2015-01-02 / Front Page

More of South Portland’s hidden history

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Wylie Ames, 7, next to the granite marker, now a muchgraffi tied spot along South Portland’s Greenbelt Trail. The marker once alerted railroad passengers to the fact that they were one mile from Portland, or, going the other way, 101 miles from Boston. (Duke Harrington photo) Wylie Ames, 7, next to the granite marker, now a muchgraffi tied spot along South Portland’s Greenbelt Trail. The marker once alerted railroad passengers to the fact that they were one mile from Portland, or, going the other way, 101 miles from Boston. (Duke Harrington photo) (Editor’s note: This story is the second part of a review of ‘lost’ landmarks in South Portland. Part I appeared in last week’s Sentry.)

SOUTH PORTLAND — Among eight sights of “hidden history” in South Portland, touted by City Councilor Tom Blake as places in need of preservation, are those tied to the city’s industrial past, as well the few remaining markers of how people once got from here to there.

Lost industry

Among the sites Blake would like to preserve, two are tied to an industry that was a vital part of South Portland’s wintertime economy, throughout the 19th century and as late as the 1940s. In the days before electric refrigeration, one of Maine’s leading industries was the cultivation of ice from rivers and ponds, which, when stored in straw, or sawdust, could last well into the fall of the following year. For nearly 100 years, Maine ice helped to preserve food in rail cars, restaurants, and private homes across American and around the world.

To help meet the need, and to take advantage of available labor during the winter months, at least three man-made ponds were built in South Portland. One, located near the Maine Mall, is what we know today as Clark’s Pond. Two more are located in the 49-acre Hinckley Park, and were known in the day as Upper and Lower Jake’s Ponds.

Hinckley Park is popular among dog walkers, and the ponds are so well-used for canine swimming that, last year, the conservation commission built a set of stairs in the lower pond to save the deteriorating bank, which was being trampled beneath uncountable paws.

But throughout the park are granite “footings” and foundation stones that once supported the ice houses that dominated the local landscape. Blake would like to see some group adopt the site, clear the footings to prevent further damage, or at least place signs to educate hikers and dog walkers where the stones were for (many can be mistaken as modern trail makers), perhaps with some history of the city’s ice harvesting heritage.

“This business provided hundreds, even thousands of jobs,” said Blake. “Granted they were low-paying jobs for backbreaking work, but they supported area families who otherwise would have had virtually no income during the winter months.”

A second extant example is the cornerstone to the old Clark & Chaplin Ice Co. storage shack, which can be found along the Clark’s Pond Trail, about ¼ mile from its Westbrook Street. What looks from the trail to be a giant boulder is, upon closer inspection, a foundation stone, with rebar jutting from it and a faint date, which appears to be “1938” carved into one side. The building burned down in the late 1950s, leaving very little trace, save the stone, of its existence. Blake would like to see signage posted at the site, with the earthen ramp that once led down to the pond cleared, to give some idea of how the ice was harvested.

Transportation

Three sites on Blake’s hit list for historical preservation are tied to how people once got around the city.

On Westbrook Street is an old slate marker for the “King’s Highway,” once the main road – indeed the only road – leading from Boston to Augusta. Roughly tracing modern day Route 1, the old highway diverted along Westbrook Street to reach Stroudwater Village, rejoining Route 1 as we know it today at Congress Street.

Legend has it that in the 1760’, Benjamin Franklin ordered placement of mile makers along the highway as part of a per-mile revenue scheme during his tenure as postmaster general. Today, only about a half dozen makers are known to exist in Scarborough, Cumberland and Yarmouth, as well as in South Portland. Oddly there appears to have been no central design scheme, with the other remaining markers looking more like carved rocks found in nearby woods than the slate post seen in South Portland, which designates Mile 122 from Boston. Lichen needs to be removed from the post, said Blake, and the faint “B 122” marking recarved, then sealed to prevent further erosion.

Along the city’s Greenbelt trail, only a stone’s throw from the buried alewives slough, is another mile-maker. About a century younger than the one that stands over the former King’s Highway, and made of much thicker piece of granite, it once alerted railway passengers that they were one mile from Portland, or, going in the other direction, 101 miles from Boston. The numbers were painted, rather than carved, and are just barely visible today. More readily apparent are fresher coats of paint, as the marker is a frequent target of graffiti artists.

Meanwhile, at the end of old Route 1, at the end of the Fore River, is the last remaining remnant of Vaughn’s Bridge. Before construction of Interstate 295 and Veterans Memorial Bridge in 1954, Route 1 crossed the river at Vaughn’s Bridge. Originally an earthwork bridge pre-dating the Civil War, it was destroyed by a hurricane in the 1870s. When Vaughn could not afford to rebuild, the city took over the site, building an iron bridge with a center section that rotated on a pivot to let ships steam up and down the Fore River.

The bridge came down when the Veterans Bridge was opened, but “some enterprising person” Blake said, thought to leave one section of cast iron railing on the South Portland side, where the old bridge jutted out over its stonework foundation.

Today the railing is inaccessible to the public. When, in 1970, a confused driver followed the former Route 1 out into open air where the bridge used to be and drowned, the city put up a fence to block the area off. More recently, in the 1980s, a pump station for the city sewer was built in the middle of the former roadway. Still, the railing can be seen from a distance, at the edge of the fence, and is worth preserving as a link to the city’s transportation past, said Blake.

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