2017-01-27 / Community

A Window on the Past

Train transport in greater Portland once a hub
By Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo

A Maine Central Railroad locomotive on Commercial Street in Portland. (Courtesy photo) A Maine Central Railroad locomotive on Commercial Street in Portland. (Courtesy photo) As a result of last week’s column, I’ve had some interesting conversations about trains recently. This week’s “A Window on the Past” is a gorgeous view of a Maine Central Railroad locomotive pulling cars down Commercial Street in Portland. I remember driving down Commercial Street with those tracks, long ago. I used to worry about my car’s wheels. If you let your wheel get too close to the track, sometimes it would get pulled into that groove, and while I’m sure that in reality there wouldn’t have been any problem pulling out of there, it was unsettling nonetheless. I’m sure others felt that way, too. Together with my fear of the tight corner on the Million Dollar Bridge, I was not one to volunteer to go run an errand on Commercial Street.

I spoke with society member Jack Gibson this past week about an interesting memory he had related to trains and Rigby Yard. During World War II, Jack worked at Rigby Yard with his friend, Donald “Corky” Jackson. Many of the regular railroad workers there at the time were of Polish or Irish descent and worked for the union. Jack and Corky were both young and non-union, however; just working there as a temporary job. One of their jobs was taking care of horses that arrived by train from the Midwest. Once the horses arrived, they would have to wait for eight hours, so the horses had a chance to stand with no movement, then Jack and Corky would give them water before the trains continued on to Portland where the horses would be loaded on a ship to Poland. Jack also remembers used automobiles arriving by train at Rigby from California that were headed to Cuba. He thought they were beautiful looking cars (it was wartime, and manufacturing was focused on military needs). Jack and Corky would load reefers (refrigerated boxcars) with ice. The ice would go into compartments on either end of the car to keep it cold. He also remembered occasionally going over to Commercial Street, where he and Corky would shovel snow out of coal cars at the A.R. Wright Co.

Trains were a fact of life on the Portland waterfront for generations. The piers and wharves had side rails; workers could land fish, pack sardines, or unload other products from ships, then move them by rail to the train on Commercial Street where they could be sent to faraway places. The train lines existed long before the automobile was even invented. It’s fun to imagine what the driver of a horse-drawn buggy would think when driving down that same street alongside those tracks.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of South Portland Historical Society.

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