History of Calais Waterfront Walkway Reveals Community Pride

By Lura Jackson

For the past few decades, the Calais waterfront walkway has been a boon to its visitors, offering a picturesque stroll that tells the story of the city while simultaneously reconnecting residents with the serenity of the Maine wilds. Fifty years ago, however, that was hardly the case: the walkway is the former bed of the first chartered railroad line in the state, a line that operated steadily from its inception in 1832 until it was decommissioned in the 1980s. The transformation was far from instantaneous, and in the end, it took the efforts of several community volunteers and organizations across the city to produce the walkway we now enjoy. 

 When Maine Central Railroad made the decision to stop its Calais branch of freight services in the early eighties, the line itself was left intact. After several years, the defunct tracks became littered and unkempt. Some residents made efforts to clean the tracks by the library, among them Louis Bernardini and his family. Bernardini said that after spending an afternoon picking up litter, the notion to create a park by the library and an extended walkway to either side in the railroad bed became stronger and stronger. The possibility was discussed with the city, and efforts to have the railroad tracks removed began.

Once the tracks were gone, a committee of volunteers began clearing the debris from the bed so that a walkway could be laid down. It soon became apparent that funds would be needed to complete the path. At the same time, the scope of the project continued to grow under the guidance of key figures such as city councilor Ruth Brogan and Susan Harvey of the Calais Area Chamber of Commerce. 

In November of 1989, the Calais Maine Street ’90 Steering Committee was formed, adopting the project as its purpose. The next year, the city of Calais applied for and received a state grant of $40,000, and fundraising efforts to match that amount began in earnest. Once collected, the $80,000 funded the first phase of the project, which included the installation of lights, the improvement of the walkway from Pike’s Park to the underpass, picnic tables, and added parking. Forestry experts were consulted to determine what trees and bushes would complement the natural landscape of the riverside path.

Over the next few years, several projects were completed. Residents rapidly adopted use of the walkway and volunteers continued to perform cleanup and regular maintenance. Gradually the walkway was extended to Todd Street through the work of those volunteers, who laid down railroad ties along the path and collected the excess dirt and sand swept from the city streets in the spring. 

In 1996 the walkway was dedicated to Ruth Brogan, who passed away later that year. Brogan was recognized for her dedication to the community between the years of 1951 and 1995 as well as for her efforts in establishing the park. Brogan was born in Calais in 1913 and graduated from Calais Academy in 1930.  Her passion was serving the community, and so committed was she to that task that some referred to her as the first lady of Calais. 

 

Now completed, the Calais Waterfront Walkway is a rightful point of pride for every resident. It is a pathway lined with roses and wild fruit trees, a haven for birds and other assorted wildlife, and certainly one of the most stunning locations in town during the autumn months. Visitors walk, jog, bike, snowmobile, snowshoe and ski down it on a frequent basis, each of them traveling down a path crafted by the hands of community spirit.