Essay Project 2021: Historical Railway in Portland
By Elaina Volk
“Main Street Parallels the river, one row of stores standing with their hind legs in the water, as it were. Across the river is the grist mill, the planing mill, a sort of manufactory of odds and ends of woodenware, and the secondary hotel… the depot and railroad are half a mile away, to be reached by travelers in the bus, a huge yellow contraption which can be heard rattling half a dozen blocks away.” That description is an excerpt from The Steadfast Heart, a story by Portland-born author Clarence B. Kelland. While the town he describes is fictional, it is largely based on Portland. Even though Kelland lived in the town near the end of the 19th century his description of the downtown area is still accurate. However, not all of his description fits a 21st century Portland. The railroad he mentions no longer runs through Portland.
Even though I have lived in Portland for my whole life until recently I knew very little of the railroad that was once so important to the town. Looking around the city of Portland in 2021, little evidence of the railroad that ran through the town is visible. Because of this I decided to talk to someone who remembers a time when the railroad was still operational in Portland. My grandma, who has lived in the Portland area for most of her life, remembers this time. When she was young the railroad was still used often, but once the highway came through town trucks were used more and it began to become obsolete. In 1980, residents such as my grandma didn’t take much notice of the tracks being removed; in contrast when the first train came to Portland in November of 1869, the residents of Portland responded with celebration. The railway was such an exciting addition to the village because it revolutionized transportation.
Prior to railroads, water provided the easiest way to travel through much of the country. Especially in areas with rivers, such as Portland. The Grand River was originally used by Native Americans for travel and trade, but it was later used by European settlers and the logging industry. However, travel by river became outdated with the invention and widespread use of trains, which were a much faster and often more comfortable way to travel. The late 1800s was an important and innovative time for rail travel across the country. In 1869 the transcontinental railroad was finished. Railroads also became much safer during this time with the establishment of the ICC (interstate commerce commission) in 1887, which was the first government agency set up to monitor railroad safety. All of these things together made a railway line extremely valuable to a community such as Portland’s, so much so that in 1910 the railroad passed through Portland 10 times a day.
While cars may be to railroads now what railroads were to the river then, the railroad tracks were in much better condition than most roads at the time. Many roads had only one lane and were littered with rocks. The condition of many roads began improving after the Good Roads Movement was started in the late 1800s. However, improving roads was a slow process, and many rural roads were still in poor condition well into the 20th century. Even if the roads had been more accessible, cars were uncommon during this time. They weren’t mass-produced until 1901, 32 years after the railroad came through Portland. At this point, they still weren’t attainable by many people. This made trains a much more useful mode of transport than they are in the present day.
While no railroad tracks are visible as you pass through Portland evidence of the past is all around. Much of our river trail was built where the railroad track used to lay. Additionally, some of the pedestrian bridges around town were originally built for the railroad. Portland has grown and adapted over the course of its history and you can’t deny the impact of the railroad on this growth.
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.