Bridgton competing to bring its rail history home

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

It’s very seldom that a town has the chance to resurrect authentic pieces from its pre-automobile history and bring them back to life with a living museum.

But Bridgton has just such a chance. It has the longest amount of walkable railroad bed remaining in New England, still undeveloped from the time when the Bridgton & Saco River Railroad ran its narrow gauge line throughout town from its station and yard on Depot Street.

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum needs a place to house its collection of rail cars and equipment, which includes such 1883 passenger cars as the Pondicherry and Mt. Pleasant — cars that once were part of the Bridgton line.

It is feasible, therefore, to recreate a functioning rail line, using the original cars. And not only to do that, but to also hold walking tours to show off the historic homes where the railroad’s founders and mechanics once lived.

What better example of a living “heritage tourism” is that?

Alan Manoian, Bridgton’s director of Economic and Community Development, working with Bill Shelley of the local nonprofit group Return of the Rails, submitted a proposal Feb. 28 to the museum offering to provide 4.2 acres of land on Depot Street, at the site of the former Bridgton Memorial School, so they can build storage buildings to accommodate 30 pieces of rolling stock and locomotives. The proposal calls for the land to be leased to the museum for 10 years, with no cost to the museum for the first five years.

The museum would be responsible for constructing the historically accurate buildings — a car/engine house, an engine round house and turntable and a repair/machine shop building — needed to house the train equipment, including the Bridgton & Saco River Railroad locomotives 7 and 8 along with associated cars and equipment. Manoian’s BECD office would provide staff support for submitting both public and private grant proposals or applying for bank financing to fund construction of the buildings.

The proposal also offers 1,800 linear feet of the original 1883 rail corridor to the museum for use as a functioning rail line for train rides, with a promise to work on the prospect of securing future right-of-way easements to extend the line up to 1.25 miles, as far as Sandy Creek.

Once-in-a-lifetime shot

“It’s very seldom that a town has a chance to go back and get its history,” said Shelley, a rail enthusiast who first conceived of the idea in the early 1990s, when narrow gauge equipment was relocated from Massachusetts to Portland. The museum has a functioning rail line and engine in Portland and has operated trains around the inner bay for almost 20 years, but much of the Bridgton equipment remains in storage, with only occasional uses. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot,” he said.

Bridgton comes into the process late, having been asked last December by the museum to submit its proposal. The towns of Gray and Monmouth as well as the city of Portland have also submitted proposals. Bridgton’s plan is contingent on the willingness of the SAD 61 School District voters to agree this June to turn over the school property to the town. SAD 61 Supt. Patrick Phillips has said the district might need to use at least part of the school space for a few years, but has said other district property could be used if needed so as to not interfere with the town’s redevelopment plans.

The original 1883 rail corridor runs south from the Memorial School site, behind the Stevens Brook Elementary School parking lot and athletic fields to a point behind the current Portland Road headquarters of the Greater Bridgton Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce. A pedestrian easement would be needed between the Stevens Brook School and the Willett Brook Footbridge to accommodate student education and natural study field trips.

The proposal also offers to organize, in cooperation with the Bridgton Historical Society, a historic walking tour series titled “The Railroad Founders Neighborhood Tour” and “The Railroad Engineers/Workers Tour.” The first would include such buildings as the 1871 William Perry House on Main Hill. Perry was the president of the Bridgton and Saco River Railroad.

The second tour would include the home of the railroad’s Master Mechanic, Mel Caswell, on Mechanic Street, one of the many “men and families that labored to make the B&SR RR run for 60+ years,” the proposal states. The proposal also calls for the town to organize and conduct an annual “Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Festival” that would go beyond walking tours to include concerts and historic re-enactors strolling along Main and Depot Streets, with railroad model displays and old railroad movies shown at the Magic Lantern Theater.

Manoian is confident the Bridgton proposal, with all the authenticity it has to offer, will be seen favorably by the museum.

“The actual historic location will provide a richness of cultural and geographical appreciation and connectivity,” the proposal states. “For when the museum visitors tour and wonder upon the glorious 1883 passenger cars ‘Pondicherry’ and ‘Mt. Pleasant,’ they will soon discover that they are in the very shadow of Pleasant Mountain, and are in fact visitors to the ancient colonial region known as Pondicherry, today’s Bridgton, Maine.”

What better example of town’s heritage?

Shelley said he attended the Feb. 8 public hearing debate on whether to ban big box stores and fast food restaurants in town.

“The biggest thing I heard at that meeting is that we don’t want to lose our heritage,” he said. “What is a better example of our heritage than bringing back the narrow gauge railroad?”

Bridgton had one of the last two-foot narrow gauge railroads to run in Maine when the line ceased operation in the 1940s. Shelley said Bridgton is currently a “pass-through town,” without a clear reason for tourists to stop on Route 302 on their way from Portland to North Conway, N.H. Bringing back the narrow gauge railroad would change all that, he said.

“We don’t need bigger stores. We need to enhance what we already have, to get people to stop. Once you get them to stop, they’re going to spend money,” Shelley said.

The passenger cars at the museum’s Portland location “are in pristine condition,” Shelley said. “They’re absolutely gorgeous.” But the cars as well as the turntable equipment and engines need to be under cover or they’ll be lost to the elements. In Portland, the equipment has also been subject to vandalism, which wouldn’t be a problem if they were at Depot Street, which is a minute away from the Bridgton Police Department.

Last summer, Return of the Rails relocated a tank car to Bridgton and put it on display in front of the chamber office, as well as a flanger, which takes the snow out from between the rails.

“I am a firm believer that there’s a lot (of economic benefit) that could be an offshoot” from having the town enter into a partnership with the rail museum, Shelley said.

Manoian believes presenting the museum equipment and artifacts in their “actual historic location and displayed in historically accurate railroad buildings will prove to be a high-performing, sustainable and world-class economic development engine,” benefiting both the town and the entire western Maine region. He expects to be hearing a decision from the museum within the next month or so.

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