Jerry Angier, a board member at Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum, on the last train of the day on Aug. 5. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Some people – cynics and grumps every one – might call it an exercise in futility. A train that starts near Portland’s Ocean Gateway terminal, clicks and clatters its way over one and a half miles of track along the shore of Casco Bay, and then does the same route backwards.

Jerry Angier is not one of those people.

“We look at it as history in motion,” Angier said in a recent interview. “It’s giving something, in my opinion, that’s positive to the community. A place where people can go, when they visit or even if they live here, and have fun for an hour or so.”

If you’ve visited Portland’s waterfront anytime during the last quarter-century, chances are you’ve seen – or at least heard – the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad train as it chugs its way along the Eastern Promenade Trail.

Fast it isn’t. The collection of old, beautifully preserved passenger cars roll along at a leisurely 5 mph or so. But even at that relative snail’s pace, it’s a trip back in time, an ode to an era when these 2-foot narrow gauge trains traversed the hills and valleys between places like Rangeley and Bridgton and Phillips and Monson, connecting folks in those isolated enclaves with the world beyond.

Now, the nonprofit railroad is at a crossroads. It’s about to break ground on a new station at one end and a new storage facility at the other, a $2 million project organizers hope will be funded largely through donations from people who think this sort of thing is well worth keeping around.

“To be frank, if we raise $2 million, I’ll be doing cartwheels anywhere you want them done – in public or private,” said Angier, who’s spearheading the fundraising drive. “But every dollar we raise is a dollar we don’t have to finance, which is great.”

Angier, we should note, is a train guy to the core.

His love for the steel rails began modestly enough. Back in the late 1940s, when he was 6, his parents got him a Lionel train set for Christmas. Like many kids of that time, he was mesmerized by the miniature cars as they went round and round the track, fueling fantasies of massive locomotives and wide open places.

Then, when Angier turned 12, his father surprised him with an even better gift. “Pop,” as young Jerry called his dad, happened to be friends with Curtis Hutchins, who at the time was president of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. Hutchins had connections with the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, which ran through Angier’s childhood hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.

“So here we are in Providence, we go down to the station, we go to the station master’s office, the station master takes us out to the locomotive of the train going to New Haven, we get up in the locomotive with the fireman and with the engineer,” Angier recalled. “And off we go.”

His most vivid memory: On the return trip, the train ran over two “torpedoes” – small explosive charges set on the track back in those days to warn of traffic ahead. To this day, Angier can see the firemen and engineer doubled over with laughter at the look of sheer terror on his young face.

Still, he was hooked.

Angier, now semi-retired after a career in insurance and finance, went on to write three books about the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. He became an associate member of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners – he doesn’t actually own his own private railroad car but loves to ride on them. He’s also ridden every Amtrak route in the United States save two – Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Norfolk to Richmond in Virginia.

But his real passion centers on Portland’s little train to nowhere. He’s currently serving his second stint on the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum’s board of trustees and happily volunteers as a train conductor. He even played Santa Claus on the railroad’s annual holiday season Polar Express. That is until “they got uppity about five years ago and started hiring Santas, so Jerry was out of a job.”

The past few years haven’t been easy for the railroad. It had planned to move to Gray after its longtime home base on Fore Street was sold by The Portland Co. to developers. But the Gray deal fell through, prompting the railroad to refocus on the right-of-way it still retains through one of the fastest-changing parts of Portland.

According to Angier, one administrative approval from the city’s Planning Department is all that remains before construction begins on the new 1,000-square-foot station and the 6,600-square-foot storage building. (The railroad has entered into a partnership to combine its museum with that of the Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway in Alna.)

The construction project can’t start soon enough. Ridership on the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad now surpasses 60,000 passengers per year, a sharp uptick from the 23,000 riders who climbed aboard in 2013.

So, why give to this cause? Two reasons.

First, if you’ve ever ridden the train or walked along the adjacent trail as it goes by, you cannot miss the utter enchantment on the faces of kids as they soak up the sights and sounds of an honest-to-God, real-life experience. Try doing that with the latest gaming app.

Second, this is part of Maine’s heritage, a direct link to a time when communities built 2-foot-wide railroads – as opposed to the standard gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches – because the narrower trains could turn more tightly, climb more steeply and, above all, be built less expensively.

Angier, ever the salesman, has been out beating the bushes for months in search of major donors. The $400,000 raised so far includes two checks for $100,000 each.

Now comes the tougher slog – persuading enough people that every contribution counts, that sending $20 or $50 or $100 or whatever to help build the train’s new infrastructure is as much an investment in Portland’s future as the hotels, condos and other projects that seemingly overnight render entire peninsula neighborhoods unrecognizable.

Still skeptical? Grab a seat inside one of the heated passenger cars next weekend during Portland’s Carnaval ME along the Eastern Promenade. Starting the weekend of Feb. 7-8, the train also will run hourly on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Sure, you’ll begin and end in the same place. But in between, I guarantee, that little train’s going to take you somewhere.


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