2014-12-26 / Front Page

South Portland’s hidden history

Eight links to the city’s past, in danger of being lost – a two part series
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Above, South Portland City Councilor Tom Blake next to an old snow roller, discarded over the riverbank in Ferry Village. The roller, along with on like it seen in the background, was once used to pack snow along city streets. Left, this dilapidated steel gate is what was once the north entrance to South Portland’s Calvary Cemetery, from Ligonia Village, which disappeared prior to World War II to make way for the petroleum storage tanks. (Duke Harrington photo) Above, South Portland City Councilor Tom Blake next to an old snow roller, discarded over the riverbank in Ferry Village. The roller, along with on like it seen in the background, was once used to pack snow along city streets. Left, this dilapidated steel gate is what was once the north entrance to South Portland’s Calvary Cemetery, from Ligonia Village, which disappeared prior to World War II to make way for the petroleum storage tanks. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Near the mouth of the Fore River in South Portland, lodged into the riprap that retains the side lawn of the Centerboard Yacht Club, are two giant stones that have no earthly business being in a Maine riverbank.

Each granite block, weighing in at nearly one ton, is perfectly round, with a hole bored through the center, making them look like oversized Flintstone wheels.

“I always thought they were grindstones, maybe,” said Dick Ingalls on Monday, who lives next door to the club.

One of the stones used to sit in front of the yacht club, but when the property was renovated last year, it was unceremoniously dumped over the bank to join its brother, which, Ingalls said, “has been there as long as I’ve been here,” which means more than 30 years.

But the stone wheels are not grindstones. They are wheels, used as late as the 1920s throughout Maine as part of a “snow roller” mechanism.

In the era before automobiles public roads were not plowed in the winter, they were packed. A pair of stone wheels would be joined by a wooden axel and ringed around their outer edges by a series of slats, creating a giant cylinder. Teams of horses would then pull the contraption, with one or two men riding atop, to pack the snow down on public streets and roads, making them more easily passable by sleds, horse-drawn sleigh, and even, for a time, automobiles.


Granite blocks that appear to be markers along the Hinckley Park trail system in South Portland are actually foundation footers for the ice house that was once a vital part of the city’s winter economy, where ice carved from two manmade ponds in the park were stored for shipment around the world. Read more about this lost industry in next week’s paper. (Duke Harrington photo) Granite blocks that appear to be markers along the Hinckley Park trail system in South Portland are actually foundation footers for the ice house that was once a vital part of the city’s winter economy, where ice carved from two manmade ponds in the park were stored for shipment around the world. Read more about this lost industry in next week’s paper. (Duke Harrington photo) “South Portland would have had dozens of these to maintain the streets,” said City Councilor Tom Blake, as he examined the old wheels. “Eventually, many of them ended up as fill for construction projects, although I know of one that a woman has in her backyard, and I don’t think she even knows what it is.”

Blake hopes to salvage one or both of the two snow rollers discarded in Ferry Village and put them on display at the new public works complex to be built on Highland Avenue. Otherwise, he said, the rollers are in danger of being lost, or at least forgotten, costing modern residents of South Portland a vital connection to their past, and how their city used to operate.

Recently, Blake instigated interest among students at Brown Elementary School in an abandoned rail line adjacent to the city’s Greenbelt Trail, near Mussey Street. The story was featured in last week’s Sentry.

Now, Blake is hoping to spur interest in the snow rollers and seven other historical sites across South Portland, all in danger of being purged from living memory.

“One of my very favorite historical sites in the city was lost just two years ago,” Blake said, “and I’m afraid that if we can’t get groups of people involved in preserving and protecting the one that remain, we’ll lose them, too.”

A fishy problem

These days Blake, a retired city firefighter, teaches history classes at Southern Maine Community College. He also frequently gives tours of the city to area schoolchildren, along with his college students and, he admits quite frankly, almost anyone else who will follow him around.

For years, one of his favorite stops was at the intersection of Broadway and Evens Street. There, from the edge of the road, located about 20 feet into the woods of a vacant 2-acre lot, Blake would point out what appeared to be an old canal. Made of stone and concrete and dating to before the Civil War, the canal was a fish slough, diverting water from Barberry Creek along a path about 4-feet wide and 50-yards long.

“It was actually used to breed alewives,” Blake said. “All of the trees you see there were planted to provide a shaded canopy for the slough, to keep the water cool, and there were ridges built in where the owner could place wooded dividers, to break it up into sections.

“There was a time,” Blake said, “when the city bought alewives from the owner of the slough to give to the poor.”

But two years ago, the owner of the property began to fill in the fish sloughs. Because the site is in a resource protection area, Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette issued an order to stop the filling, but by then it was too late. Blake isn’t sure if the entire structure is buried. What he does know, however, is that it can no longer be seen from Broadway, and the site is not longer a stop on his historic walking tours.

Living dead

Two hidden history spots are linked to cemeteries. One Located on Marcelle Avenue is a postage-sized plot known as Wescott Cemetery. Despite what a sign on site says, it is not maintained by the city. The historical society has done some work on the site, erecting signs and a perimeter fence, but most of the headstones are missing and the spot otherwise looks like a wooded area between two houses in sore need of a good raking. The shame, Blake said, is that the cemetery is the final resting place of Revolutionary War patriot Josiah Wescott, buried there in 1822, having passed at the age of 88.

Meanwhile, on the north side of Calvary Cemetery is a steel gate to nowhere. Now falling into disrepair, the gate once was the cemetery entrance from Ligonia Village.

Although many South Portlanders today still refer to Ligonia, the actual village is long gone, displaced by the petroleum storage tanks that dot the landscape today. In fact, Blake said, the old north gate to Calvary is about the last remaining vestige of the true Ligonia. It’s worth preserving, Blake said, not only for the sake of the former Irish-immigrant community, but because the area was once the site of Camp Berry, where Pine Tree recruits, including those of the much-celebrated 20th Maine, trained before shipping off to join the Civil War.

“All of these site are really important links to our city’s heritage,” said Blake, and I only hope someone, or some group can be found that will take an interested in keeping them alive for future generations. Otherwise, they’ll be lost and quite probably forgotten forever.”

See Part II of “South Portland’s hidden history” in next week’s Sentry.

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