- Historic Sites
The Persistence Of Portland
Small, handsome, and often beleaguered this surprisingly cosmopolitan Maine city has had a history of clawing its wav baclk from oblivion—and today,it’s on an upswing again
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
At mid-century, shipbuilding, shipping, and fishing were still basic to Portland’s economy, and its value as a port had been enhanced by the building of many toll roads, or “turnpikes,” and canals, including the Cumberland and Oxford, which ran fifty miles inland, connecting Portland and Sebago and Long Lakes. The West Indies trade, always immensely profitable, spurred such investments as J. B. Brown’s immense eight-story sugar factory on brand-new Commercial Street- itself a vast project, more than a mile long and a hundred feet wide, built on landfill where once the waves had lapped the shore. But it was the railroad that would spark the major development of the latter half of the century. Thanks to Maine’s most ardent railroad champion, a lawyer named John A. Poor, the city beat out Boston to become Montreal’s winter port, and the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad was built to connect the two cities and link Maine to all of Canada and the western United States. Founded in 1847, Poor’s Portland Company, whose building still stands on Fore Street, manufactured locomotives and boilers for the Atlantic & St. Lawrence, then for railroads all over the United States and Canada.
On the first Independence Day after Maine’s regiments returned home from the Civil War, Portland anticipated a major celebration. “What we wish to call attention to is the beauty of our city,” wrote an editorialist in the Portland Transcript . “No Portlander can at this season walk our streets in the twilight hours without being proud. …” Sadly, July 4, 1866, would be remembered instead as the most destructive in the city’s history. At dusk a fire started at a boatyard on Commercial Street, and a brisk evening breeze fanned the embers and threw sparks onto roofs nearby. The huge J. B. Brown sugar factory and two foundries went up in flames, and fire companies from all over the area could not control the blaze. It leaped from rooftop to rooftop diagonally through the city center to the Back Cove and then up Munjoy Hill, where it finally burned itself out fifteen hours later.
Amazingly only two people died. Yet the damage was devastating: a third of the city destroyed, about fifteen hundred buildings gone, including city hall, the customshouse, eight churches, four schools, three libraries, and every bank, newspaper, and lawyer’s office. Congress appropriated fifty thousand dollars, and the Army sent fifteen hundred tents, which sheltered some 1,650 people for the rest of the summer. Longfellow, visiting Portland a month after the fire, grieved for his old hometown: “Desolation! Desolation! Desolation! It reminds me of Pompeii, the ‘sepult city.’”
Only two years later, however, the scene lay totally transformed. Not for nothing is Portland’s motto Resurgam and its symbol a phoenix. The stylish brick Victorian structures seen along Middle and Exchange Streets, the heart of the downtown business district, sprang up in virtually no time after the fire, as did many other new buildings. Insurance had not covered all the losses, so Portland citizens had to dig deep into their pockets to rebuild and to fund civic improvements, such as the Maine General Hospital on Bramhall Hill (now. with modern additions, the Maine Medical Center) and Lincoln Park, conceived as a protective firebreak, and the city’s first public recreational area.
The fortunes of Portland have always been an up-and-down story. In this century the biggest influence—both positive and negative—has been the automobile, which replaced the horse and carriage and later the extensive trolley system that had taken people everywhere in and out of town. Eventually passenger rail service to Portland died also (although the long-planned revival of service between Boston and Portland seems nearer reality). The growth of suburban housing and shopping malls has meant a population drop, from 77,634 in 1950 to 64,358 in 1990. Yet Portland is still a major player in New England’s economic and cultural life, and in terms of seeing new possibilities for itself, the city has been on an upswing for the past twenty-five years. This began, as most things do, with a shift in spirit.
Like many another American city, Portland had to be shocked into recognition of its architectural heritage. In the 1960s two major granite structures, Union Station, on St. John Street, and the old Post Office, on Middle Street, fell to the wrecker’s ball. Their replacement by a strip mall and a parking lot, respectively, came to symbolize the unthinking tear-it-down mentality of postwar “urban renewal.” An angry and aroused group of citizens, many of them relative newcomers to the city, formed Greater Portland Landmarks to educate the public and spearhead preservation efforts.