The history of Rockland’s train stations

Fri, 03/16/2018 - 8:30am

    One hundred years ago this month, the Rockland Courier Gazette announced the opening of the Maine Central Railroad’s new train station in Rockland at the corner of Union and Pleasant streets. From 1918 to 1959, this impressive brick structure served as a Maine Central Station. It has had several other lives since then and is currently used as the Trackside Station Restaurant.  To recognize its historic importance, in 1978, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though by far the most elaborate, this station was preceded by three others. The story began 1864 when the Knox-Lincoln Railroad (K&L RR) was chartered to run between Bath and Rockland.  

    Construction began in 1865 and was completed in 1871 when the railroad began passenger and freight service in November of that year.  The line was approximately 55 miles in length.  Because there was no bridge over the Kennebec River between Bath and Woolwich, steam ferries were employed to carry passenger coaches and freight cars across the river. This practice lasted until 1927 when the Carleton Bridge opened.  At Bath, the K&LRR linked with the Maine Central Railroad line to Portland and beyond.

    Initially, all of the Rockland terminal facilities, including the rail yard, roundhouse, turn table and the passenger station, were located near each other between Park Street and New County Road about a half mile west of the down town business district at the top of Park Street hill. The railroad built a wooden station on the New County Road side of the site near the round house. Over the years, Rockland would have, in succession, three year-round train stations and one seasonal station in three different parts of the city. The second station was a seasonal facility.  In 1872, the railroad ran a spur from the main line to the foot of Mechanic Street, where it built a steam boat wharf, which included a passenger station, a freight shed and a coal pocket. This station served passengers connecting to the KL&RR steamboats plying the waters of east Penobscot Bay and Downeast ports.  Steamboat service lasted until 1931.

    Though rail service was heavily used, the location of the New County Road station was a problem.  Almost from the beginning, a chorus of complaints, particularly from downtown merchants, about the distance between the station and downtown, as well as other inconveniences, prompted a demand that the railroad extend the line and build a new station in the downtown area.  The situation changed dramatically on the night of September 1, 1885 when a suspicious fire completely destroyed the wooden station on New County Road.  A citizens’ meeting at City Hall on September 11 attracted a large crowd including a number of  community leaders.  The overwhelming consensus supported a new downtown station at least as far as Union Street.

    The railroad company finally agreed to extend the tracks to the downtown area and to build a new station near the business district. They considered three different routes—Holmes Street, Park Street and Portland Street. The site finally selected was near the corner of Portland and Union streets.  (Portland Street was parallel to and just north of Pleasant Street and ran between Union and Brick streets.). The extension of the tracks to Union Street required the company to purchase and remove several houses and outbuildings on Portland and Brick streets.  Rockland contractor, W. H. Glover Company, built a wooden, Queen Anne style station that opened in 1886 and served for 22 years until the new brick station replaced it in 1918.

    In 1891, the Maine Central Railroad leased the K&LRR and in 1901 purchased the line outright.  With that purchase, the line became known as the Rockland Branch of the Maine Central Railroad. The matter of a new station arose again in the second decade of the 20th century.  The Portland Street station had become inadequate for the amount of passenger and express freight traffic.   When Maine Central Railroad purchased the Samoset Hotel in 1912, some of the Maine Central directors felt that a larger, modern station would better serve the thousands who traveled on the Rockland Branch.  Such a station would also reflect positively on the company, especially with the affluent Pullman passengers who came to Rockland during the summer season.  Many of them stayed at the Samoset.  

    Former Maine governor, William T. Cobb from Rockland, who joined the Maine Central Board in 1914, was a strong advocate for a new station. His influence on the rest of the board members was crucial in gaining support for a new station. The city authorities supported the move and agreed to terms specified by the railroad, the most important of which was the abandonment of Portland Street.  The railroad also had to purchase and move or tear down eight houses on Portland and Pleasant streets.  

    Construction on the station began in 1917, and it opened to the public in late March 1918. The station remained  active until April 4, 1959 when Maine Central ended passenger service on the Rockland Branch and closed the station. The City of Rockland immediately purchased the building and reconfigured the interior into a city hall, which for a time also included the Rockland Police Department.  It remained  City Hall until 1996 when the city moved to another building.

    In 1987, the state had purchased the Rockland Branch (Rockland to Brunswick) to prevent abandonment.  In 2003, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced an ambitious plan to create a rail/marine “highway” system, which included upgrading the Rockland Branch to passenger-grade quality.  The plan also included purchasing the station with the intention of restoring and reopening it as an active train station.  

    In 2004, a new operator of the line, Maine Eastern Railroad, began offering  excursion passenger service on the line.  In June, 2006, the renovation of the station was completed, and on June 20, the community celebrated the station’s grand re-opening. Passenger service had returned to the station after a hiatus of 47 years.  Maine Eastern occupied part of the station, and the renovated waiting room now included a full- service restaurant.

    There have been two successive  restaurants in the station ever since.  The current restaurant, Trackside Station, continues as the station’s primary tenant.  When Maine Eastern lost the bid for continued service 2015, the successful bidder, the Central Maine and Quebec Railway was interested only in freight service, so passenger service has ended for now.  Recently, however, Amtrak has shown some interest in restoring limited passenger service between Boston and Rockland this summer with experimental runs on three weekends in August.  The Rockland station may once again see passenger trains in the future.

     Gil Merriam is a historian and member of the Rockland Historical Society