Sunday, June 28, 2015

Maine: Eastport Canneries and Port Authority

      Welcome back to Eastport Maine, where properties overlooking vistas that would be called "million dollar views" in other locations are commonplace.  In fact, one of the best spots on the island is called "poverty rock" - a place no one wanted to live not long ago.

     Of course the area is not without its share of adversities.  This last winter 16 feet of snow fell.

      There is no winter melt here, so 16 feet of snow truly totals 16 feet of snow.  You would think that since the snow is going to melt and run into the bay in the spring that locals would just push it into the bay.  But the State of Maine says no - you can't put the snow in the bay.

      It built up to the point that there was nothing left but little walk ways.  Finally the state came in with trucks to clear out the snow - and dumped it into the bay.  Government coming to the rescue for problems they created is always good for some humor.  It is like what we saw a couple of months ago when the State of North Carolina banned sea level rise due to global warming for the remainder of the century.

     But year after year these folks pick themselves up, clean up from the aftermath of the storms and get on with life.

     Another big adversity that struck the town was a devastating fire back in the 1880's.

    The net result of this event was that the entire downtown was rebuilt - out of brick. 

     Numerous buildings from this time period grace downtown with the style of that era.

     Funny that someone created a bank named "Frontier National" in Maine - I looked it up on the FDIC page and it says this bank didn't open until 1901 - yet we have it "written in stone" that it was open for business at least 19 years earlier than that.  

     Then there are the gales.

     A gale is defined as a wind over 32 miles per hour.  Some of them are significantly higher - as evidenced by this factory that was blown apart by one back in 1976.

     Then there is the ice.  

     According to an old book in the library, the missing chunk of the bridge above was taken out by a chunk of ice during the spring thaw.

     Then there are the economic calamities.  In the last article on Eastport we looked at how shipbuilding had boomed and then busted because those at the top rejected the notion that motors could propel boats.  But just as the ship industry was starting its nosedive, the townsfolk found a new way to support themselves.  They started boiling and smoking juvenile herring (called sardines) and packing them in oil.  Canning facilities and fisheries sprang up all over the island.

     The industry was dominated by European interests, and to start with the local canneries mimicked the labels of the European products.  But soon their products came to be recognized as worthy on their own merits.

     Women worked in the canning facilities and the men ran the boats.  A boat called the "Eastport Pinkie" was designed for the purpose of bringing in the huge hauls.

     The herring would be trapped in coves and inlets with nets which would be drawn tighter until they were encircled in a small area.  Then they were hauled aboard the smaller boats which were towed by tugs to the packing plants.

      The industry boomed from the late 1800's through the 1950's. During the peak years there were some 50 million pounds of sardines being packed and shipped out of here each year.  Then came the Great Depression of the 1930's, and the industry went bust.  The resulting fall was so sudden and severe that the town itself went bankrupt.  About all that is left of these facilities today are fields of pilings rotting into the sea.    

          This was about the time when Roosevelt started the tidal power project here, but that soon fell on its face.  All that was left was a small remnant of boat building and small amounts of fishing.  In the 1960's the Army Corps of Engineers built a commercial dock by downtown designed to harbor a fishing fleet and allow some larger passenger ships and freighters to tie up.

Photo taken by James Lowe

     The Corps stated that the pier had a twenty year life expectancy.  Well, after fifty years, this last winter did it in. The inward edge of the pier collapsed.

     It isn't surprising - salt water is brutal on everything, as evidenced by this concrete piling nearby.

     So currently the fisherman have to anchor wherever they can - or, as many of them have done they can move to another town where they can tie up.  

     A few years back, it looked like there was hope for an economic revival - a natural gas company was looking to put a facility on the island and export liquefied natural gas.  But in a tight vote over a bitterly contested issue the town's people voted against it.  That left those voting for it to ask the others what they were going to do for economic revival. 
     So back in 1977 the town decided to create a port authority to bring shipping back to the area.  It decided that the port authority would be created on equal footing with the city - that the city would not have power over it nor would the port authority have power over the city.  The city manager and one other councilman would sit on the port authority's board, but other than that it would be independant.  And the port authority would operate like a business - it would have its own checking account and have to live or die by its own merits.  Initially the shipping took place on the pier that the Corp had built downtown - quite obviously a location with many limitations.

     The port authority acquired 40 acres on the other side of Moose Island to use as a terminal and warehouse site.  Early on the consulting firm of Booz-Allen, who makes their money from government consulting said that Eastport was not a viable port.  In spite of this, the Port Authority put together 6 million dollars and went forward with construction.  The very next year they were able to convince Georgia-Pacific to ship their pulp-wood from here. 

     Inch by inch, against many challenges, the town and the port authority were able to build a new commercial port facility on the opposite side of the island, finally finished in 1998.  Since that date, the port has built itself up to where it is now handling 12% of all of Maine's commercial port traffic.  That might sound like a lot, but in the big scheme of things that is very little.  And it appears to me that times are about to change.

     Meet Chris Gardner, a native son of Eastport and named executive director of the Eastport Port Authority 7 years ago.

     Of course, of immediate concern right now for Chris is the city's main pier.  Workers have moved in to repair the pier, and the net result is that when it is finished it will have the capacity to house a fishing fleet 30 percent larger than was here previously.  

    Chris understands that the biggest problem is that people have been thinking "too small."  There is a huge industry that the area is uniquely suited to handle, and thus he has been land-banking property beside the new port facility for the last seven years.   This gives space for the port to expand in the future, a future which may not be far off.  

     You see, this is the northernmost and the easternmost port in the United States.  That makes it the closest port to Europe and the Suez Canal.  Further, at dead low tide the waters around the island are over forty feet deep - the deepest on the east coast of the United States and so deep that they never freeze.  And the access waterways are over 100 feet in depth.


     Currently, the two major canals of the world - the Suez and the Panama are undergoing enlargements to handle a new generation of cargo ships that are coming.  Ports all along the eastern coast are making huge changes to be able to handle the new boats.  The harbors all need dredged deeper, which is not only a huge expense but also an environmentally troublesome issue.  We Saw in Wilmington NC how many square miles of cypress and live oak trees were killed by saltwater intrusion when that port was deepened.

     "We have always had to turn to the sea for our answers" says Chris.  "We have the deepest port in the United States - and God dredges it for us twice a day."
Eastport  Commercial Port - Photo by James Lowe

     One of the problems facing Chris when he first came to office was how to sterilize wood chips.  Europe demands that all woodchips imported have to be boiled so that no pests enter their country.

     With the help of a local company Eastport has put together a method of sterilizing the wood-chips onboard the ship they are loading - relieving them of the problem of building a separate facility to handle the process.

     Another huge innovation is this large conveyor system that loads product onto conveyor belts and runs it directly out to the ships to be loaded.  But this leaves the area's port dependant on one industry - wood and paper.

     To move forward the city and the port still have a problem - inland access.  In the last article on Eastport we saw how the only land access runs through the heart of the local Indian reservation on that causeway built back in the 1930's - not a good long term situation with so many trucks coming and going.  

     So Chris has a plan that covers many of the area's problems.  The plan is to bring a rail line out to the port, built in conjunction with a new access route for cars and trucks.

     He has researched the right of ways and won the cooperation of all property owners affected, consulted with environmental groups, spoken with state and federal agents and on every front the plan seems to be a winner.

     The old causeway would be torn out, allowing tidal waters to once again flow freely in and out of the bay on the reservation.  Traffic through the village would cease, the reservation's village would have more developable lands.  Tourists arriving by land would have a much easier trip in, port traffic would have its own routing, port cargo could almost immediately make its ways onto the nation's railways, and the length of the journey for the ocean-going vessels coming to and from Europe and the Suez Canal would be reduced.

     $ 300 million gets it done.  That is less than a quarter of what it cost to increase the height of one bridge in New York harbor so that the new freighters can come in.  Having met Chris and seeing his determination, I bet he gets it done.  It will be fun to see when we return in seven years on the main fundraising trip.

     A few miscellaneous points of interest around - there is a lot of neat random artwork around Eastport.  Here is a moose that reminds me of Douglas Jones's Fish Art that we saw on Tybee Island in Georgia. 

     There is an old mill here named Raye's Mustard Mill and Museum.

     They have dozens of types of mustard that they make - it looks an interesting place.  But when I walked in they admonished me about my camera, warning "we don't allow pictures."  There are enough other things of interest here that I moved on without investigating.

     Meet Joe, Sheila and Jaxson Schofield.  

     A few years back Joe's first wife, who was an addictions counselor, lost a battle with cancer.  He had been childhood friends with Sheila, and after a year or so of going it alone he befriended her again.  She had fallen into the night-life scene, so Joe basically pulled her off a barstool and helped her get sober.  That was almost four years ago.  Sheila just graduated with her bachelors degree in nursing and is taking the state board exam for registered nurses this August.

     They since have had what they call their "miracle baby" - Jaxson.  They were both very surprised when Sheila got pregnant - Joe is 53 and Sheila 45.  Jaxson is a bundle of energy, and it was great to spend a couple of days with folks living in gratitude for the blessings they do have and focusing eagerly on the things in life they can change.  They seem to fit right in here - a couple that has reinvented themselves in a community that has honed that skill.

     I needed a few days work, so Joe put me up on a ladder replacing rotted wood on a house he is getting ready to paint.  The ladder said it is rated at 300 lbs - we pushed the rating a bit but it held up ok.  It was fun to do a bit of carpentry work again.

     Today's "Faces in the Crowd" is a fellow who was keeping track of me while I was photographing down at the pier.  

     In small towns there are lots of folks that "keep track" of things.  I think that these are the same folks that set up home-owner's associations in the larger towns.

And today's parting shot -

      When you have to plow 16 feet of snow over a winter, the edges of a road become a bit blurred.  Mailboxes are either buried under the drifts or become collateral damage.  The solution?  The "mobile mailbox" - a "box in a bucket."  A bit of concrete in a tin pail and you can move the box wherever you need.

Click Here if you can contribute a few dollars to help with this journey and Click Here to email me.

Have an awesome day !!

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