Friday, November 18, 2011

A grandiose scheme by the “Electric Railroad King” led to the creation of South Freeport’s Casco Castle

 My focus today is on a wintry scene in South Freeport around 1905. Although I always find it amazing that a stone castle pokes up over that pretty little village, it was the trolley car that caught my attention. Since the Casco Castle hotel (in the background) was operated only in the summer, I have to wonder why the trolley has stopped. Are there actually some intrepid trolley passengers who want to slip and slide across the 100 yard long suspension bridge to a shuttered resort?

South Freeport’s famous castle was built by a trolley car line.
The photograph raises deeper questions about the cozy connection between interurban “electric railroads” and the creation of leisure destinations in the early1900’s. Around that time many seaside resorts and “trolley parks” like the Casco Castle were constructed to provide an opportunity for city-dwellers to escape into the leafy “borderlands” outside the city. This trend raises a chicken and egg question about which development came first––the trolleys or the hotels––and the answer goes back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. That was where Americans fell in love with the idea of electricity.

By the middle of the 1890’s entrepreneurs such as Amos Gerald (Maine’s “electric railroad king”) realized that electrically powered interurban trolleys could link together regions that were not well served by traditional railroads. They knew that those lines might eventually turn a profit from commuters who would move into the leafy borderlands around cities. However, at the beginning of this venture, entrepreneurs like Gerald faced the opposite problem of trying to lure crowds out of the city and into their trolley cars. Since the companies had already invested in costly dynamos to power their trolleys, they were eager to use the new wonder of electricity to attract riders and open up other streams of revenue. They could do this by building recreational destinations that featured electric light displays. Falmouth’s Underwood Terrace, for example, was one of the first buildings in area to have electric lights. Like the Casco Castle in South Freeport and Cape Elizabeth’s casino, it could also be reached by steamboat and provided food, music and summer revelry.
The route of the interurban “electric railway” that connected Portland and Brunswick began with a track that exited Portland by way of Tukey’s Bridge and then snaked along Falmouth Foreside. By 1897 it had passed through Cumberland and reached Yarmouth. As a kid growing up near the Town Landing Market in Falmouth, I recall that the roadside dirt at my bus stop was littered with small railroad spikes. They were apparently left in the ditches along Rt.88 when the trolley tracks were torn up in the late 1930’s. Being a history geek even then, I saved one of the spikes and it is now on my desk as I write this.
 When Amos Gerald decided to extend the trolley line to Freeport in 1902, his gang of Italian laborers became upset about their pay and the conditions of their employment. Going on strike, they brandished knives and guns to make their point. Eventually the matters were resolved so that construction toward Freeport could resume. That trolley line generally followed the route of old U.S. Route 1 from Yarmouth to Brunswick. However, after crossing the Cousins River near what is now the Freeport CafĂ©, the track suddenly veered east along the South Freeport Road. From that location the trolley wound its way back to a powerhouse and car barn in Freeport. That structure was torn down in 1994 to make way for the present headquarters of the town’s police and fire departments. 
The Italian laborers installing the trolley track in Yarmouth.

 The reason for the trolley’s long detour to South Freeport was surely to guarantee that everyone who used the line would get an up close opportunity to visit Gerald’s Casco Castle. It was an exotic attraction that included not only hotel rooms but also a zoo with wolves and buffalo, a sports area with a baseball field and a dining room that featured lobster dinners. All of this was in addition to the dramatic stone tower and the castellated main building that was actually constructed out of wood. Stepping off the trolley, visitors to the hotel gained access to the landscaped grounds by crossing the long suspension bridge that was dangled over a dammed up tidal inlet. The electric lights that illuminated the stone tower were appreciated not only by visitors, but also by mariners who used it as a lighthouse as they approached Pound of Tea at the entrance to South Freeport’s harbor. As someone who has sailed in and out of the Harraseeket River for over forty years, I can attest to the castle’s usefulness as a landmark––even when it is not lit up like a lighthouse.

Despite its many attractions, neither the Casco Castle nor the trolley line itself prospered in the long run. Automobiles and busses soon drove the interurban electric railways out of business. The main part of the hotel burned down in 1914 and the trolley line from Brunswick and Freeport to Yarmouth stopped running in 1927. Six years later the trolleys from Yarmouth to Portland ceased their operations, bringing to an end a colorful era in our local history. I find it ironic that major cities now trying to cut down on congestion and pollution are scrambling to rebuild the infrastructure of light rail that we once had at our doorsteps in towns like Falmouth and Freeport a century ago.

Today’s photograph of Casco Castle has been provided by the Freeport Historical Society. Their collection includes many more images of the Casco Castle and the trolley line that it was built to serve. Some particularly striking images are panoramic photos taken around 1910 from the very top of the castle tower. The image of the trolley track being installed on Pleasant Street Yarmouth is from my own collection.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterans’ Day evokes memories of Yarmouth’s war memorial bandstand that once stood on the village green.

 In honor of Veterans Day, my focus is on a lost treasure that once graced Yarmouth’s village green, approximately where cars now park in front of the town hall. I’m particularly interested in the date of this year’s holiday (11-11-11) because it carries some hefty historical baggage. In the past there were disagreements about whether a day to celebrate all veterans should be focused on November 11th– which marked specifically the end of World War I. From my perspective this year’s date brings us back to the old time view that the WWI armistice took effect precisely at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” This was the moment when terrifying guns of World War I finally fell silent. It’s also why Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, at least until 1954 when the holiday was broadened to include the veterans of World War II and Korea.

This elegant bandstand was Yarmouth’s war memorial from 1922 to 1953.
The last days of WWI were the most difficult for Yarmouth. One Yarmouth vet, Ernest Storer, was wounded only hours before the truce went into effect. More tragically the town was ravaged that fall by the Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed two Yarmouth soldiers at Ft. Devens. Another fourteen citizens died of the flu in the weeks leading up to the armistice. To make matters worse, there were also two demoralizing false reports on October 11th and November 7th that a truce had gone into effect. Church bells finally rang all day on November 11th 1918 when news was received that the war was truly over. The steam whistles on the pulp mill and sardine cannery let loose their screaming blasts and impromptu parades went up and down Main Street. Of the 107 Yarmouth men that served in WWI, there were three who died and four who returned as veterans wounded in combat.

The town moved quickly to honor its war veterans, a gesture that its dwindling survivors of the Civil War had unsuccessfully advocated for over fifty years. The result was an elegantly designed bandstand that was erected in 1922 in front of the high school and central elementary school that were then located on Main Street opposite the Merrill library. Bearing a plaque dedicated to all Yarmouth servicemen from the Revolution through WWI, the bandstand was an exceptionally appropriate way to honor the veterans. In its very structure and use, the bandstand created a kind of living memorial around which town residents could gather on warm summer nights to hear performances by the legendary Yarmouth band. Located right in front of the schools, it also kept the town’s patriotic heritage directly in the sights of its young people. If you look closely at the picture, you will also see the elements of classical Greek design with eight Doric columns, urn-like balusters and a delicate finial on the roof. Homer got it right. The Greeks knew how to honor the valor of their warriors. The classical style of the bandstand made this a superb memorial for Yarmouth’s war veterans.

However, there was more than patriotic sentiment that pushed this project rapidly forward. Civic progressives such as George Hammond in the 1890’s had been trying to create a true town center to bind together the two distinct halves of 19th century Yarmouth. Between the upper and lower villages (“the Corner” and “the Falls”) was a muddy valley commonly known as Brickyard Hollow. By rebranding this area as “Centerville” and filling the valley with pulp mill ash, they created a space for the new library and centralized schools. During WWI that effort had stalled, leaving several dilapidated private buildings to soak up the floods caused by melting snow and Cleaves Brook. Although past efforts to have the town buy that property had been defeated, it was finally acquired and the buildings auctioned off by the town in 1921––very likely with more popular support because of the proposed new war memorial.

If the town had dithered for another year, the bandstand might never have been built. In 1923 the Forest Paper Company abruptly shut down, laying off the majority of the town’s industrial workers. With the passing of shipbuilding, shoe manufacturing and now the pulp mill, the Great Depression came early to Yarmouth and lasted longer. Perhaps these harsh economic realities also explain why the town did not adequately maintain its elegant little bandbox. Rotting and falling apart, the memorial became an eyesore that threatened the safety of the school children. Carl Winslow recalls that it in its final days the bandstand was wrapped in snow fencing to keep kids from climbing into it. The memorial was demolished around 1953 and its brass plaque was relocated to the nearby American Legion’s log cabin where it remains to this day. Personally, I think the town should dust off the plaque and rebuild its little bandstand right by the flagpole on the village green. With its Doric columns and balustrades, the bandstand would harmonize beautifully with the classical style of the town hall and create an elegant focal point for the civic culture of Yarmouth.

Today’s photograph of the bandstand is from the collection of the Yarmouth Historical Society. The picture posted below is from my own collection and it shows how difficult it was to turn Brickyard Hollow into the town's village green. Floods of this sort lasted into the 1980's when the town finally installed huge drains to carry the water past the library and under Bennett Field to drain into the Royal River. Many local residents have memories of emergency book brigades trying to rescue books from the lower level of the library.