Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I took a walk this weekend out to Westbrook, the city adjoining Portland to our west. Westbrook's Main Street is less than five miles from downtown Portland, but these are small cities and along the borderlands between them there's a still mostly empty landscape of meadows and depopulated infrastructures.

From the edge of Portland I followed the old Cumberland and Oxford Canal, which for a few years in the mid-nineteenth century used to ferry lumber from 20 miles inland to the ocean. It's mostly silted up now, but its towpath is still in use along the edges of the Fore River marshes as a walking trail.

The canal's on the left; the Fore River's on the right. The high-voltage power lines on the right lead eastward towards a substation near the bus terminal, where the power gets stepped down to lower voltages and fed into local delivery lines along city streets. Westward, the same lines lead to higher-voltage lines on the New England bulk power transmission grid. Not far from the junction is the metropolitan area's largest power plant, which burns fracked natural gas delivered from Pennsylvania and Texas via the state's primary north-south gas pipeline.

Under the power lines are the railroad tracks of the old Portland and Ogdensburg line, which put the canal out of business as an overland connection between Portland and Montreal. Over 150 years later the railroad is still less abandoned than the canal is, but only this short section between Portland and Westbrook is at all active. Give it a few more decades and there might not be much difference any longer.

These days virtually all of the cargo between Portland and Quebec is crude oil that goes through in two underground pipelines. Those pipelines also run through these marshes at the head of the Fore River.

And speaking of abandoned infrastructures: on the other side of the marsh I bushwhacked northwards through the woods for a while and found the city's "technology park" (previously written about here). The city finally wrote a seven-figure check to cut down the woods and build a short cul-de-sac here this past summer. And now, just look at all the jobs:

From there I picked up the right-of-way of the oil pipeline back towards the railroad tracks near the Turnpike. Until the Turnpike, the infrastructural routes I'd encountered all trended east-west, from the coast into the mountains. The Turnpike is oriented north to south. Our 19th-century infrastructure treated Portland as a hub of trade to which rural hinterlands could be connected; our 20th-century infrastructure generally treats Portland as the hinterland that needs to be connected to Boston.

There are some decent and uncluttered tags under the Turnpike overpasses here.

A few yards further and I had crossed over into Westbrook, where the silos of a big quarry and asphalt plant loomed over the tracks. It was there that I found the most impressive of all the day's abandoned earthworks — the Grand Canyon of Westbrook. I'll save it for the next post later this week.