It was 20 years ago this week that the city of Portland acquired the Canadian National Railroad property along the waterfront below the Eastern Prom.
Today, the Eastern Prom Trail, which connects Commercial Street with the Back Cove, is a symbol of the city’s transition from its industrial past and the foresight of city leaders who recognized a great opportunity.
The land had been a rail yard built when Portland was a major winter port for Canada. Canadian grain came in by freight train, and immigrants from Europe were processed and shipped west. This arrangement lasted through World War II, but then Canada developed its own Atlantic ports.
The rail yard languished for decades, and the land along the shore became an unofficial spot for people to jog, walk their dogs or watch ships in the harbor. It was also a place with a reputation for less wholesome activities.
That changed when the city took control of the property with the help of Portland Trails, a nonprofit urban land trust.
The first leg of the trail, between India Street and East End Beach, was finished in 1997. The leg between the beach and the Back Cove was finished a year later.
Today it’s hard to imagine Portland without its trail system. It features prominently in travel writing and magazine “best of” lists. Along with the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, which shares the right of way, it’s an attraction for visitors to the city who want to take in water views.
It’s also heavily used by residents, for walking, running, cycling, skateboarding, roller skating, from early morning until late at night, all year round. And it’s not just for recreation: The trail is an out of traffic link for pedestrian and bicycle commuters.
Portland Trails and the city are still adding to the trail network. The first phase of the Bayside Trail connects the Eastern Prom Trail to the site of a proposed mixed-use development on Somerset Street. A next phase that would connect the trail to Deering Oaks park has been approved by planners.
Projects like these aren’t developed overnight — they take vision and persistent effort. But when they succeed, they can be something of which the whole community can be proud.