ORONO — In recent months, the Portland Press Herald has covered the conflict between the owners of the site of the former Portland Co., a Maine industrial giant renowned for building more than 600 locomotives and other economic feats, and those seeking to preserve some of its land and structures as a historic site.

The questions one asks can light up the shadows of history and determine its content, e.g.: Who built the locomotives at the Portland Co.? Who piloted these industrial behemoths? Who laid the track that they traversed?

The countless anonymous workers who helped to build the product and wealth of the company should find representation in any successful campaign to carve a place in Maine history for one of its industrial giants. There is a bit more to the story than architecture, the industrial prowess of the company and a stroll down memory lane.

A brief historical glimpse of the Portland Co.:

In the 1840s, a 10-hour-workday movement swept across the state and resulted in legislation for the reform in 1848. Working 10 hours a day bordered on utopia when compared to the 12- to 16-hour workday in vogue.

It quickly became apparent, however, that the new law would emerge as a major issue, as employers readily took advantage of a provision in the law that permitted workers under contract to labor beyond 10 hours.

The first contest involving the 10-hour law occurred in Portland on April 21, 1849, when a public meeting of the journeymen mechanics of the city took place to ensure that the intent of the 10-hour law would not be circumvented by an appeal to its “freedom of contact” provision, which allowed workers to participate in their own exploitation under the legal guise of having the “freedom” to negotiate the terms of their employment.

The meeting was called by the workmen of the Portland Co. An average of 200 men engaged in a variety of crafts were employed by the company at wages that averaged $1.25 a day. The men, determined to work only 10 hours a day, went out on strike for a genuine 10-hour day and were consequently dismissed for their action.

They continued their struggle and distributed handbills throughout the city, calling upon the journeymen to gather at City Hall to address the situation. Resolutions were presented and adopted that declared that beginning March 23, 1849, 10 hours would constitute “an honorable and legal day’s work,” and workmen pledged themselves to unity in the struggle.

The conflict between capital and labor was apparent. The language of the resolution and the strike reflected the continued erosion of a “community of interest” among masters, journeymen and apprentices.

From the vantage point of one observer of the “turn-out” (as strikes were called in the early part of the century), no such harmony between capital and labor was to be found. Workers in Maine had increasingly viewed themselves as a distinct class of “producers,” in contrast to the non-producers, e.g., merchants, bankers, lawyers and land speculators.

The journeymen mechanics were defeated in their effort to win the 10-hour day. In 1851, however, under the “strong and urgent petition” of John Sparrow, the manager of the Portland Co., the officers of the corporation acceded to the demands for the 10-hour day. Company employees joined printers and others in the city who enjoyed the 10-hour day, which increasingly became the norm in Portland.

Perhaps it was the perception of an uprising of the “mechanics” (a general term use to described those who labored with their hands) that induced such action by the helmsman of the Portland Co.

In 1831, Portland “mechanics” organized a Labor Party, published “The Mechanic: Farmer and Working-Men’s Advocate” and organized a branch of the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen.

In March 1847, local mechanics established a branch of the Mechanics and Laborers Association, which spread throughout the state that year – the same year the Portland Co. commenced operations.

Along with a 10-hour day, workers also demanded the end of the “store order” system of payment, under which employees were paid not in cash, but with a coupon redeemable for goods at the company store. This system, then a ubiquitous institution in the state, lessened the pay of workers, created a sense of bondage to the company store and increased the profits of employers.

This historical tidbit of history is but a reminder to those committed to preserving a historical landmark to remember the “bone and sinews” of the community that built the facility and made possible the treasure they seek to preserve.

— Special to the Press Herald