Maine’s coast and islands and their relationship to the sea are something we return to again and again as we think about improving the region’s economic plight. In an era when many are more focused on links of the digital variety, we sometimes forget about the role the sea has played, and will play again, in our ties to the larger world.
First, a look back.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were some 300 year-round island communities in Maine. Today, there are 15. One part of the explanation for that transformation relates to transportation.
In the year 1900, just as automobiles were being perfected and marketed, roads were still pretty rough. Most were unpaved, so mud season meant wheels would be mired up to the axle. Snow and ice were, of course, treacherous and prohibiting. Roads were inconsistent, too. Some started wide and straight, only to end up in narrow, bumpy dead-ends. Some were private, with toll collectors waiting at the gate.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the U.S. began to get serious about building a better road system.
So how did people and goods move in the 100 years before the 1950s, when the federal interstate highway system was built? Ships and railroads.
The metaphor often used about Maine’s islands in the early 20th century is that the coast was like today’s U.S. Route 1. Schooners and then steamships could call at Vinalhaven as easy as they could call at Portland. No one thought of Eastport or Stonington as remote, the way they might be seen today.
Railroads also linked the state to Boston, Montreal and the rest of the world, and were heavily used until the 1950s.
Both ships and railroads will play a significant role in transporting goods in the decades to come because today’s low gasoline prices will not remain. At some point, we will see gasoline at $5 or even $10 per gallon. When it does spike, the most fuel-efficient transportation modes will return to favor, and they are—you guessed it, ships and railroads.
If the coast of Maine was like Route 1, then the Atlantic Ocean could be understood as I-95. And Maine, instead of being at the end of the surface interstate system, is actually well-positioned to access that highway.
That’s the point the Maine Port Authority is making about the presence of Eimskip on Portland’s waterfront. Eimskip’s move to Portland has been well documented, but those in the public not conversant in maritime matters may not understand its significance.
Though the port facilities there will never be mistaken for those in New York or Montreal, the Icelandic company offers an exciting opportunity for Maine businesses to reach a large and lucrative retail market in western and northern Europe. And reaching that market—some 300 million consumers strong—by using shipping containers costs about the same as sending products to the mid-Atlantic region in 53-foot-long trucks.
The port is growing, with a rail link returning this summer, and a cold storage facility being built later.
Portland has been smart about its waterfront development. Walk along Commercial Street in mid-summer, and you’ll literally bump into tourists visiting shops, restaurants and pubs. But that tourist-friendly Commercial Street strip is nicely bracketed by the Ocean Gateway terminal, at which giant cruise ships land, and at the other end, the shipping port now operated by Eimskip. There is no evidence of conflict.
John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, says Gov. Paul LePage is very supportive of the authority’s efforts to improve and develop these international transportation links.
All these factors bode well for Maine restoring and growing its connection to the world. But continued funding from the state and feds is critical, as is an understanding by the public of what those big ships, and the land-side infrastructure they rely on, mean for our future.