April 29, 2008
The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
I live in Portland, Maine. Until well into the 20th century, Greater Portland was served by an extensive streetcar line. Iron rails were set into the cobblestone pavement as if the streetcars would run for a thousand years.
With the advent of automobiles and mass transit by bus, however, the streetcars faded away. They were gone completely by the time I was born in 1946.
By the 1970s, most people had had enough of trying to drive on cobblestones, particularly on streets where the old trolley line rails were still in place. As the city could afford to do the work, the streets were paved over with asphalt.
The only cobblestones deliberately left as pavement in Portland, as far as I know, are found in the downtown area known as The Old Port, a tourist mecca marked by small shops, law offices and more restaurants and bars per acre than anywhere else in Maine.
Yet the old cobblestones aren’t really gone in other parts of the city. We have had a punishing winter here, and the combination of freezing and thawing ground with the repeated pounding of heavy snow plows, storm after storm, has fragmented the asphalt pavement of many Portland streets.
Beneath the asphalt, the cobblestones and trolley tracks remain. Now that winter is over, a lot of cobblestones that haven’t seen the light of day for decades are visible. They will disappear again as street repairs are completed, but they’ll be back again to greet a new generation of Portlanders every time a winter of this past year’s magnitude finds southern Maine.
Cobblestone streets and iron rails come as close to true permanence as anything human ingenuity has ever devised.