During the first heavy snowfall of winter, Portland’s Eastern Promenade was full of untracked champagne powder. Occasionally, sledders and skiers sailed by. But mostly, car drivers who stopped to park were residents of Munjoy Hill moving their vehicles because of a city parking ban.

Arguably one of the most scenic spots in Greater Portland and one of the few large grassy hills, the Eastern Prom was not busy on this day. Oddly enough, through the last century, the hills of the Eastern Prom – which is on the National Register of Historic Places – often have been passed up for other winter-fun locations in Portland.

Skiers and sledders who came here during last weekend’s storm said that during warm days, crowds of sledders can still be found on the fields of “Mount Joy,” as the area was once known, but most winter days, the hill that looks over Casco Bay sits empty.

Nathan Williams, 35, of Portland, is one of the diehards. Originally from the South, Williams was outside on this 18-degree day and loving it. He said sledding on the Eastern Prom is the height of winter fun in Portland. He has a friend who wears a Sasquatch costume to sled here. But they rarely see crowds.

“I grew up in Arkansas. This was a novelty for us,” Williams said between runs. “Everyone went sledding, even adults. I think it’s a blast. I drag all my friends out. When this is icy we call it the ‘Hill of Death.’ We have one move where you go head-first that we call ‘The Coffin.’ ”

Back when the Eastern Promenade was farm pasture and Portland was just a town, the city made its first land purchase there in 1828, setting aside 12 scenic acres. A road for horses was built in 1837, and Fort Allen was added to the town land in 1881. In 1903 a baseball diamond was built.


Then, in 1905, the Eastern Promenade’s spender was fully recognized when Mayor James P. Baxter hired the Olmsted Brothers to design the walkways and classic park we know today. The acclaimed landscape firm discouraged adding any more roads to save “the open areas for public enjoyment.”

However, Julie Ann Larry, director of advocacy for Greater Portland Landmarks, said historical books on the Eastern Prom show no mention of the Prom’s role in winter fun.

In 1927 the city built “snow slides” for children – but only at Deering Oaks and Payson Park.

When it came to wild winter fun back then, the Eastern Prom was passed up for the Western Promenade on the other side of town, where a steeper hill that spilled into fields offered more possibilities.

During the Roaring 20s, the city celebrated winter with a Winter Carnival centered at the Western Prom, where a wooden toboggan chute was a hit and a wooden ski jump drew 5,000 spectators, according to the Portland Evening Express. While the Eastern Prom had a role in these festivities, it was not center stage.

“The carnivals were all over town,” said ski historian and author Glenn Parkinson. “There was ice skating in Deering Oaks, where in 1924 there were electric lights over the ice. That was a big deal. There were dog sled rides at the Eastern Prom then.”


Parkinson said back then, many kids went sledding on the roads, which were not plowed and so perfect for sled runs.

“In the 20s they’d pack the roads with wooden barrels every time it snowed,” Parkinson said. “Kids loved to sled on the hard-packed snow surface where they could get some speed. Needless to say it was dangerous, but that added to the thrill.”

That was the case in the 1950s and ’60s, said Michael Connolly, a history professor at St. Joseph’s College who grew up on Munjoy Hill. Connolly said back in the days before the roads were plowed down to the pavement and then sanded, kids would sled on streets and ride the hills of the East End. And if you were lucky enough to live on a hilly street, that was your sled run of choice, Connolly said.

“Basically, all those streets on the south side of Munjoy Hill had incredible drops,” Connolly said. “The only problem with that was you’d get going so fast you’d end up on Fore Street, so you had to make an incredibly fast right-hand turn.”

Connolly said a half-century ago, huge crowds of working-class kids poured out into the streets of Munjoy Hill to sled. In the 1960s, as many as 75 kids would line up and fly down toward a “spotter,” who kept watch at the bottom of the road for oncoming traffic.

“A strong memory of mine is the older boys, the bolder boys, who used to hitch rides on the back of buses,” Connolly said. “I do remember being conflicted, that it was something I wanted to do but knew I shouldn’t do. I only did it occasionally.”


For sledders who gather at the Eastern Prom nowadays, it’s for a more peaceful form of fun, and that iconic view is second to none.

“I’m a little perplexed as to why more people aren’t here,” said Cami Risano of Portland, who was sliding on her stomach beside her golden retriever.

“There can be 30 people scattered across the hill. And everyone has their favorite spot. But I guess that’s on warmer days.”

John Hart of South Portland visited the Prom with his two sons, ages 5 and 12, and enjoyed having the main part of the hill to themselves. Hart said on warm days, there are as many as 30 or 40 people there.

“It’s the longest, steepest hill in the area,” Hart said.

Williams, who made about a dozen runs with a friend, said the Eastern Prom is underused.

“I don’t know why more people don’t do this,” he said. “It’s exercise hiking that hill, and this is stunning with the views of the ocean. I think people here take it for granted.”

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