By Carol McCracken (Post # 688)
Long-simmering tensions between Phin Spague, Jr. and the Narrow Gauge Railroad have finally found common ground on which the two parties agree: The Railroad is searching for another site where it can expand and call its own. “I understand and support them completely in their decision to leave,” emailed Sprague to MHN.com late last week.
Landlords can be pests; and for years now many of the “two-footer” volunteers and some leadership have been outspoken in their criticism of their landlord, Sprague. The latest tension is that the two-footers have been placed on a month-to-month, $5,500. lease for 8,000 sq. feet plus about 3/4 of an acre of the outdoor yard which also serves as a marina, Portland Yacht Services, during the summer months. Until recently the two-footers had been on a two-year lease. The valuable, waterfront property known as the historic Portland Complex is for sale and has been for years; presumably a prospective purchaser would not want the two-footers on site at the time of purchase; hence the lease change. Furthermore, when the two-footers, formerly the Edaville Railroad, South Carver, MA arrived at the Portland Complex in September of 1993, the wealthy Sprague family, Cape Elizabeth, did not charge the mini-railroad any rent. That change came four years ago. That rent money could be spent elsewhere to build a facility leaders say. It seems to have intensified the already sour relationship between the two parties.
From the 1993 beginning, the two-footers have struggled to balance its budget – relying on special fundraisers, such as the recent Polar Express, to keep it going during the lean winter months ahead with the two-footers don’t run. During the summer, the trains run on the hour from 10 am through 4 pm. Even if there is only one passenger, the train runs on schedule. Diesel fuel costs $15. to $20. for an entire day. Train ticket costs are reasonable. Those who use the bike path and East End Beach in the summer are accustomed to seeing an almost empty train ride by – trip after trip. According to Sprague, the two-footers never had the “ridership volume, income and service area to hire a professional staff and find it’s own home.”
A year ago, the two-footers began looking for a piece of property to which it could move and have its own facility. Recently, the search was narrowed to three locations who’ve indicated interest; Portland, Gray and Monson. (It’s believed that the Portland site would remain where it currently is.) However, one of the issues is that none of the sites offered any financial assistance in the transition. “We’d have to fund raise for that,” said Brian Ddurham, new president of the board of directors, recently. In contrast, when the two-footers moved here back in 1993, it was done by a huge convey of antique, volunteer truck drivers. No fundraising was necessary. Organized by a board member and founding member who also owned his own trucking business, Erv Bickford no longer serves on the board. Furthermore, the two-footers are in the midst of a ten year lease with the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) for the rail right of way it uses along the waterfront. However, that lease is “tenuous” said Durham. “There are termination provisions in it. We can use it as long as DOT does not have a better use for it. It’s a complicated situation,” admits Durham who is a retired attorney for the U.S. Coast Guard. No one knows when the DOT will terminate the lease, but most believe it will happen. The future site of the two-footers is very precarious.
The two-footers told the three interested communities: “Our next step is to plan a meeting with your community and view potential sites for the museum and railroad. We expect this to occur by early February. The current plan is for a recommendation to be received by the Board of Directors in late March with a final decision announced by April jointly with the selected community,” according to Durham. Monson, near Greenville on Moosehead Lake, was one of the original sites of the narrow gauge line that ran in rural Maine at the turn of the 20th century. The line carried slate from the quarries there to other parts of Maine. In fact, Portland owns two of the Monson steam engines. Durham acknowledged that moving to rural Monson would reduce its ridership and income, event though it would have historic value. Gray and Portland are the other two communities in contention to be the site of the two-footers.
Portland’s two-footers are not the only ones whose futures are in jeopardy; the Edaville Railroad and 230-acre site is for sale for $10 million. Additionally, some of the equipment that came from the Edaville over the past years is also for sale at the Beaver Brook Farm & Transportation Museum, Mont Vernon, NH. So far, the Portland two-footers have made no such announcement.