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Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad starts making tracks from Portland to Gray

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Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad starts making tracks from Portland to Gray

PORTLAND — A tourist staple may be entering its final years on the city's eastern waterfront.

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, which opens for the season May 10, has secured land to lay down tracks in Gray.

A ceremonial "passing of the deed" coming Friday means the nonprofit railroad company and museum, in Portland since 1993, will have land for new tracks in Gray, courtesy of Central Maine Power Co.

“This is the leap we needed to make in order to move the relocation forward,” railroad Executive Director Donnie Carroll said Monday.

The ceremony will occur at the Gray Plaza on Route 100, the proposed site of the future railroad museum, roundhouse and restoration areas. It is about a half a mile from the right of way, which was once the road bed for passenger train service to Lewiston.

With the land secured, Carroll hopes money will follow quickly enough for the museum to be open in 2016, although the existing tracks on Portland's East End can be used through 2023.

"'We move at the speed of money,' as my board says," Carroll said.

The preliminary estimate to build the tracks and buildings approaches almost $6 million, and public and private donations and funding are being sought. Carroll said he has also sought advice from the state's congressional delegation and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in particular, has provided a list of possible funding sources.

The museum is open Saturdays-Thursdays through Oct. 19, and for special events including "Polar Express" holiday-season rides that attract about 10 percent of its 30,000 annual visitors. Those will continue through 2015, but Carroll said it is uncertain where the rides will be in 2016.

After the July 2013 sale of the Portland Co. waterfront complex owned by Phineas Sprague Jr., which houses the 58 Fore St. museum, Carroll said staying on the Portland waterfront will become too expensive.

The move will also double the space for the railroad, now crammed into 7,000 square feet for offices, restoration areas and the museum celebrating the history of five narrow-gauge railroads that operated in Maine.

Carroll said plans in Gray call for a roundhouse for locomotives, with a nearby restoration space allowing visitors to watch ongoing work. Restoration work is generally done outdoors now, he said, because there is not enough space inside the existing building.

"We definitely will have the ability to do a lot of creative things in the museum," Carroll said.

The right-of-way will also mean a longer ride for passengers, perhaps as much as two miles and on a looped course.

The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad was established after Sprague led a fundraising effort to buy locomotives and rolling stock used in Maine from the Edaville Railroad in Carver, Mass. Carroll said the railroad now has five locomotives, three steam-powered and about two dozen freight and passenger railroad cars.

He said he expects the new museum to feature a display of the truck convoy that moved the equipment from Massachusetts to Maine. The effort was arranged in part by former Yarmouth Town Councilor Erv Bickford, who died in 2012.

Speculation about the museum's future in Portland has gone on for about five years. In 2010, museum trustees sent letters to 75 communities about relocation and got interested replies from seven.

Officials in Gray showed interest, and a group in Bridgton hoped at one point to restore part of the Bridgton and Saco River Railroad. Two railroad cars have been on display in front of the Greater Bridgton Region Chamber of Commerce, but Carroll said they will be returned to the museum.

Narrow-gauge railroads are called such because of the 2-foot width between rails, as opposed to the standard 4 feet 8 inches. The Bridgton and Saco River Railroad connected Bridgton and Hiram until 1941 and provided a link for Portland passengers on the former Mountain Division line passing through Hiram.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.