2014-12-19 / Front Page

‘Hidden rail’ uncovered in city

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland’s “hidden rail” after being uncovered from a decadesold tangle of invasive plants, with the wooden ties excavated for view. The ties have since been packed with crushed stone to better simulate how the line would have looked when in use to service Mill Creek factories prior to World War II. (photos courtesy Jane Eberle/SPC-TV) South Portland’s “hidden rail” after being uncovered from a decadesold tangle of invasive plants, with the wooden ties excavated for view. The ties have since been packed with crushed stone to better simulate how the line would have looked when in use to service Mill Creek factories prior to World War II. (photos courtesy Jane Eberle/SPC-TV) SOUTH PORTLAND — There was no doubt in Jane Eberle’s mind. “It’s Tom Blake’s fault,” she said.

Eberle, director of business partnerships for the South Portland School Department was speaking Monday before the city council, which includes Blake among its members.

But in this case, pointing the finger at Blake was an instance of praise, because, at his instigation, South Portland’s “hidden rail” line has, at long last, been uncovered for public view.

Blake, a retired city firefighter, is a student of local history. In fact, he teaches a class on the topic at Southern Maine Community College. But he also volunteers in the local public school system — particularly Brown Elementary School, which all four of his children attended and where two grandchildren are now enrolled — giving presentations and leading field trips.

Two years ago, during his term as mayor, Blake was leading students along the city’s Greenbelt Trail speaking about various aspects of the city’s past when, near the trails’ intersection with Mussey Street, he pointed to an overgrown tangle of bushes and weeds. There, hidden in the dense foliage, was a railroad line. That line, long since abandoned, once served the factories in and around the Mill Creek area prior to World War II.

“That started a conversation that went something like, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be cool if we could expose that section, to have a classroom adopt it as a project,’” Eberle said.

It was decided that, yes, it would be cool, and so Brown Elementary created its Adopt-a-Rail project, in which students in Robin Reinhold’s fourth-grade class led an effort to uncover and preserve the old side rail and bumper post at its terminal end.

“It was originally used to move goods to the factories, but as we went along, we discovered there was a lot more to that,” Reinhold told the council. “There’s actually a lot of history in the area. So, another goal was to gain a greater appreciation of the history of our community in general, as well as the neighborhood around our school.”

Reinhold’s class documented the Adopt-a- Rail project in presentations that will soon be posted to the Brown School website. That project ultimately involved more than just Reinhold’s class.

“That’s one of the advantages of living in this community,” Eberle said. “You start talking about something, everybody gets excited and pretty soon everybody jumps on board, literally.” Among those who jumped in to aid the student project were Kathy DiPhillipo, executive director of the South Portland Historical Society; retired city arborist Mary Lou Fathke; parks department employees, including Sarah Neuts, Brian Dugas and Director Rick Towle; and volunteers from Pan Am Railways, among them Cynthia Scarano and Jeff Beecher, son of City Councilor Maxine Beecher.

Initially, the plan was for students to clear the old wide rail from the jungle that had grown around it over the past few decades, after documenting the site. However, the invasive plants, such as bittersweet, proved to be a tough a foe and city crews were brought in with bush hogs and other excavating equipment, ultimately pulling stumps.

“It was a lot more intensive than what we had originally planned, which was to send students out with clippers and gloves and trash bags,” Eberle said.

Once the city crew was done, it was discovered the wooden ties that support the rails were still in good shape. Volunteers from Pan Am Railways came up from Dover, New Hampshire, to excavate the ties, working by hand to avoid damaging them. The crew discovered from “date nails” in the ties that they actually were installed between 1956 and 1958, which may have been the last round of significant maintenance the line ever saw. The bumper post was dated to 1920, Eberle said.

“There is a lot of information documented in the rails and in the ties, including the weight and speed they could take, which Robin’s students will present to us,” Eberle said.

Those presentations, still to come, are a work in progress,” Reinhold said.

“Just today we learned some more about the history of the factories that were serviced by the rail,” said Reinhold, on Monday, referring to her students’ ongoing efforts as documentarians. “It’s a pretty fascinating story. So, we still have some more research to do.”

In addition to donating time and labor, Pan Am also gave a load of ballast, the crushed rock packed between the railroad ties. A crew from public works then packed the stone between the ties to better simulate how the line would have looked when in use.

“According to the city manager, he’s since fielded calls asking why the city put in a rail line at that spot,” Eberle said. “Of course, it’s not new, it was there all the time, hidden from view.”

Pan Am did remove one section of the old line because it came very close to the Greenbelt Trail and, cleared from its vegetative buffer, might have posed a tripping hazard.

According to Eberle and Reinhold, a ribbon cutting is planned for this spring at the site, with a date to be announced, at which point it will be officially opened to the public. For that event, students in the South Portland High School woodworking class will build a marker designed by Reinhold’s students. And, to make certain the rail remains forever free of invasive species, fourth-grade students at Brown Elementary will maintain the site, in perpetuity.

“Hopefully, we won’t need the heavy equipment any more,” Reinhold said.

“We can use those gloves we got,” Eberle joked.

“These partnerships have been so incredible, everybody has been so excited about doing this,” she added. “These kinds of things could not happen without the generosity of this community.”

Eberle said this is not the end of the school department’s Adopt-A-Rail program. Plans are underway for a similar project at Kaler Elementary involving an old granite marker that was once part of the rail line.

“Hopefully, over time, there will be five sites preserved, each of which will be ‘owned’ by one of the elementary schools,” she said.

“What an absolutely outstanding project,” Blake said. “In the coming years, when I take friends and students and visitors down the Greenbelt, it will be so much more delightful to explain to them the work you have done. And to think, 200 years down the road, we’ll still be able to point this out, because of the work that you undertook.

And, before its all said and done, Blake could be “at fault” for even more projects of a similar nature.

“I have ideas for at least six or eight more places in this city that are hidden or in decay that need a champion, that need some love and someone to care for them,” he said.

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