The southern half of the former Grand Trunk Railroad train trestle that runs from Portland’s East End to the B&M Baked Beans plant. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Maine Department of Transportation is planning to demolish the southern half of the former Grand Trunk Railroad train trestle that runs from Portland’s East End to the B&M Baked Beans plant.

The span, which is visible from Interstate 295, has been eyed in the past as a recreational trail. And train enthusiasts have hoped to use it to restore passenger rail service from Portland’s Ocean Gateway to Lewiston.

The project is being undertaken at the request of the Board of Maine Harbor Commissioners, which oversees development and other activities in Portland Harbor.

Commission Chairman Daniel Haley Jr. said in an Aug. 17 letter to the state that trestle’s poor condition has reached a “critical level.” He said large pieces, including one 20-foot beam with 10-inch spikes, have fallen into the water, creating a “serious hazard to navigation” for boaters.

“Recreational boaters have struck floating timbers, doing damage to their vessels, but luckily there have been no injuries up to this point,” Haley wrote. “If one of these timbers were to get wedged in the steering gear of (a) ship or tug, it could be disastrous.”

The commission will take up the issue on Monday. Though members plan to vote on the proposal, Maine DOT said it doesn’t necessarily need approval to address the hazard.

Maine DOT spokesman Paul Merrill said work will likely get underway around Nov. 30 and be finished by the end of December. The project is estimated to cost $400,000.

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation manager, said she wasn’t exactly sure when the wooden trestle and steel swing bridge were constructed. The rail line provided essential freight service and some passenger service between Portland and Montreal from 1853 to 1923, when it was taken over by Canadian National Railway, she said.

Andrews noted the Grand Trunk Railway purchased the line from the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which was founded by John Poor, the Portland entrepreneur behind the Portland Co. railroad foundry.

“The trestle remains as one of the few structures recording Portland’s important railroad history,” Andrews said. “The railroad was essential to the city’s economic growth in the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. The Grand Trunk’s India Street station was demolished in 1966, five years after Union Station on St. John Street was demolished. Only the Grand Trunk Railroad Office Building at 1 India Street remains to tell the story.”

Andrews said she didn’t have enough information to offer an opinion about whether the entire span should be preserved.

Maine DOT is looking to demolish the southern portion of the trestle, a span from Portland’s East End and the swing bridge that was damaged by fire in 1984. The swing bridge, a movable trestle that allows boats to cross the rail line, and the northern span, connecting to the B&M Baked Beans plant, will remain, state officials said.

Sarah Hansen, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said preservationists understand the need to address the safety hazards associated the southern section’s condition.

“If the call was for demolition of the swing bridge and trestle connecting to B&M, we would definitely be concerned, but I am not sure there’s much that can be salvaged from this particular portion of the site,” Hansen said.

A lawyer representing the Maine Yacht Center, however, urged the commission to approve only a limited demolition of the structure, saying the pilings help calm the waves coming from Back Cove. But Matthew Burns, Maine DOT’s director of ports and marine transportation, said in an letter to commissioners that “anything less than total removal … would be imprudent.”

The entire trestle connecting the East End to the B&M Baked Beans plant has been eyed by both trail and rail advocates.

Back in 2010, the two groups squared off over their competing visions for the trestle.

Portland Trails applied for $750,000 in federal funding to convert the trestle into a walking and biking trail. That application faced opposition from the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, which has been lobbying state and federal officials to restore passenger rail service along that rail line to Lewiston and beyond.

Portland Trails Executive Director Kara Wooldrik said her organization continues to see potential for a combined trail and rail line along that route. But such a project would likely entail rebuilding certain sections anyway, she said.

Tony Donovan, director of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said he was initially concerned about the proposal because there was little public notice. But after speaking with the state, he believes the demolition and reconstruction would be needed to bring back rail service. The most recent estimate for rebuilding it was $20 million, he said.

“There are currently multiple bills prepared for the state legislative session targeting the restoration of that corridor,” Donovan said. “As we look forward to rebuilding passenger rails, this is a step forward.”


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