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Portland's Narrow Gauge Railroad Seeks New Home
09/08/2010   Reported By: Tom Porter

One of Portland's best-loved tourist attractions may be moving. The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum has been offering visitors a glimpse into the age of steam for nearly two decades from its home on the city's waterfront. But the organization, which last year ferried 30,000 people up and down the Eastern Promenade in museum-piece rail cars, is finding life on the waterfront too costly and too restrictive.

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It's the last call for the dozen or so passengers catching the 3 o'clock special to East End beach and back -- a trip of a little over two-and-a-half miles that takes about half an hour.

It sounds like your typical train, but this narrow gauge rail line (left) at the foot of Munjoy Hill is historically unusual. Most narrow guage railroads in the late 19th and 20th centuries ran on tracks that were more than three feet wide. These train tracks, however, which were peculiar to Maine, were just two feet apart.

"The idea was to save money -- the smaller the gauge, the less land you have to acquire, all the equipment's smaller, it costs less," says Brian Durham, president of the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Industrial Heritage Trust -- to give it its full title -- says that over time, the "two-footers" gained in popularity.

"Eventually there were five two-foot narrow gauge railroads in Maine, and generally they connected smaller inland communities with the standard gauge railroad network -- sort of analogous to how a county highway connects with the interstate system," Durham says.

narrow guage railroad 003The last narrow gauge railroad in Maine went out of business in 1943, says Durham (right), unable to remain financially viable in the age of the automobile.

Today, with an annual operating budget of around $500,000, similar concerns over financial viability are prompting the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum to look for a new location.

"The Maine Narrow Gauge, of course, has been in Portland for the last 18 years," says Jeff Monroe, chairman of the museum's relocation committee. "Over the course of time with waterfront develpment, and the fact that the railroad actually leases commercial space from one of the tenants down there, it's become more and more difficult to invest in the continued care of the collection, which of course is a paramount issue for the museum."

The committee recently sent letters to communities across Maine to see if any are interested in hosting the railroad, Seven communities responded, and while their names are protected by a confidentiality agreement, the City of Portland has been confirmed as one of the interested parties.

"Certainly we recognize the value that they bring to the downtown and we would like to work with them to explore options to see what would work for them to stay in Portland," says city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

narrow guage railroad 001Indeed, according to an economic impact study in 2005, the narrow gauge railroad pumped more than $2.5 million dollars into the local economy. The railroad now plans to issue formal proposals to those seven communities and hopes to get seven responses back before seeing which one works best as a new location.

The key to relocation, says Jeff Monroe, is space. The railroad currently offers 40 rides a week on only a mile-and-a-half of track. And the museum (left), he says, has an unrivaled collection of narrow gauge rolling stock and equipment, including an entire working machine shop that could be reassembled and brought back to life.

The 8,000 square feet of exhibition space the organization currently leases, he says, is simply not enough. "We could fill 100,000 square foot building easy with a beautiful museum, state of the art, just gorgeous experience for visitors and stuff like that, so there's no question that there's quite a bit of material," Monroe says. "And of course, a lot of people have been very generous with us and donated a great deal of material and we don't exhibit but a very, very small portion of it."

In the meantime, the Portland Narrow Gauge continues to serve hundreds of visitors a week, thanks to the commitment of volunteers like Jerry Bagley. "I enjoy trains, I like being around and working with them. I do mechanical work as well as run the locomotives, and work on the train crew. It's a lot of fun, I enjoy it," Bagley says.

Fellow volunteer Sheldon Combs -- a former railroad worker from Santa Fe in Texas -- says there's a trade-off involved in moving the railroad away from Portland's popular waterfront. "My real hope would be that they would stay here where they have a lot more people. We've got a lot of traffic here. We just had a cruise ship come in so we're probably going to get some people off that pretty quick," Combs says.

"I think it's a real loss for the City of Portland," says landlord Phineas Sprague, Jr., who owns the site of the narrow gauge museum and railroad. He's also one of the founders of the organization. "The vision was bright, brilliant, and economically strong for the city, and the whole bunch of them have blown it."

The "vision" he refers to are the original plans, back in 1992, to create a light rail transport system, which for a $2 million price tag, would have operated a five-and-a-half mile circular route around the Portland peninsula.

These plans, says Sprague, came to naught amid concerns over environmental permitting and the desire of city officials to restrict the construction of new railroad lines, which they feared might hamper future development.

"It's one of the more significant railroad collections in the United States and it could have been a huge asset to the City of Portland, and in fact Portland is one of the few places in Maine that has the population density necessary to support a light rail commuting system, and this is just unfortunate that it didn't work out," Sprague says.

Sprague points out that until 2002, the museum and railroad enjoyed 10 rent-free years at its current location, and he now leases the property for what he describes as "favorable rates".

Nevertheless, he doesn't blame the railroad for wanting to relocate: Sprague describes the current one mile stretch of track on which the narrow gauge operates as a "railroad to nowhere."


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