Monday, December 9, 2013
Historic photo courtesy of the collections of the Maine Historical Society; contemporary photo by Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer.
As World War I came to a close in 1919, Portland's waterfront was among the largest ports on the East Coast, a rival to Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
That was the year the union representing Portland's longshoremen reached its peak enrollment, with 1,366 active members.
Today, the union represents just 26 part-time and three full-time workers.
Those numbers tell the story of the port's long and dramatic decline from its glory days when it served as the winter port for much of eastern Canada. They also explain why state officials are so eager to nurture the port's new trading partnership with Iceland, a connection with the potential to expand opportunities for global trade through the state's largest seaport.
The port's early success, and its newfound hope, are due to geography.
No other major port in America is situated closer to Europe. And because of strong tides that churn the water column in the Gulf of Maine, deeper, warmer water is brought to the surface in winter, keeping the port ice-free.
The lack of ice was a crucial factor in the explosive growth the port experienced from the mid-1800s through the end of the first World War.
Quebec and Ontario needed rail access to a port on the Atlantic Coast because the St. Lawrence River was frozen all winter.
In February 1845, with the Montreal Board of Trade poised to approve a plan to build a railroad to Boston, Portland businessman John Poor made a historic journey to Montreal during a blizzard to persuade the board to delay its decision and instead consider a route between Montreal and Portland.
While Portland was 100 miles closer to Montreal by rail and a half-day's sail closer to Europe than Boston, the businessmen in Montreal doubted that Portland, with a population of only 16,000, could generate enough capital to help finance the project.
Poor convinced the board that the city would rally around the project, and work crews in 1848 began extending a rail line north from the bottom of India Street.
By 1853, the 292-mile line between Portland and Montreal was complete, connecting the port to western Canada and the U.S. Midwest. In 1916, the peak of Portland's trans-Atlantic trade, the Grand Trunk Railway Company's grain elevators on the eastern waterfront loaded 37 million bushels of grain from western Canada onto steamships bound for Europe.
Exports far outpaced imports, said Michael Connolly, who lives on Munjoy Hill and teaches history at Saint Joseph's College of Maine in Standish.
Records at the U.S. Custom House show that 119 ships entered the port that year with cargo for import, while 227 vessels departed with cargo for export.
The port's growth also transformed Portland into a rail hub.
In the 1850s, the Portland waterfront was filled in to create Commercial Street -- a wide street with room for tracks and lined with new warehouses, train sheds and long new wharves.
At the site of what is now the city-owned International Marine Terminal -- the terminal where containers come and go from Iceland -- rail lines ran along several warehouses on adjacent land and could accommodate 1,050 rail cars.
The port was busiest in winter. In the spring, when the St. Lawrence River became passable again for ships, Portland's waterfront grew much quieter.
Many Portland longshoremen traveled to Montreal in the summer for work, said Connolly, whose grandfather loaded cargo on Portland's docks.
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