I Hear the Trains a-Coming
By Bruce R. Tucker, Alfred Historical Society
The arrival of the railroad in Alfred was an eagerly awaited event. There were few things a town could do to insure its commercial future that could have more impact than having a railroad depot . The rails let goods and people move through your village regardless of the muddy roads or snow that hampered other towns commerce. Hopefully some of that money would stay in town, lining the pockets of Alfred merchants, as residents of nearby towns came to trade or travel. It was hoped these visitors could be induced to buy food, lodging, dry goods or even gravestones, anything that could pump money into the local economy. As the county seat, Alfred already had a built in clientele of people traveling to town to access the courts, registry and jail and easier travel could boost the local economy even more. Local merchants would have access to suppliers and purchase in bulk to assure good prices. Local producers such as the sawmills and farmers could move their surplus to markets without the time and labor of doing it themselves. Once the railroad was secured, Alfred could look forward to boom days ahead.
A railroad through Alfred was not a new idea. The concept was bandied about in the rail boom of the 1830’s while everyone was building railroads everywhere. Samuel Leighton noted the discussions and preliminary work in August 1835 (Leighton vol.4:268,274,276). As an innkeeper, Leighton would have a vested interest in seeing a rail come to Alfred.
In November 1846, the railroad committee was back, surveying a route across interior York County. They wanted to see the extent of Boggy Marsh in the village and evaluated a route through Lyman (Leighton diary 11-9;11-20 thru 23, 1846).
The original rail was called the York and Cumberland but it went through several reincarnations as the available enthusiasm and financing waxed and waned. It looked like the railroad would become a reality when the railhead pushed to the east bank of the Saco River in the 1850's. But there the project sputtered and stalled, unable to muster the money or energy to bridge the mighty Saco. Alfred’s railroad had literally run out of steam.
With the end of the Civil War, the interest in Alfred’s railroad revived. Maine, like the rest of the country, was eager to put the recent tragic war behind them and focus their moneys and energy on rebuilding the neglected national economy. Rails were seen as the way to bind the torn country back together literally and economically, the rail stalled on the Saco’s bank was no exception.
Alfred’s discussion of the railroad began as early as Feb, 1866, but didn’t begin in earnest until May of 1867. The rail had been reorganized as the Portland and Rochester and the corporation was badly in need of refinancing. The rail had recently voted a bond of $700,000, and on May 5 the railroad president Mr. Woodbury and the head engineer Mr. Anderson were at Berry’s Tavern seeking local support of the bond. A town railroad committee voted to cough up $10,000 as their contribution (Came Dia. p. 268-70). Work began on the railbed and continued through that summers rain and heat. George visited the work site at Scratch Corner on Aug. 10, and found about 50 men were at work under the direction of Mr. Lynch who was tasked with bringing the rail from the Saco to Alfred (Came p.275). In Dec. of 1867, the roadbed was closing in on Alfred and through a snowy, stormy Jan. and Feb. the railroad crew was driving pilings into the lower end of Shaker Pond to raise the railbed above the marsh. Temperatures were hitting -20 below as they crossed the stream channel. George said it was “cold as Jehu” and the snow was 3 feet deep in the woods.
By mid March, the sleighing was fast going, and work could begin in earnest,” The Irishmen are beginning to move in to work on the railroad. Mr. Andrews, who is blowing the stone for the bridges, is employed by the railroad company and is over to work in Emerson’s pasture. Mr. Low of Cape Elizabeth is driving the piles at Shaker bridge. The stone is too soft for stone abutments.” (Came Dia. p.290). As George wryly noted, the rough and tumble Irish had come to Alfred to begin the laborious struggle over Shaw’s ridge, clearing the right of way, blasting the rock and grading and filling the road bed. These folks were on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder and their behavior was no doubt a shock to the staid little community of Alfred. Such a group of young, single men doing back-breaking work all day with no chance to relax was bound to clash with the locals . “Ob Nutter arrested drunken Irishman and put him in jail, quite a row be-tween them and Charlie Whitten.” In any clash between the Irish and a local, the outsider was bound to come off poorly and so it was to be expected the Irishman did the jail time. Charlie Whitten was himself no angel. He was George’s neighbor and part time employee and when Charlie had another go-round with a fellow townsman, George termed it a contest between “ Hedgehog and Skunk”.
By June 8 the tracks were still only 4 miles from Bar Mills but the anticipation was abuilding. Excursions to view the rails progress became a periodic social event but on Aug. 22 Alfredians could sand it no longer and 20 of them left Scratch Corner Depot for a trip into Portland to hear a speaker. They did not return until 3 A.M. (Came Dia,p.304). Alfred’s world was expanding as the easy rail transportation allowed them access to a wider range of cultural events. Ease of travel quickly became the norm, for, by the following spring, George could blithely hop on a train to go shopping for a hat in Portland.
Still the rails came on, Sept. 4 1868, “They run the cars loaded with rail iron and the engine on the Shaker meadow bridge across the worst place. It settled the track in one place about 4 inches. I was there.” (Came Dia.p.305).
Alfred’s economic community was not sitting idly by awaiting prosperity to roll the rails into town. The village had been recently dealt a blow when Sayward's store, the brick hotel and Drews store burned down. Sayward was under insured, ruined and unable to rebuild (Came Dia.p.259,261). Brothers Frank and Bob Littlefield broke ground for a large (70’ long) store to replace it. Its size certainly indicated they were expecting more than local trading and were anticipating a lot of business (it is the current home of Dewolfe and Wood. Came Dia.p.301,304). George’s brother Sam bought a small store in the village and rented it to a man from Portland that opened a clothing store and a harness maker moved into Dr. Halls old shop (Came Dia. p.300, 316). In Oct. the town pondered laying out a road to the depot and put everything in readiness (Came p.308).
The big day finally arrived Dec.7, 1868, “Cars run into the village for the first time this P.M. I saw them. The old Alfred engine backed them in. Pres. Woodbury was on the train happy looking.” (Came Dia.p.312). Alfred had its railroad at last.
The Portland and Rochester became part of the Boston & Maine in 1884. Passenger service on this section was discontinued in the early 1930’s. The B&M sold this section to the short-line Sanford and Eastern RR in 1949 but that venture was not successful. The portion between Springvale and Rochester was abandoned in 1952, the section between Springvale and Westbrook was abandoned in 1961 (Lost Railroads of New England p.111, 119).