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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: May 8, 2017

Take a tour of Portland’s hidden historical spots

Written by: Ray Routhier

 

People who think history is dry and dull have likely not considered that there can be mystery in history.

There’s a stained glass window residing in some quiet corner of Portland, for example, that Hollywood star Denzel Washington is very familiar with. There’s a small figure of an eagle perched atop one of the city’s original “skyscrapers” most people never notice. There’s a floor-model radio that’s been sitting in the same Portland house, waiting for someone to turn its dial, since 1926.

Where, you might ask, are these little-known pieces of Portland history? Well, that’s the mystery.

All will be answered for people who take the Maine Historical Society’s annual Magical History Tour on Saturday. The event allows tour-goers to visit 10 historic locations, at their own pace, during the day. At each site, a place not normally or easily accessible to the public, guides will explain its significance and answer questions.

Maine Historical Society's Magical History Tour, Saturday, will let people see hidden or hard to find historical sites around Portland. And the sites, just for the fun of it, are being kept a secret until then. On a previous tour, off-limits spaces at the Victoria Mansion were featured. Photos courtesy of Maine Historical Society

Maine Historical Society’s Magical History Tour, Saturday, will let people see hidden or hard to find historical sites around Portland. And the sites, just for the fun of it, are being kept a secret until then. On a previous tour, off-limits spaces at the Victoria Mansion were featured.
Photos courtesy of Maine Historical Society

The locations are a secret, for now. There’s a cocktail party to “reveal” the locations the night before the event. But many people won’t know what they’re seeing until they pick up their maps at the society, then head off to any of the spots. Most are within walking distance of each other in Portland. The event is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“I think it’s great to be able to see these places that the public can’t get to. One year we got to climb up into the City Hall clock tower, and the views were amazing,” said Raminta Moore of Portland, a reference librarian who has been on the previous two Magical History Tours and is planning to attend again this year. “I think it’s important to see these little-known parts of Portland history; it broadens the appeal of history.”

Maine Historical Society's Magical History Tour, Saturday, will let people see hidden or hard to find historical sites around Portland. And the sites, just for the fun of it, are being kept a secret until then. On a previous tour, people got to climb the clock tower at City Hall.

Maine Historical Society’s Magical History Tour, Saturday, will let people see hidden or hard to find historical sites around Portland. And the sites, just for the fun of it, are being kept a secret until then. On a previous tour, people got to climb the clock tower at City Hall.

As a librarian, she was fascinated to see on one tour the city’s original Baxter Library, on Congress Street, now home to a marketing and advertising agency. She and her wife were also thrilled to tour the Portland home of the late Frannie Peabody, an icon in the LGBTQ community and the community at large for her pioneering efforts to provide care and services for people with HIV/AIDS, beginning in the 1980s.

Moore also enjoyed visiting a classic car storage facility on tour. Not exactly what you think of as history from school books, but old cars are certainly part of our history — not to mention, cool.

Other spots on past tours have included the Portland Masonic Temple, off-limits spaces of Victoria Mansion and coal-fired boilers in the basement of the Westin Portland Harborview hotel, formerly the Eastland Park hotel. Other spots have included the West Mansion on the Western Promenade, the Abyssinian Meeting House, the U.S. Customs House and the Eastern Cemetery.

It’s not all about the site itself, sometimes it’s the stuff that’s historic. One tour stop was at Portland’s police headquarters, to see a stash of old police equipment.

“The appeal goes beyond people who like history, it’s people who are into Portland, who want to know the city a little better,” said Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society. “That’s the amazing thing about history, it helps us all learn about this place we love.”

Last year’s tour drew about 750 people, Bromage said.

This year’s tour will include one location that was voted on as a “favorite” from people who took previous tours. So, if you’ve gone before and remember one location that everyone was buzzing about, you might get to visit that one again.

But the historical society is not saying where this year’s sites are. That’s part of the fun, surprising people. Like any good mystery, however, there are clues.

On a previous tour, the basement of the Westin Portland Harborview hotel, formerly the Eastland Park hotel, was featured. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society.

On a previous tour, the basement of the Westin Portland Harborview hotel, formerly the Eastland Park hotel, was featured.

The historical society released nine images, a picture of something at one of the tour stops, with line or two of information about it. The clue accompanying a picture of a stained glass window reads: “Nope, it’s not a church. Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston will remember this location.” Washington and Houston were in Portland in 1996, for several days of filming for the movie “The Preacher’s Wife.” But where would they have seen stained glass that was not in a church?

An image of a door with bars in front of it has the caption: “Even now that recreational marijuana is legal, you’d be hard pressed to get any higher than this in Portland.” Another clue shows an image of dormer with peeling paint and the caption: “Portland’s most prolific architect designed this home, but for the past 90 years it’s been used in honor of the first soldier from Maine to die in World War I.”

Bromage says that now, in the tour’s third year, he has no doubt the historical society can find more mystery history spots each year. As the event has gone on, more people have suggested spots that are perfect for the tour.

“We have a long list for the future,” said Bromage. “People have been so generous and open upon offering places.”

MAGICAL HISTORY TOUR

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Maine Historical Society, 485 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $35, $25 for members, $5 for children under 18.
INFO: mainehistory.org
WHAT ELSE: Tour-goers get a map of 10 historic locations around Portland and can visit throughout the day at their own pace. There are guides at each location, and each is a place not normally or easily accessible to the public.

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