The Railroad Corridor
The Eastern Trail is being built along the old Eastern Railroad Corridor. The Eastern Railroad was the first railroad to connect Boston to Portland, operating from 1842 until 1945.
The Portland, Saco and Portsmouth RR Line was the first railway from southern Maine to Boston. Starting operations in 1842, its tracks ran from a station on Commercial Street in Portland, across the Fore River to South Portland, then south to Scarborough, Saco and finally to North Berwick, where it connected to the Boston and Maine railway.
In 1872, the Eastern Railroad bought out the Portland, Saco and Portsmouth RR Line.
The Portland Electric Railroad Company connected a trolley line with the Eastern RR to give tourists arriving in Portland direct access to the "Grand Beach at Old Orchard. See story on this by Jim Bucar in the Spring 2012 ETA newsletter, page 4.
In 1945, after over a century of service, the Boston & Maine Eastern Line suspended train service from Kittery to Portland. In 1965 Portland Gas Light purchased much of the abandoned right-of-way and installed a natural gas pipeline, a use that continues today. Unitil, a New Hampshire-based public utilities company, acquired the line and most of the right-of-way in 2008.
The Recreation/Transportation Greenway
In 1991, the dream of a recreation-transportation trail offering public access— particularly to hikers and bikers—coalesced into the formation of the East Coast Greenway Alliance (ECGA). The ECGA, dedicated to the development of a continuous, traffic-free trail from Florida to Maine, links 25 major eastern seaboard cities and offers its users a multitude of historic and scenic experiences.
Maine, however, had already given expression to this vision. In 1973, the Planning-Research Division of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation published a study of B&M’s abandoned rail right-of-way and its potential use as a trail from South Berwick to Scarborough - ending before the marsh at Pine Point Rd. That study found most of the right-of-way in “good” condition.
The Eastern Trail is Born
In December 1997, a few local outdoor conservation enthusiasts active in developing hiking trails in Scarborough, Saco and Old Orchard Beach, united in their desire to create a trail on the abandoned rail corridor between Scarborough Marsh and Route 1 in Saco. They had no expertise, no money, no organization— only enthusiasm, energy, and a “why not?” attitude. Therefore, undeterred by unknown obstacles, they inquired of Granite State Gas Transmission [then right-of-way owner] about access to the right-of-way and were rewarded by a favorable response from GSGT’s president: “As a pipeline operator, Granite has minimal above ground facilities and would not object to use of its right of way for passive recreation.”
In January 1998, these volunteers showed up, unannounced, at a USM public Bicycle Coalition of Maine (BCM) meeting to pitch their trail idea. Quite unexpectedly, not only the Coalition but also other participants— representatives from the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) and the Maine Office of the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Office (NPS-RTCA) — immediately endorsed their proposal.
Thus, the Eastern Trail group decided to organize to take advantage of the groundswell. In March 1998, the group now called the Eastern Trail Alliance (ETA) held its first public meeting, still focused on their modest proposal for a Scarborough-Saco trail. But interest and letters of endorsement from Arundel and South Portland, which was hoping to develop a trail from Bug Light to Scarborough, widened their ambitions. Further, a 1998 full page story published in the Maine Sunday Telegram provoked wider attention and interest from other communities, who sent representatives to ETA meetings. By 1999, all the activity and publicity attracted the attention of the ECGA, who decided to hold its Second Annual Members Meeting that September in . . . South Portland! The ECGA recognized that what was happening spontaneously in Southern Maine was precisely the kind of local/regional activity that could make their national dream a reality.
First, the founders of the ETA had to find how to translate their contagious regional enthusiasm into the pragmatic strategies that would turn dreams into grounded reality. Valuable advice came from the MaineDOT: ETA could not hope for financial or project support from state or federal sources until it incorporated with representatives from the towns the trail would cross if it followed the path recommended in the 1973 study. With the advice and participation of MaineDOT, the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission, and the NPS-RTCA, ETA was able to define and codify an organization with a governing board of representatives from each municipal government and the ETA. The official result was the Eastern Trail Management District (ETMD).
Several projects and milestones have followed:
2015 and beyond? Another 50 miles to design and build! The Eastern Trail Alliance will continue to support the miles of the Eastern Trail greenway sections that are already completed. It will continue to explore tools and techniques that help to plan, manage and promote trails, such as trail counters.
Some sources for additional reading: