Poor’s Journey and Beyond: The St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad
Author: Ed Walker
“For a short time in my younger years, I lived across the street from the mainline of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad (reporting mark: SLR). The overgrown single set of tracks was empty all day long, but every night around two in the morning, the lonesome bellow of a GP-40 would sound in the distance and I would be shook from my bed by a mixed consist of fifty to sixty cars rattling down the tracks at 25mph. While still a “civilian” at that point (I wouldn’t lay hands on a paintstick for a few more years) I would often go to the window and watch the midnight train roll past. Mysterious cargo, mysterious destinations, and the occasional piece of graffiti filled my midnight reveries. As such, the short line railroads, with their distinct “personalities,” have always come first in my heart.”
In 1849, the city of Montreal was looking to build a connection by rail to a New England seaport. The St. Lawrence River, which Montreal was situated on, would freeze each winter, and access to an ice-free port was essential to the growing Canadian city. Three railroads (The Boston, Concord & Montreal, the Vermont Central, and the Portland & Burlington) advocated for the port of Boston, and no other cities or railroads had put forth proposals. The Board of Trade in Montreal was to meet with them on February 10, 1845. It was almost certain that the following spring track would be laid to connect the two cities.
John A. Poor, however, had other plans. The young Bangor-born lawyer, had been working tirelessly with the Maine legislature to pass a charter for a Portland-Montreal Railroad, but due to the typical pitfalls of bureaucracy, the signing of the charter was delayed. It would not be ready for the meeting on the 10th. Without any alternative present, Boston would win by default. So, charter-be-damned, Poor resolved to be in Montreal before the meeting to state his proposal, and to remain there until the signed charter arrived.
For ten days prior, the horse path that wound from Portland to Montreal had remained clear. Poor undoubtedly imagined his journey to be an easy three or four day trip. But weather is a fickle thing, and as he made his final preparations the wind began to shift. Quietly, the first snowflakes of the legendary Blizzard of 1845 began to fall from the darkening sky.
Even to this day, when a blizzard comes to Maine people know to let their business wait. Poor decided he could not. With only one companion brave enough to join him, he set out. “The horse seemed more wise than his driver,” Poor wrote of the first night’s journey, “and resolutely resolved to turn back… The rising snow cut the face like a knife and the only way in which we could protect our eyes was to allow the icicles to hang from our foreheads and then with one finger to melt a small orifice with which to see.” Six hours later, they reached Teak’s Tavern in Falmouth, one town over, and barely a fraction of their 200 mile journey.
Struggling for the next two days against the abating blizzard, Poor eventually made it to Rumford, which was shoveling out from underneath eighteen inches of snow and drifts that buried the ground floor of houses. From there Poor headed to New Hampshire accompanied by several young men who broke trail for him. “No description can impart an adequate conception of the mournful grandeur of the decaying cliffs of mica slate which overhang the way…” Poor wrote. “One might entertain the thought that some awful crime was committed here, for which the reason was blasted with an everlasting curse.”
Just outside of Dixfield Notch, NH, Poor was greeted by a twenty foot tall snowdrift and perpendicular walls of snow, ice and granite on either side of the narrow gorge. Shovels were broke out, and with the help of an experienced guide referred to only as the “Notch-Tender” the small team shoveled a path for the horse. Then carried the sleigh and supplies upon their backs over the drift. Though the snow was deep and thick through the Great North Woods, Poor passed into Canada and reached Montreal by the morning of February 10th, where the thermometer read a chilling twenty-nine degrees below zero.
“In accomplishing this entire journey,” Poor concludes, undoubtedly with some small portion of Yankee pride, “I took off my clothes but twice, and slept seven hours during the five days.” Poor had beat the Boston delegates to the Board of Trade meeting. Armed with his daring story and news of the Maine legislation’s impending charter, Poor swayed the Board and on July, 4, 1846, at Fish Point in Portland, ME the first track of the “Atlantic & Saint Lawrence Railroad” was laid towards Montreal.
The 298-mile stretch of track has gone by many names since then. It has been part of the Grand Trunk Railway, the Canadian National Railway, and it’s own eponymous company. Currently it is owned and operated by the shortline operator Genesee and Wyoming. It stretches from an abandoned trestle in Portland to the yards and interchanges of Sherbrooke and Saint Hyacinthe in Quebec. Impressively though, despite all the development between then and now, much of the landscape surrounding the St. Lawrence and Atlantic is still as vast and wild as it was when John Poor made his fateful trip.