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South Paris rail bridge turns 100
BRIDGING THE GAP — A view of the # 28 bridge over the Little Androscoggin River in South Paris. The bridge turns 100 years old this year, but an original wooden span was built in the 1850s to bring the railroad to South Paris.
PARIS — For over 150 years, the bridge over the Little Androscoggin River in South Paris has provided a rail link between the Portland and Montreal – at one point, it was determined to be so important that soldiers were stationed to protect it from sabotage.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the bridge's construction, even though there has been a bridge at the site since 1850, says John Davis, a local railroad history buff.
Davis says that when the railroad was first constructed, an investor from Paris Hill put lots of money into the project but stipulated that a train needed to reach South Paris by January 1, 1850.
Unfortunately for the railroad company, the first bridge was still under construction as the deadline approached.
With some quick thinking, Davis relates, engineers rigged the bridge temporarily to allow an engine to cross – meeting the investor's requirement.
"Under railroad terms even just the engine by itself constituted a train," Davis says, "therefore, on January 1 they were there with a train."
The bridge wasn't completed until February 1951, when the first train – with cars – rolled into the South Paris station.
According to Davis, the bridge burned in 1872 and was replaced with a steel structure in 1876. It was rebuilt again with a steel span between 1900 and 1901.
Over the next 12 years, heavier engines began to expand the stone abutments, so the company rebuilt the bridge with a steel trestle – it was completed in 1913.
When World War I broke out in 1914, there were fears that the Canadian-owned Grand Trunk Railroad, including the Little Androscoggin bridge, would be targeted by saboteurs.
According to a Maine History Online article by historian Candace Kanes, these fears were heightened when a German infiltrator detonated a bomb at the Vanceboro bridge on the Maine-New Brunswick border.
Even though the U.S. remained neutral until 1917, soldiers from the 2nd Maine Regiment were posted to guard bridges along the rail line, including the bridge in South Paris, says Davis.
According to Davis, when the U.S. entered the war, the 2nd Maine returned to regular service, leaving responsibility for the bridge to hired civilian guards.
Davis says there was at least one episode when guards fired shots at what they said was a man, even though no evidence of a suspect was ever uncovered.
The Grand Trunk was nationalized by the Canadian government in the early 1920s and the Portland-Montreal line saw reduced traffic.
Davis says not too much went on with the bridge until the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, when protecting the line again became important.
According to Kanes' article, African-American troops from Fort Devens, MA were dispatched to guard a variety of strategic rail sites across the state.
Davis says he remembers soldiers who were stationed to a bridge in West Bethel visiting his hometown of Locke Mills during their deployment – he says the troops played baseball against the local teams.
"I was about 11 years old ... I can remember them coming down to Locke Mills to play baseball ... I think it was around the summer of 1942 and 1943 when they were there," he relates.
Davis says that the soldiers' deployment didn't last the entire war.
"When it became evident that there weren't going to be any sabotage attempts the troops left," Davis says. "They didn't have guards on [the bridges] the last couple years of the war."
Although Davis says he hasn't been able to find any reference to troops stationed in South Paris during the war during his research, he's still convinced there must have been a unit to guard the bridge.
In the last half-century, there has been a reduction in rail traffic, and passenger services have constricted.
Only freight comes across the bridge now – gone are the days when, Davis says, a traveler could get on the train in South Paris and arrive in Chicago 62 hours later – without switching cars.
But for those, like Davis, who love the idea of train travel, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.
More people are discussing the idea of resumed passenger service to western Maine now – many proponents see the revival of passenger service as a way to boost tourism.
One day the bridge in South Paris might again help carry people, as well as freight, across the Little Androscoggin.
HOLDING STRONG — The rail bridge over the Little Androscoggin River in South Paris still handles freight traffic for the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad Company.