How many bus journeys does it take to realise one’s Narrow Gauge fix? Two. How many people can one convince to join in on an itinerary that involves a 0130 departure from NYC, a 90 minute layover at Boston and another 2 hour journey to Maine? None!! And so it went on a fine Saturday in August…
Sleep deprived, blurry-eyed, hungry and somewhat irritable, I arrive, all by myself, in Portland ME after a 8.5 hr, 330 mile journey, only to discover that there is no steam operation this season at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad! All it would’ve taken was a phone call ahead of my visit, I think to myself! A moment later, I step on to the tiny platform and behold the sight of a Narrow Gauge train against the backdrop of gleaming Casco Bay and stunning blue skies. The arduous journey there now appears incidental – I am suddenly in bliss!
‘Gauge’ implies the distance between rails, measured in feet and inches. In the United States, ‘Narrow Gauge’ is defined as anything less than ‘Standard Gauge’ (4 ft 8.5 inches). Back in India, it is anything less than ‘Metre Gauge’ (3 ft 3 3⁄8 inches). The Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad, at 2 feet wide, is thankfully a lot closer to the Indian definition! With all of that jargon demystified for you, I now return to Portland – where I’ve just begun the first of many rides in an open ‘gallery’ car (or coach), enjoying a cool sea breeze and taking in stunning vistas of the bay and its many islands!
The 2-mile long narrow gauge railroad runs along Portland’s eastern promenade, hugging Casco Bay all the while. It was built on the former Grand Trunk Railway‘s right-of-way, a line that once connected Portland in Maine to Montreal in Canada. Till the late 50’s, the Grand Trunk Railway served a vital role – giving Montreal access to an all weather seaport – prior to the building of the St.Lawrence Seaway. Today, the line ends just short of Back Cove, where a swing bridge was destroyed by a fire in the 80s.
The excursion train halts there for about ten minutes to enable its patrons to disembark and take in the views. That gives me enough time to rush back to a vantage point, about a half mile away, for a photo-op! By the time I catch my breadth, the little train is back – being ‘pushed’ this time – breaking the silence and adding a dash of colour to an already picturesque setting!
My chosen spot happens to be the centre of activity on the eastern promenade, attracting anglers, featuring a boat launch and East End Beach, the only public beach in the city! The waters of Casco Bay are a tad to cold for swimming but the day is warm enough for sunbathing and locals seem to be making the most of it! You kind of have to, given how short the summer’s are here 😉
All the walking (with a backpack no less!), the shutterbug’ing, if I could use that term, and even the sun, for that matter, have begun to take a toll on me. I need refueling, so to speak, and rather urgently at that! A very friendly volunteer at the museum suggests I try DiMillo’s, known for its exemplary seafood!
The museum is a half mile away from all the action in downtown, and so I trudge out there only to find the restaurant packed to the rafters! I’m a little disappointed at first, not getting a spot there, but at least I’m able to check out a fascinating restaurant – a floating one at that – and one that’s steeped in history! Commissioned in ’41 as ‘The New York’, this former car ferry served the states of New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and Rhode Island before being retired in the 70s!
Like DiMillo’s, J’s Oyster is another renowned, water fronted, sea food eatery, and that too is full up! I add my name to the list at both restaurants and eventually end up at Portland Lobster Co., where self service and shared tables ensure that I finally get to eat!
The Lobster (in a roll) is as fresh as can possibly be, the accompanying Fries and Coleslaw are just right, and I wash it all down with a wonderful locally brewed Ale – an Allagash White Belgian!
Fully ‘fed up’ (literal translation for the Hindi phrase, paet bhar gaya), as my dad would have said, I head back to the museum. Taking a break from my train rides, I now concentrate on the exhibits contained within. As rail museums go, this one is tiny – probably apt for the gauge 😉 – and carries no more than a handful of exhibits. Amongst them, the Railcar reminds me of the Simla line and the ‘Parlor Car‘ is reminiscent of the interiors of older Saloons (or Inspection Cars) in India. But the one that stands out the most is the intriguingly named, late 19th century carriage, “Pondicherry”!!
The museum closes at 4 and my bus back to Boston departs at 6, giving me enough time to explore the city. Expectedly, Portland is compact and its downtown core even more so. Being a seaside town, it enjoys an excellent location, with most of its shops and businesses centred on the waterfront. The town itself is pretty, made up mostly of old stone buildings – all of them in immaculate condition – cobbled streets, quaint alleyways, colourful shops and restaurants, an undulating terrain and a complete absence of the grid system – which is a refreshing change as far as American cities go!
I spend the night with friends in Cambridge, MA and the following day, after brunch, I board the 2:30 departure back to NYC. A pedestrian journey, by any standards, and one that I have done on many an occasion, this one gets all to exciting at about 4 pm, when our bus ‘overheats’ and breaks down on I-90, for what evidently seems like eternity..
Some 8 hours after leaving Boston, sans food or water in the interim, we arrive in NYC past 10 at night! My oddly timed, multiple bus journeys to Portland seem like a walk in the park, by comparison!!