The swing bridge off Portland’s East End, a relic of the former Grand Trunk Railroad, during December. Hazardous portions of the bridge have fallen into the channel, making it dangerous for boaters and pedestrians. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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From late November and through December, the horn from the Holiday Express train could be heard echoing across Portland’s Eastern Promenade.

The Holiday Express, operated by the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum, is a seasonal reminder of the city’s former role as a railroad hub connecting freight and passengers from Maine to Montreal throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The ride stops just before the swing bridge to East Deering, which has sections that have deteriorated to what officials call a “critical level.”

Despite its condition, however, the bridge is seen as a critical piece of infrastructure by advocates for future rail and trail travel.

A view of the Grand Trunk Terminal with its grain elevators and piers from South Portland, circa 1965. (Courtesy Portland Public Library Archives)

The bridge has not functioned since at least the 1980s, wrote Daniel T. Haley Jr., chair of the Board of Harbor Commissioners for Portland Harbor, in an Aug. 27, 2020, letter to the Maine Department of Transportation.

Timbers that have fallen from the trestle have been towed to the South Portland boat ramp, and at one point, a 20-foot beam with 10-inch spikes from the bridge was found in the water near House Island, requiring additional assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Recreational boaters have also struck timbers in the water, Haley wrote, but luckily no one has been injured.

Paul Merrill, press secretary for the Maine DOT, said those hazardous sections – and specifically the southern portion of the trestle attached to the city’s East End – are slated for demolition by the end of this month at a cost of $400,000.

The swing bridge used to open to allow boats to cross through the channel to Back Cove, but has not been in use since at least 1984, when an arson fire destroyed the trestle, Merrill said. As a section of the former Grand Trunk Railroad, which connected Portland to Montreal, the line ran to a terminal at the intersection of India and Commercial streets, where large grain elevators and silos stood on the city’s waterfront. 

“We don’t know the time it was last used, but it’s been decades,” Merrill said in December.

“I don’t think repairing it is in the forecast,” he added. “Right now, our immediate concern is to address the safety concerns.”

Interested groups, however, have their eyes on redeveloping the train trestle.

“We have always been concerned about the trestle bridge because the ‘trails people’ tend to think they can use it for a crossing, but we are looking to restore passenger trains,” Tony Donovan, president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said last month. “We believe that both can co-exist, but first the trains have got to be planned.”

Amtrak now leases Pan Am Railways-owned tracks into and out of the Portland Transportation Center near Thompson’s Point for the Downeaster service to Brunswick. They join the former St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad tracks north of the trestle, and serve passenger and freight trains.

Renovating the Narrow Gauge line into a commuter rail to Lewiston, as the coalition hopes to do, would “take us off the freight line and bring us into the center of the city of Portland,” Donovan said. 

The proposed commuter rail could offer 22 round-trip lines to Lewiston, according to a study conducted by the state, and would use Ocean Gateway as a proposed station, along with several other stations between Portland and Lewiston.

Such an ambitious project would cost roughly $20 million alone to reconstruct the bridge, so the demolition cost of the southern trestle is a “down payment” for the final goal, Donovan said.

The other vision would also connect Portland to Lewiston, but not exclusively with passenger trains.

“It hasn’t had a train on it for years, and a lot of the mechanisms that would help trains run safely have fallen over and gone,” said Sue Ellen Bordwell, president of the Casco Bay Trail Alliance and a member of the Maine Trails Coalition. “There’s no reasonable thought that that line could be in use soon.”

In October, the Maine Trails Coalition proposed a Maine Rail-Trail plan, including creation of a multi-use 250-mile off-road trail within the next 10 years. The plan would use out-of-service rail lines as pedestrian and bike paths and would preserve select train lines to continue passenger and freight service throughout the state.

“It would be such an amazing intersection to have the Lewiston area be available to bikers, walkers, and trains from Boston,” Bordwell said.

Regardless of the ultimate use, demolition of the hazardous portions of the Portland train trestle is seen as the first step to any future construction.

“That trestle connects Portland to the world: Montreal to downtown Portland (and) downtown Lewiston-Auburn,” Donovan said. “It’s a critical, state-of-Maine owned piece of infrastructure.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

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