By Carol McCracken
Retired building contractor Bill Sheeley believes that the entire narrow gauge railroad collection belongs in Bridgton where much of it once ran as part of the Bridgton & Saco River Railroad. He believes that so strongly that last summer Sheeley formed an organization, Return of the Rails, to accomplish that goal. He says that he has the support of the residents of Bridgton; they want it running down the main street of Bridgton.
In a telephone interview with Sheeley from his home in Georgia, he said that when he learned last year that the Portland Complex property was for sale, he reasoned that no prospective developer would want to purchase a mini- railroad as well. The mini-railroad would need to find a new home and that the most logical home for it would be in Bridgton. However, Phin Sprague, Jr. has always been clear that a prospective purchaser would have to meet certain conditions for a deal to be made.
There are three conditions a purchaser would have to agree to. First, Sprague would need to maintain management of the marina he manages on the property. Second, a purchaser would have to restore the aged buildings left over from its glory days as the center of manufacturing in Portland. And finally, that the mini-railroad would remain on the property and not be run off the property. “That remains to be seen,” said Sheeley. Sheeley summers in Bridgton.
Sheeley was part of the original “ Great Train Robbery” caravan that moved the narrow gauge trains up to the Portland Complex on Fore Street back in September of 1993. A group of rail enthusiasts led by Phin Sprague, Jr. purchased the antique cars from the Edaville Railroad in South Carver, Massachusetts. It had been a major tourist attraction for many years on a cranberry plantation near Cape Cod. The plantation was owned by Ellis D. Atwood, a principle in Ocean Spray Cranberry. Atwood rounded up all the cars he could find in western and northern Maine. Following World War II, he transported them to South Carver to help work the plantation. However, he found that his friends liked to take a leisurely ride through his fragrant cranberry bogs. He saw the potential for a tourist attraction and took advantage of it. It ran for years successfully as a theme park.
In 1950, Atwood died of an accident unrelated to the trains. Therefore, the “Christmas Festival of Lights” was dedicated in his memory. Because of internal problems, the line came up for sale. The wealthy Sprague Family, of Cape Elizabeth, decided to return the railroad to its native state. That’s when the “Great Train Robbery”, as railroad volunteers nicknamed the event, came about. Incidentally, several of the trucks that participated in the original move from Maine to Massachusetts also participated in the move of the trains from Massachusetts back to Maine in 1993.
From the observation of this former mini-railroad volunteer and watcher, MHN suggests that for the Sprague Family this long-time struggle to find a niche in Portland for the mini-railroad may be just as much about legacy as anything else. Even money is secondary here.