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 Café, 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment