WESTBROOK — On Aug. 31, 1961, the iconic image of the Union Station collapsing clock tower signaled the end of passenger rail service in Portland. That image in the accompanying photo still resonates today in the city’s memory of defining historical moments.

This incredible act of destruction was ironic because it served as a powerful symbol and rallying point for historic architectural preservation in Maine. Greater Portland Landmarks was born within three years of the station’s razing.

To understand the Union Station story, we have to go back to the Great Fire of 1866. Started by a firecracker thrown into a pile of wood shavings on Commercial Street, the fire destroyed more than 1,500 buildings and devastated downtown Portland. A low tide doomed firefighting efforts, because the harbor supplied the water.

After the devastation, Portland constructed a pipeline, which is still in use today, to bring drinking water (and firefighting water) from Sebago Lake to the city. Like the great phoenix, Portland began to rebuild itself immediately. Buildings sprang up, including architectural gems like a marble post office, a new City Hall, the Customs House and Maine General Hospital (now Maine Medical Center).

By the late 1800s, Maine’s tourist industry was growing rapidly and almost all came to Maine by railroad, using Portland as a strategic point of entry.

In 1872, 65 trains a day were stopping in a variety of small passenger stations scattered throughout the city. In 1886, the Boston & Maine Railroad and the Maine Central Railroad made plans to build a large, centrally located passenger station. The site chosen, at the corner of Congress and St. John streets, was sarcastically referred to as a “mud hole in a swamp.” After much debate, construction began, and Union Station opened its magnificent doors on June 25, 1888.

The 138-foot granite clock tower, the most striking feature of the station’s turreted facade, housed an innovative clock mechanism – a cousin to London’s “Big Ben.” It had the reputation as the most accurate outdoor timepiece in all of New England, but it did have to be wound every Sunday.

Walter Browne, the last of the station’s clock keepers, would climb the tower’s spiral staircase to the top and crank the winding mechanism exactly 133 turns. The 1,500-pound weight could now accurately power the clock for another week.

For decades, Union Station was the transportation hub of railroad service in Maine.

During World War II, families sent their soldier sons off to the great conflict in Europe, tearfully wishing them well from the ornate waiting room. Union Station greeted all summer tourists with free cups of Sebago water – “Portland’s Greatest Asset” – as they embarked on fun-filled vacations throughout the state of Maine.

But in the late 1940s, with the end of gas rationing and the building of the Maine Turnpike, the public eagerly began its love affair with the automobile. The car was now king of the highway. Suddenly there was no need for Union Station, because travelers could choose between the speed of air travel, the convenience of bus transportation or the ultimate freedom of the automobile.

A rapid decline in rail passengers forced the station to close its doors on Oct. 29, 1960. The end was near. Demolition began in July 1961, and on Aug. 31, the famous image of the falling clock tower became permanently etched in Portland’s collective consciousness.

The city realized too late what it had done. Union Station’s destruction channeled citizen outrage into political activism. Within three years, Greater Portland Landmarks had incorporated and began buying and renovating older historic buildings.

The organization fought long and hard for historic preservation, and through its efforts, a Comprehensive Historic Preservation Ordinance was adopted in Portland in 1990. Today, as we celebrate Landmarks’ 50th anniversary, rest assured that architectural historic preservation is alive and well in our cosmopolitan city. 

— Special to the Press Herald