Sunday, April 01, 2007

One hundred years of cruise ships

Although I've been inclined to criticize Portland's desire to host the glutton barges commonly known as "cruise ships," and although I've said that those floating Vegases (islands of tackiness surrounded by ocean instead of by desert) have little to do with the city's traditional working waterfront, I've recently learned about some history that offers a different perspective.

Portland's eastern waterfront, currently home to Portland's most desirable dirt parking lots, was once home to several steamship companies. This was where the Grand Trunk Railroad, which roughly followed the route of present-day Route 302, had its southern terminus, and one of its office buildings still stands at the corner of Commercial and India Streets (pictured at left).

The railroad connected Montreal and northern New England to an ice-free harbor, so this was once an important transfer point for both passengers and freight. When the Port of Portland selected the site of the new Maine State Pier in 1922, the site's "close proximity to the business district of Portland as well as to the passenger station of the Grand Trunk Railway" made it "favorable for handling passengers as well as freight."

Above: the Maine State Pier under construction in 1922. The large structure in the background is the Grand Trunk Grain Elevators, which carried grain to and from the pier along the trestled "grain gallery" in the foreground. To the left is the corner of Commercial and India Streets: the clock tower of the now-demolished Grand Trunk railroad station, the still-standing wooden building that houses the Benkay Sushi Restaurant on the left, and the same brick Grand Trunk office building pictured above on the right, at the end of the grain gallery.

Before the Maine State Pier was built, the harbor's main steamship berth was located along the present-day seawall in front of the Portland Company complex, next to the Eastern Prom Trail. This would have been the destination of the ill-fated Steamship Portland, which made regular trips between Portland and Boston until it sank in 1898 (its wreck was discovered off of Cape Cod a few years ago).

The Eastern Steamship Lines, which ran passenger lines from Portland to New York and Boston, is actually a corporate ancestor of the present-day Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. But the steamships that frequented Portland's harbor a hundred years ago weren't necessarily the glamorous floating country clubs that today's cruise lines romanticize. From a description of the Maine State Pier construction:
"Particular attention is being given to provision of suitable quarters for handling the immigration business at this port. The greater portion of the second story of this pier shed will be devoted to immigration work and will contain waiting rooms, examination rooms, detention and board rooms, railway and steamship ticket offices, lunch counter and other features of a modern immigration station... While particular attention is being given to immigrants who make up the larger part of the passenger traffic to this port, provision will also be made at the new pier for the comfortable handling of saloon and second cabin passengers."
Compare this with the proposals for the next incarnation of the Maine State Pier: among all of the parking lots and luxury hotels, where's the "provision of suitable quarters" and "comfortable handling" for those of us who travel in coach class?

And speaking of parking, this was their wacky transportation solution eighty-five years ago: "Inasmuch as railroad tracks are to extend along the pier for its entire length, it will be possible for passengers of all classes to pass directly from the trans-Atlantic pier shed to trains standing on the pier alongside the shed and be taken thence to their destinations." Inasmuch as the Pier is still served by the state's two most-used public transit services (Metro and Casco Bay Lines), shouldn't Portlanders and visitors be able to pass directly from ferries to buses and the Old Port without having to traverse acres of parking lots and garages in between?

For more historical information:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello there, I was looking for a way to contact you, and this is the only way I can seem to find.

I work with the Natural Resources Council of Maine and have been keeping up with your blog for a while now, and I wondered if you would be interested in sharing an important environmental topic in Maine with your blog readers.

We released today a new flash movie for the internet, to educate folks about toxic pollution in Maine, and urge them to take action on some important legislation. I hope you would consider sharing this information with your readers. The movie and information is available online at, the direct link is:

Thanks in advance for your consideration, and let me know if you have any questions. You can reach me at