Notes from the Director: recognizing long-time members

Written by Executive Director Steve Bromage

Maine Historical Society is about people, as is Maine history itself. That’s a theme you’ll hear  regularly as we move forward. I want to recognize and thank a particular group here: Maine Historical Society’s long-time members.

Let me share an incredible statistic: more than 300 people have been members of MHS for over 20 years. (MHS currently has about 2,500 members.) I’ll break it down. 139 have been members for 20-29 years, 110 for 30-39 years, 43 for 40-49 years, 10 for 50-59 years, and 3 for longer than 60 years. 240 of these long-time members live in Maine, while 60 live in other states.

Last week, we held a reception for this remarkable group, and 35 of our long-time members were able to attend.

Seen at the long-time members tea are, left to right, Bob Carroll and Elaine and Wes Bonney; Dorothy Williams and Colleen Reed; Meredith Harding and Nick Noyes

This group has seen us through and supported tremendous change—the modernization and professionalization of the organization that got underway in the 1960s; the purchase of our museum building; the restoration fo the Longfellow House; the recent renovation of the Library; the creation of Maine Memory Network; and, the expansion of the role that MHS plays throughout the state.

A number of these members shared their stories of how they became involved with MHS —Mike Connolly (26 year member), Didi Stockly (32 years), Ruth Ayers (44 years), Bob Carroll (52 years), and Mert Henry (63 years).

Their interests—like yours—represent the wide range of things that MHS does: genealogy, scholarship, and our wonderful library; the Longfellow House; our museum, exhibits, and incredible collection of objects; our school and public programs; and yes, Maine Memory Network.

Long-time members include former trustees who have contributed significant time, energy, and financial support. It also includes volunteers, regular visitors, and others who connect to and champion our work in myriad ways.

What all have in common has been steadfast support for MHS—it’s because of their support and participation that we are where we are today. We feel a deep bond of affection and appreciation for our members. Thank you.

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Bringing it Home: The 2011 Annual Fund

This week marks the final push to bring the MHS Annual Fund home. Can we count on you to help us meet our goal by Friday, September 30th?

In 1953, Margaret Chase Smith supported the Jimmy Fund through a donation to her Skowhegan neighbor Colin Quinn.

Mainers, including former Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, have a long tradition of supporting community needs and causes near to their hearts.

In 1948, the Jimmy Fund was created following a visit by members of the Boston Braves baseball team to a young Maine cancer patient named Einar Gustafson. The Jimmy Fund is now closely identified with the Boston Red Sox. (Come on, Red Sox, hold on!) In the case of the Jimmy Fund, contributing included financial donations, volunteering, and helping raise awareness.

Those are the dynamics that help MHS thrive, too. This week our focus is on the financial piece. The Annual Fund provides essential support for all MHS activities.

Please consider making a gift online to the MHS Annual Fund.

Maine Historical Society depends on the generosity of its members and friends to help support the important work of collecting, preserving and sharing Maine’s cultural heritage. By supporting the Annual Fund, you’ll be helping to preserve Maine history and sustain the team of librarians, museum curators, and educators who are dedicated to bringing Maine history to life, making it meaningful, relevant, and accessible.

The Maine Historical Society is a private, not for profit organization. Your gift is tax deductible. For more information, please contact the Development Office at (207) 774-1822, ext. 231 or email dstone@mainehistory.org.

Additional stories from our THIS WEEK AT MHS e-newsletter can be viewed here.

Bill’s Mythbusters: Portland Tunnels

Beginning in 1923 work began on a new intake and conduit system at Sebago Lake to convey water to the transmission mains, thereby increasing the amount of water available to Portland area residents.

The Portland tunnels myth is one of the most frequent inquiries we receive at the MHS Library, and cannot be easily answered.  Last month, we asked you to send us your stories of tunnels running beneath our beloved city streets to help us uncover the myth of the Portland tunnels once and for all! We received several myths from our readers and friends, who shared stories about alleged underground activity throughout the peninsula. Some of the stories were believable (such as passages used by shop owners whose buildings were across from one another on Congress St.) and others were fantastical (tunnels built “to the future”). Michelle Souliere, of Strange Maine, began researching the supposed tunnels in 2005, and gained great response to her October 26, 2005 blog post.

We thought if we started with the source for information about the city’s streets and utilities, Portland’s Department of Public Works GIS maps, we would get a quick and easy answer. We were proved wrong. A call to the Public Works Department informed us that the city’s archivist (and keeper of the GIS maps) has retired. In the interim, Michelle Sweeney at City Hall has assumed the task, and we connected with her. We e-mailed back and forth regarding an alleged subway system, hidden rooms, liquor passages and even the “tunnel to the future.” Sweeney confirmed the tunnel between the old Press Herald Building at 119 Exchange Street and its printing facility across Congress Street.

October 1966 Portland Press Herald article about their new tunnel

As we investigated tunnel myths, we opened a can of worms with yet another myth of an unfinished subway system. We heard from locals who went into the tunnels to see where the subway would have been. (I should point out that until I walk through a tunnel, I won’t believe or confirm it exists). Sweeney suggests that a 1904 city “Plan of Underground Structures” which shows the usual sewage and utility lines and vaults,  may be the genesis of the subway myth. Trolley tracks indicated on the surface may have been interpreted  by some as “underground structures” which they were not. There was never a subway in Portland. In the 1980s, Portland School of Art instructor Barbara Best drew up an elaborate set of blueprints for a mythical subway between the Mother of Victory and Longfellow Monuments which strengthened the legend.

While we would like to put a lid on this pandora’s box of tunnels, we can’t just yet. As mentioned in this blog, we are confirming one single tunnel at the old Portland Press Herald printing facility, and until I can walk through a tunnel myself, I won’t validate any of the claims made thus far. So, if you are a shop owner, or someone with secret building access, by all means invite me for a tour of your basements and tunnels. If you have blueprints or photos of substructures, feel free to swing by MHS and show us.

Unloading a cache of liquor from a ship in Portland during prohibition in 1920.

Can the utility passages be considered tunnels? I have to say not really, or at least in the way that our inquirers suggest, because the city installs these underground spaces for our sewers, power and gas lines, not for transporting booze from the wharfs into town during prohibition (or other non-utility activities). So, while you may see a vaulted door that seems perpetually locked in the basement of your building, it’s not necessarily a door to a tunnel that will reveal a bizarro Portland underground. A true tunnel would be one that was built with a purpose, such as to transport goods between buildings easily and with access to freight elevators. The Rines Family, who owned the Congress Building (State Theater) and the Eastland Park Hotel, reportedly had a tunnel for just those reasons. This is another tunnel that I’ve heard of and would like to believe existed (or exists) but until I walk through a tapestry of cobwebs and feel the cool, damp air that I imagine this sub-High street passage to have, I (as so many of us will) continue to spin yarns about tunnels in Portland.

-Bill Barry

William David Barry is an author, historian and MHS reference librarian. He can be reached at rdesk@mainehistory.org. 

Mythbusters: uncovering the truth about Portland tunnels

Each month in our e-connection, Bill Barry (MHS reference librarian, author and historian) writes a column called “Bills’ Mythbusters” in which he posts claims and truths about Maine lore.  One of the most frequent inquiries he and other reference librarians at MHS receive are about the alleged tunnels that run through downtown Portland. It seems everyone has a story about a tunnel they (or a friend of a friend of a cousin) have traveled through.  In an effort to uncover the truths, we’re hitting the streets- talking to city officials, historians, business owners, and you!

We want to hear your myths about the Portland tunnels! Add your comment to this blog post or send e-mails to rdesk@mainehistory.org, subject line “Tunnel.”

Next month in our August e-connection we’ll reveal the mother of all Mythbusters so stay tuned.

In 2005, Michelle Souliere of Strange Maine wrote a blog post about the tunnels. Blog readers wrote in with tunnel myths, and one such person described a “tunnel to the future.”

A few tunnels we have heard legends of are:

  • The passage between the old Portland Press Herald Building at 119 Exchange St. and the printing facility across Congress Street.
  • The passage between the Congress Building (State Theater) and the Eastland Park Hotel from the days when the Rines family owned both structures.
  • A passage from 489 Congress (Maine Historical Society) across Congress Street, from the days when our building was a jewelry store that had another shop across the street.