‘Wharfside Stories’ help unwrap history of Portland’s working waterfront

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PORTLAND — For more than 60 years Leland Merrill has made a daily pilgrimage to Widgery Wharf on the city’s waterfront.

These days Merrill, now in his early 90s, no longer works a lobster boat, but he still has many friends on the wharf.

Merrill’s tales of life and work among the lobstermen based in Portland Harbor is part of a new collaboration between the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and the Waterfront Alliance.

The project, called “”Wharfside Stories”,” provides a look at various aspects of Portland’s working waterfront. It will be part of an exhibition that’s open to the public during the day-long Portland Unwrapped event taking place Wednesday at various venues throughout the city.

The “Wharfside Stories”” project is designed to “help people understand the piers, the ships, the buildings, the tanks and the people,” that make up the waterfront, where commercial fishing ventures and newer uses are now mixing, according to Tom Meyers of the Waterfront Alliance.

The audiovisual stories recorded under the wharfside series were funded by the Waterfront Alliance, whose mission is to protect and promote the Port of Portland. The tales were then added to the Casco Bay Stories collection, which is a project of the estuary partnership.

Overall, Meyers said, the “Wharfside Stories” series “inspires us to reflect on the value of the working harbor to our region’s economy, environment and sustainable future.”

Some of the stories featured online at wharfside.org include a look at the tugboats that are integral to shipping traffic in the harbor and the new freight terminal adjacent to the Casco Bay Bridge, among others.

Merrill bought Widgery Wharf just after WWII, along with eight other lobstermen. It’s a narrow wharf, flanked by fish houses and lobster boats, with Chandler’s Wharf to the east and Union Wharf to the west.

“Stepping onto the decking feels a little like going back in time,” the “Wharfside Stories” website states. “Many wharves in Portland remain devoted to work. But Widgery is unique (because) it is almost entirely devoted to lobstering.”

“Pick-up trucks drive up and down the narrow deck, water rushes from lobster tanks and men greet each other as old friends. It is, in a way, idyllic,” the website adds.

All of the “Wharfside Stories” were produced by Galen Koch, with photography by Justin Levesque and Jenny Rebecca Nelson, according to Victoria Boundy, the community engagement coordinator at the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership.

The partnership is “a collaboration of agencies, organizations and individuals working on behalf of the bay, (that has) the goal of keeping Casco Bay and our nearly 1,000 square miles of watershed clean and healthy,” the organization’s website says.

Boundy said the goal of the “Wharfside Stories” project is to “provide insight into what goes on in our working port on both sides of the Fore River. They (consist of) audio interviews and photographs, coupled with narration.”

She said “Wharfside Stories” is a new collection that’s been added to the Casco Bay Stories project, which is “an ongoing collection of stories about what makes Casco Bay special and clean water important.”

“The stories, we hope, encourage people to reflect on how the bay has shaped their lives and how it has changed over time,” Boundy said. “On a broader scale, when people hear or read about issues related to the working waterfront, they are likely to be better informed and encouraged to participate.”

“The working waterfront in Portland Harbor is absolutely authentic,” she added. “The diversity of commercial activities and their unique and special sights, smells, and sounds are tangible (and) the effects reach well beyond the length of Commercial Street.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Leland Merrill, now in his early 90s, still visits daily at Widgery Wharf in Portland, where he was a lobsterman and part owner for more than 60 years.

A fishing shack on Widgery Wharf in Portland, one of the remaining commercial docks on the city’s waterfront.

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