South Portland students bring old rail line back to life

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Fourth-grade students at Brown Elementary School, in collaboration with the South Portland Historical Society, recently completed the first phase of an Adopt-a-Rail project.

Last week, Jane Eberle, director of business partnerships for the School Department, and Robin Reinhold, a fourth-grade teacher at Brown, presented the City Council with a slide show, detailing each stage of the process.

As the Greenbelt Walkway winds around near Muzzy Street, there is a piece of railway that was once part of a longer rail line used to move goods to factories in Mill Creek before World War II, Reinhold said. 

City Councilor Tom Blake was leading third-graders on an interactive tour of the greenbelt several years ago and pointed out the railroad. Eberle said that planted the idea to uncover and restore the section of rail.

The class began the endeavor in the fall, “to gain a greater appreciation of the history of our community, in general, as well as in the neighborhood around our school,” Reinhold told the council.  

As the project gained momentum, more sources jumped aboard to offer help. 

“Our original plan was that the fourth-graders would be given some clippers and go out there with some trash bags and clear the site,” Eberle told the council. “That turned out not to be the case; the invasives were so thick, the bittersweet, multi-flora rose … so the city actually came out with the city crews and had to use machinery and bush hogs and clear it all out.”

Kathy DePhillipo, executive director of the historical society, stepped in as a collaborator, along with representatives from Pan Am Railways of Dover, New Hampshire, who donated time, labor and expertise.

With the help of Jeff Beecher from Pan Am, it was determined that the railway ties, or date nails, were replaced sometime between 1956 and 1958. The bumping post at one end of the fragmented track dates back to 1920, and, as Eberle described, along the side of the rail, “you can see where it was made, the weight of the rail and that it can take speeds of up to (approximately) 100 miles per hour.”

Once the brush had been cleared, Pan Am donated rock bits, or ballast, that the students scattered along the railroad between each tie. 

While the excavation was taking place, the fourth-grade students were also documenting their experiences in the form of writing, drawing, photography and video recording.

Now that the physical portion of the project is complete, students are compiling components to create short documentaries. 

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is tentatively planned for next spring.

“Just think,” Blake said, “200 years down the road, we’ll be able to point this out because of the project that you all undertook. It’s absolutely great.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.  

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.