Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on 9/11 from Maine

Child's Drawing of Twin Towers, Library of Congress
Ten years ago today, I followed my daily routine of boarding a ferry, crossing Casco Bay, and walking up Exchange Street to my job as Dean of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. It was one of those crisp, fall days when you're welcoming a new batch of students for the fall semester and celebrating your new pencil with an impossibly sharp point. Like everyone everywhere, we weren't prepared for the tragedy that occurred that day.

Stunned by the news from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we held each other close, took stock of friends and family, and wondered how we would ever do anything routine again. The next day I received an email from an archivist at the Library of Congress. It was an invitation sent out nationwide to folklorists, documentarians, and ethnographers to record the moment in which we all stood, bewildered.  "Record the reactions of people on the street," it instructed. This was like a call to arms for the Salt faculty and staff. The Institute's very mission is to teach students how to document the complex world around them under even the most difficult circumstances. The archivist explained that this request mimicked one sixty years early at the bombing of Pearl Harbor when a Folklife Archivist called for folklorists to record "man on the street" responses.

The Salt Institute responded to the call. Our students fanned out across the city, clutching their microphones and photo lenses to capture and share the grief that consumed us all. One of my many memories of those days was burning a CD of their collective work - their recordings of tearful and brilliant reflections by Maine residents - and tucking it into an envelope addressed to the Library of Congress. I sealed it with a wish that, in some small way, we were contributing to an understanding of a moment that confounded us all. Ten years later, the Library of Congress has created a Witness and Response Exhibit from the submissions that poured in from around the country.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Archaeological Discovery at Abyssinian Church

King Middle School students studying Abyssinian Chur
In my last post, I wrote about the history of railroads in Maine, real railroads. Today, I turn to a related topic - the underground railroad.

In the 1830s, railroads became a new and popular means for passengers to travel. In this pre-Civil War context, the name “underground railroad” was coined to describe a group of people, spread out over long distances, who helped runaway slaves to escape to freedom. This network included Maine.

Maine's shared border with Canada, its many seaports, and its strong anti-slavery or abolitionist community fostered an underground railroad community of both African American and white citizens.

Wood cut of the Abyssinian by Daniel Minter
One of the African American leaders in Maine’s anti-slavery movement was Reuben Ruby (born 1798 and died 1878). Ruby
helped establish the Abyssinian Society and Meetinghouse and the Maine Anti-Slavery Society (1834). Ruby, who worked as a hackman, hosted abolitionist social reformer William Lloyd Garrison (famous for his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator) in his Portland home.

The discovery of a wooden water pipe in Portland hit the news today and turned the limelight once again on one of the state's most precious historic sites that is also on Portland's Freedom Trail - the Abyssinian Church. The paper reported "The pipe was discovered during an archeological dig...The water comes from a stream that runs beneath the property and is likely fed by an underground spring in Eastern Cemetery, which is behind the meeting house and farther up Munjoy Hill."

Thanks to Reuben Ruby and others, in its heyday, the Abyssinian Meetinghouse became a place where ministers and other activists spoke about the “sins of slavery,” sometimes to large audiences.

Map of Portland Freedom Trail
At that time, Portland’s bustling African American community was centered around India Street. Free African American people worked in many different types of jobs. The census showed that there were 400 African Americans living in Portland in 1840. They worked as mariners, hackmen, barbers, launderers, porters. In the 1850 census, 67 African American residents of Portland were listed as mariners.

If you're hungry for more history of the African American community in Maine, I encourage you to walk the Portland Freedom Trail or read Maine's Visible Black History.

Reflections on 50th Anniversary of Union Station's Destruction

Just Maine Central Railroad's lines, 1923
Contrary to the stereotype of Maine as a wilderness outpost, in the 19th century the state was riddled with steam and electric rail lines. Maine railways connected passengers and freight to cities on the eastern seaboard as far south as Washington, D.C. and well into Canada.
Steam and sailing ships unloading at Portland waterfront


Portland was one of Maine's significant "transportation breaks" or places where multiple forms of transportation intersected and transferred people and things from one place to another. Shipping met steam railroads, electric railways, and horse-drawn vehicles.

I remember my mother telling me how, after WWII, she would board a Grand Trunk train on India Street bound for Montreal with her skis thrown over her shoulder. Public transportation to Canada for skiing? It's a marvel to us today.


Union Station, represented on a postcard
Destruction of Union Station, Portland
Fifty years ago yesterday, Portland even boasted a railroad terminal replete with pink granite walls, rounded turrets, and marble floors. Fifty years ago today, it did not. As this article in the Portland Press Herald pointed out, the destruction of this magnificent structure was a turning point in the history of Maine's heritage preservation movement and one that led to the creation of Portland Landmarks.

View down 19th c. Commercial Street - note railways and ship masts
Although both Union Station and most of the Grand Trunk buildings are gone now, you can still see traces of Portland's rail history, if you know where to look. Take Commercial Street, for example. Portland's waterfront used to be positioned at Fore Street until the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad filled in the shoreline and built a wide, straight street that would accommodate a rail line running down its middle.

Until recently, those rail lines still ran down the spine of Commercial Street. When I was learning to drive, I remember my father shouting at me to avoid driving parallel to the tracks; he said the rails would cut the tires. Whether they really would or not, I don't know, but I learned how to weave back and forth across the rails, without seeming as though I was an intoxicated driver. The rails were removed or paved over years ago, but next time you're walking or driving down Commercial Street, take a moment. Appreciate the wide straight street parallel to the waterfront. Imagine ships nosed up to the wharves, trains plying their way down the middle of the street, and horse-drawn vehicles dodging to and fro. And don't forget to watch where you step.