Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
John Alfred Poor was in a race against time and he knew Portland’s future was hanging in the balance. That’s why he was so desperate to get to Montreal. Unfortunately, a February blizzard was raging, and there was no good way to get there from here.
But that didn’t stop him.
Boston businessmen were up there already. They were pitching city leaders on a new railroad from Montreal to their ice-free winter port. It would give Montreal access to European markets all winter long, while the St. Lawrence was ice-bound. Portland is 100 miles closer to Montreal and half-day nearer to those European cities by steamship. A railroad to Portland would make much more sense. Poor knew that.
But to convince them, he’d have to get there, first.
He pressed on, day and night, through Falmouth, Rumford and Dixville Notch. It took him four days to make the 300 mile journey by horse and sleigh. He got frostbite and pneumonia, but he made it on Feb. 9, 1845.
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound man knew how to talk, too. He’d learned that as a school teacher and lawyer. After three hours rest, he made his pitch.
It worked and the Canadians agreed. Three years later, the first section of his railroad, from Portland to Yarmouth, opened. That was 169 years ago this week on July 20, 1848.
Completed in 1853, Poor’s St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad was quickly leased by Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway. It eventually stretched all the way to Detroit. Every Canadian good bound to or from Europe, South America and China came through Portland. It was an almost unimaginable economic boon for this sleepy little city of about 16,000 people.
Poor taught the city to think big and, for a while, Portland rivaled Boston in economic clout with its rail and steamship connection to the world.
John Poor went on to start or run four more Maine railroads. He died in 1871 at age 63. By then. Portland’s population had doubled and its property valuation quadrupled. Both due, in large part, to his railroad.
A year after his first line opened, Poor started the Portland Company, here in town, to make locomotives. Then, he bought a railroad magazine for his brother Henry to run. Later, the magazine specialized in rating railroad bonds. Henry is the “Poor” in the Standard and Poor’s bond rating company still running today.
The Grand Trunk Railway had a fancy station at the corner of Commercial and India Streets. Like Union Station, on the other side of town, it had a tall clock tower. Sadly, the only thing left is an office building built in 1903. Recently, it was restored and the Grand Trunk Railway and steamship sign was repainted. That’s cool.
You can still see the the pilings on the waterfront where giant grain elevators once stood. They stored all eastern Canada’s exported wheat, bound for points overseas. The last ones to stand there on the wharves were built in 1901. They held 1.5 million bushels of grain. In the 1970s, they all burned or got torn down.
Before Amtrak’s Downeaster came to town in 2001, the last passenger train left the city from there. That was 1967 and the train went, fittingly, to Montreal.
Freight continued for years after passenger service ended. I’m old enough to remember trains running up and down Commercial Street in the 1970s. They carried goods to and from from the wharves.
That service stopped in 1984. That’s when an arsonist set fire to the Grand Trunk’s swinging railroad bridge over Back Cove. It never got repaired and still sits there, stuck in the open position.
Nationalized by the Canadian government in 1920 and deregulated in 1989, it’s once again called the St. Lawrence and Atlantic. Its last customer in Portland was the B&M Baked Bean factory. But it stopped running there in 2015.
It all sounds kind of sad but there’s still hope. The Downeaster just had a record year. They’re talking about reviving passenger service to Lewiston/Auburn — and even a night train to Montreal.
If that happens, I plan to be on the first train out. But beware, I’ll be talking everyone’s ear off, all the way north, telling them the story of John Poor’s heroic sleigh ride through the snow.
Note: As is often the case, I’m again indebted this week to the Maine Memory Network for their continued generosity in sharing images with me. Thanks folks, I appreciate it.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.