The Port of Eastport is alive and well and on track to set a new export tonnage record, according to port director Chris Gardner.

“We appear to be heading for a record year,” Gardner says. “We should break the 400,000 [metric] tons mark, and in fact I expect us to be on the healthy side of 400,000.”

According to figures provided by Skip Rogers, general manager for Federal Marine Terminals which operates the Eastport facility, the port had shipped 282,812 metric tons in 22 vessels as of September 15. Rogers added that the total for 2007 was 368,865 metric tons and 358,075 metric tons in 2006.

Gardner says that the port’s accomplishments are due to a “remarkable partnership with Domtar, the Longshoreman’s Association, truck drivers, and of course Federal Marine. You can really call this a community effort.”

Rogers agrees that the totals are a major accomplishment, particularly for a small port like Eastport, but he also raises a cautionary note. “We’re doing well, but we have only one customer,” he says, “and that means that we’re at the mercy of the pulp market. Who knows how long the market will last, how long we’ll be the “flavor of the month?”

Rogers also says that tropical and Asian countries, which have eucalyptus forests, are starting to build mills to convert the high-fiber trees into pulp. He believes it’s a question of when, not if, those operations dominate the market.

At present Eastport only handles kraft pulp from the Domtar Woodland Mill in Baileyville.

Rogers adds that everyone involved with the port recognizes the need to diversify. “We’re trying to do it all the time. We thought we had a wood pellet deal, but that fell through. Part of our problem is that we’re in an industrial hinterland.”

To deal with that problem Gardner says that he’s begun discussions with the Maine Department of Transportation and rail carriers about the possibility of bringing rail service back to Eastport. “Conversations are very much back on the table,” he says.

He warns that success might not necessarily bring a railhead right to the pier at Estes Head. “We’re looking at all kinds of possibilities, including a location somewhere near here together with an intermodal facility.”

Gardner noted that the State of Maine itself is looking at rail infrastructure, and he adds, “We want to be in on the next round of investments. I think we’ll have a more concrete vision within the next 12 months.”

As for the history of rail in Eastport is concerned, anyone who’s watched the film, “Sunrise at Campobello,” can see Ralph Bellamy arrive by boat from Campobello at a wharf where the Eastport Chowder House is now located and then watch him board a nearby train.

But Gardner reminds everyone that rail service and the cargo port never coexisted. “Just as the port began to rise, rail service faded away.”

He adds, “We don’t want to get hopes up. We are looking at this seriously, but there are hurdles to overcome; the infrastructure, for example, is expensive. You can’t just slap down rails anywhere.”

And he concludes, “Right now we’re just happy that we’ve got people interested. It’s very much in the focus, and we want to keep it alive, breathe new life into it.”