Beneath today’s roadways, walkways, and structures are some extinct lanes and sites of Portland past, whose references are merely their ground coordinates. These comprise the city’s Ghost Streets. Though replaced, plowed under, or built-over, the souls of these Ghost Streets, institutions- even parks- bear silent witness to the lives and souls that inhabited and traversed them, and we need but only notice traces left behind. What clues remain today? This installment reveals glimpses of an area and a well-known crossroads in Portland’s Oakdale section. There has been a lengthy hiatus since the previous time Ghost Streets have been spirited from the great beneath here on the Strange Maine blog. This time, extensive archival work has permitted for the viewing of some remarkable aerial photographs, providing necessary context for an area that has undergone dramatic change.
Indeed, no street is an island. A look at a length of buildings along a thoroughfare easily connects to intersecting roads and proximate landmarks and businesses. Oakdale today is commonly associated with the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine; the neighborhood extends north toward the Woodfords neighborhood, west toward the eastern portion of the Libbytown neighborhood, and east to Back Cove.
Prior to major highway construction in the early 1970s, the section of Oakdale closest to downtown Portland had been densely residential. West of the intersection of Forest Avenue and Bedford Street, now covered by I-295 with its network of curved ramps, along with contiguous portions of the USM campus, were Winslow Street, Conant Street, and Lightfoot Street. At the confluence of Winslow Street and Forest Avenue was the original Winslow Park. The streets are gone, but the park has transmigrated to another side of the neighborhood. How does a park move to new digs? We shall see...
When studying transition through historic photographs, we find our bearings via recognizable structures and street schemes. At the center of the changed landscape among these Oakdale ghost streets is the present day USM Portland Campus Library at 314 Forest Avenue. The basic structure had been built as an industrial baking company, the T.A. Huston Company bakery, by Thomas Huston in 1919. For its time and place this was a large structure, and was strategically situated close to the Boston & Maine Railroad tracks connecting Portland’s Marginal Way to points north and south. The bakery’s specialties were pastries, cookies, crackers, and biscuits. In 1931 it was bought out by National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), who operated the manufacture until 1954. From the mid-1950s through just after 1990, the 100,000 square foot, 7 floor building served as warehouse space for building and plumbing suppliers (including Johnson Supply), a shoe company, and in the late-1980s as artists’ studio spaces. In 1991, the building was purchased by USM, which opened the renovated building as a library in 1993. With this reference point standing witness through its neighbors’ changes, the unfamiliar subjects in the photographs have an abiding fulcrum.
Note Winslow Park at lower left corner, Texaco gas station (253 Forest Ave.) immediately across the street, with 5-storey cannery behind (lower right). The photo below was taken in Winslow Park!
Winslow Park, in its original site, appears to have been a simple memorial and green space between the pre-highway (and thus larger) Deering Oaks and nearby Baxter Boulevard. The small park’s location and name had great significance. Just across Forest Avenue was Portland Stoneware Company (Winslow & Company), popularly known as the Old Pottery. Before the landfilling and highway construction in the late-1960s began, 253 Forest Avenue and its adjacent neighbors were commercial locations with industrial docks on Back Cove. The Cove was regularly dredged, to accommodate ships parallel to Marginal Way- west to Forest Avenue. According to the Portland City Guide (1940), Portland Stoneware had been established in 1846 by John T. Winslow (1820-96), and “for many years produced crocks, jars, and ornamental stoneware. In 1870, however, the pottery started mass production of more utilitarian objects and today [as of 1940] produces digester brick, tile pipe, wind guards, flue linings, and chimney tops.” The Old Pottery closed in 1946, and the successor to its address was the large Maine Canned Foods, Inc. Winslow Park’s original manifestation dates back to 1903, as a bequest to the city of Portland and one of the Portland Park System’s first neighborhood parks. The park covered barely two-tenths of an acre, on the triangle formed by the sharply-angled Winslow Street and the broader Forest Avenue. The continuation of Winslow Street, traversing east across Forest Avenue and heading into Portland Stoneware was the now-ghost-street Pottery Lane. The Old Pottery and Winslow Park pre-dated the bakery building. A critically important year to keep in mind is that of the Great Fire: 1866, after which many Portlanders began building homes and businesses (requiring building materials) in the Woodfords and Oakdale areas. Another key year is 1899: the merger of the cities of Deering and Portland.
Now we come to the ghost streets that were filled with 19th century homes- just west of the intersection of Bedford Street and Forest Avenue. As the photographs (taken in 1924) attest, the architectural styles of the homes (Victorian and Greek-revival clapboard) match the immediate area- which is south of Deering Center and Woodfords, east of Libbytown. Winslow Street spanned Bedford Street and Forest Avenue, running southwest-northeast. Emanating eastward out of Winslow Street, from north, were Lightfoot, Conant, and Grand Streets. These short streets were flanked west by Winslow Street and east by the railroad tracks which became the basic footprint for highway I-295.
By the completion of highway I-295 (November 1974), a massive project with city-wide ramifications, a swath of elevated expressway effectively separated Oakdale from Parkside and the remainder of downtown Portland. Parallel road-construction projects included Franklin Arterial, extending Preble Street onto the landfilled Marginal Way, extending State Street through Deering Oaks Park, and creating the Libbytown interchange at Libby’s Corner. Numerous homes and several neighborhoods gave way to the new highway connectors. Among the casualties was Winslow Park, whose site had been taken by eminent domain in 1969. Today, the western portion of the I-295 southbound trestle stands over the park, and the southbound Forest Avenue onramp traverses the ghost of Winslow Street.
Below: Forest City Motors, with bakery in background. Bedford Street at left, Winslow Street at right.
Exponentially expanded in the past 25 years, the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine occupies much of the area immediately northwest of the intersection of Forest Avenue and Bedford Street. The Muskie School of Public Service (Wishcamper Building, opened in 2008) and its adjoining parking garage, and adjoining Abromson Community Education Center (built in 2004) stand upon the ghost streets of Winslow, Lightfoot, Conant, and Grand. Wishcamper is immediately upon the footprint of the corner of Winslow and Bedford Streets- for decades the site of Forest City Chevrolet. The core of the campus (between Beford and Falmouth Streets) is historic land in itself, having been part of Sir Ferdinand Gorges’ land grant, and later the Deering family estate. Payson-Smith Hall’s construction, begun in 1957, signified Portland Junior College’s transition into the University of Maine in Portland.
And yet there remains Winslow Park- the “new” Winslow Park. Through the early 1970s, the Winslow descendants successfully contested the elimination of the park and its memorial in Maine’s Supreme Court. The Court’s decision, in 1976, stipulated that the original plaque (from Winslow Street) be embedded in a stone upon a parcel of land at the corner of Baxter Boulevard and the Preble Street Extension. The New Winslow Park was dedicated on June 6, 1980. Visitors to the new park will notice the large 1902 plaque near a tall, modern sculpture. The present Winslow Park is situated at the edge of the expanse of 1970s roadway landfill- yet still just a short walk northeast from the Old Pottery.
Above, with Back Cove in background. Note the 1902 plaque.
Below, with USM Library and Forest Avenue in background.
Now, with these reference points, landmarks, and coordinates, the known and overt are joined with the subsumed and hidden. As you merge from Forest Avenue onto I-295 south, or exit from I-295 for northbound Forest Avenue, you’ll know the path crosses through the Old Pottery that produced household ornaments and sewer ducts alike. Hurtling across the Forest Avenue overpass, your wheels bisect the airspace of the old Cannery that succeeded the Old Pottery in its place. And walking across the USM Portland campus that is south of Bedford Street, your steps meet the ghosts of sidewalks, houses, stores, and backyards past that trimmed Winslow, Lightfoot, Conant, and Grand Streets. So keep your eyes tuned, when noticing modern structures amidst old settlements. These indicate layers of built landscape. Your very being traverses the plains between the surface present and the foundations and footsteps of your predecessors. The City Has Ghost Streets.
Aerial view from east, above Back Cove. Notice the pre-I295 terrain, with the Cannery (former Portland Stoneware site) in foreground. Circa 1964.