has lost most of the fortune that he received from his wife Cora, which Lord Grantham had largely invested in Grand Trunk Railway stock” (Grand Trunk).
Portland’s changing times are also reflected in the Ocean Gateway Marine Passenger Terminal with its much longer dock and larger facilities. Completed in 2011, it was built to accommodate the increasing number and growing size of the cruise ships that bring visitors to Portland in the summer and fall months. The new terminal is able to accommodate three cruise ships at the same time. On days when these vessels are scheduled to arrive, vendors line this stretch of sidewalk to greet passengers with their handmade sea glass jewelry, paintings and other creative Maine souvenirs like duck tape hats and wallets. Most of the passengers head for the historic “Old Port” area of the city, while others board buses that will take them to the L.L. Bean store in Freeport and on other excursions.
Just past the Ocean Gateway is a small waterfront park with its “Moontide Garden” whose rocky plantings are set in a shifting landscape that is based on the water levels that the tides bring to this scene. There is also a nine-foot propeller from the tugboat Stamford, which will give you a better understanding of the power that drives those special working boats.
The pink building beyond is the ticket office for the Narrow Gauge Railroad, which takes passengers for rides in historic railcars along the shore of Casco Bay.
“Starting in the latter part of the 19th century, Maine had a unique system of railroads that ran on rail only two feet apart,” while the Grand Trunk Railroad lines were the standard U.S. gauge of 4 feet 8 1⁄2 inches. “From the 1870s until the 1940s, some 200 miles of narrow gauge lines served many of Maine’s smaller communities. Eventually there were five of these railways.”
This system transported passengers and freight, and “connected the less populated rural areas of Maine with the larger cities and thus were an important part of the economic development of the interior of Maine” (Narrow Gauge).
On the left side of the walkway is the Portland Company. According to the “Sutherland Report,” which is a historical assessment of the company’s site, the Portland Company has been of enormous significance “within the city of Portland, the state of Maine, and beyond; especially in the context of national trends in manufacturing and transportation during the company’s years of operation (1847-1982).”
John A. Poor was “the individual most responsible for Portland’s successful bid over Boston to become Montreal’s winter port via rail.” He was also responsible for the establishment of the Portland Company “in 1846 in conjunction with construction of the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad.” This alliance meant that the Portland Company grew with and was closely aligned to all aspects of the railroads’ construction and operations.
The company would become famous for the “use of cast metals, particularly iron” to produce a broad range of products that would be “central to the rapid industrialization and expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century.” In addition to forging component parts, the company put “all of the stages of production for large machines, like steam locomotives, in one place [which] was a radical advance over traditional practices.” They also combined the “use of patterned cast iron parts, as opposed to individually hand-crafted unique parts,” an advancement that “laid the foundation for Henry Ford’s next step in the progression of efficient production, the assembly line.”
Here in Maine, “their locomotives, railroad cars, marine engines and boilers, and maritime navigation aids” were essential to the state’s “development of rail and maritime transportation.” They also produced a myriad of products from equipment for paper mills to steam fire engines, and during the 19th century, their cast iron facades began changing city streetscapes. “The Portland Company cast storefronts, man hole covers, parts for lighthouses (lanterns, lamp decks, spiral stairways, doors and sashes, walkways, railings, vents, spindles and markers, upper sections of light tower), lamp posts, ornate gates, and industrial boilers.”
The military’s needs during WWI pushed the company to diversify even more. “Tens of thousands of brass shell casings were produced by the Portland Company, packed in pairs, and shipped to another factory to be filled before being sent to the US Army between 1917 and 1918.” At this point women joint the company workforce since so many men were serving in the military.
Today, “the Portland Company appears to be the only surviving pre-Civil War locomotive manufacturing plant in the nation.” Its remaining buildings are being restored and given new life as part of the major hotel development that is just getting underway.
The shoreline along this stretch has also undergone quite a few changes with the recent opening of the Park at Amethyst (the name of the park is not yet permanent!). The city transformed a pothole-filled parking lot into a park with raised, granite-bound flower beds, two large swings and a turnaround with a small parking area for visitors who want to pause and take a few photos. [Long term parking is available in the block between the two terminal buildings.]
Partially burned pilings are reminders of the wharves and piers that would have been a part of this busy waterfront area. Back in 2015, South Portland artist Andy Rosen made great use of this space for his temporary art exhibit “Unpack.” People flocked to the waterfront with their cameras to take pictures of the realistic appearing canine pack he created out of PVC and fake fur.
SailMaine keeps its fleet of sailboats just beyond this area and it is fun to watch their classes in session. Students navigate their little numbered sailboats as they attempt to follow the leader, their sails often luffing and a chase boats hovering close by in case help is needed. Classes are available for all ages and the sail school is responsible for introducing many to safe sailing practices.
Those little boats are like baby guppies compared with the enormous yachts that are tied up at the newly established Fore Points Marina.
A whole new string of temporary seeming buildings has mushroomed up beyond the sailing school. Word is that these will eventually be replaced with permanent facilities as part of the hotel complex. This area has long been a marina, but this year it has been redesigned with 150 slips and it is able to accommodate twelve mega-yachts (maximum length 630′).
One of our favorite visitors is this large white yacht with a side bay for storage. The storage space appears to be about as wide across as a five-car garage and is used to accommodate miscellaneous smaller water craft.
This summer EVO, with its spectacular views of the marina and Casco Bay, has become a popular place for friends to meet for a drink or a light meal.
The walkway (the Eastern Promenade Trail) continues to follow the narrow-gauge tracks and this is where it really leaves the city. The buildings and all the history fall behind when a sheer wall of rock rises up on the left and there is a swatch of grass bordered by dense growths of wild roses that lines the rocky shore. Sometimes woodchucks can be seen before they scurry back into the undergrowth on the other side of the tracks. A flock of goldfinch may fly up into the trees and once we even saw a red fox trot across the path and head down toward the water. In the spring, spikes of lupine bloom above the roses.
When the land begins to rise along the shore it is time to take a detour from the path and head for the water. This little beach at Fish Point is one of our favorite places in Maine. Shells, pieces of sea glass and seaweed mingle among the wave-washed stones, and rocky outcroppings offer the opportunity to take a seat and settle in for a while to enjoy the rhythm and the sound of the waves.
You might find some cairns…or build one of your own to mark your trail. Take your time to breathe in the ocean…there is no need to hurry on.
From here you can even watch the beach area beyond the rocks where dogs run and chase sticks into the water in the early morning. People walk on the sand or ankle deep in the waves, and later in the day others sunbathe and a few will swim in the bracing water.
On the far side of the beach there is a portage where people offload their skiffs then row out to their moored boats.
Portland Paddle offers the opportunity to explore this stretch of coast in a kayak or on a paddle board…or you can simply continue walking and soak in more of the beauty of the Maine coast.
Commercial Street Portland Waterfront (Old Port) Historic District, portlandmaine.gov.
Grand Trunk Railway This page was last edited on 18 September 2020, at 05:33 (UTC).
Narrow Gauge Railroad. mainenarrowgauge.org.
Portland Company: Historic Significance and Integrity. Sutherland Conservation & Consulting. Scott T. Hanson, Amy Cole Ives and Matthew Corbett. 2014.