In February 1845, John Alfred Poor made an epic five-day dash through a blizzard in the White Mountains to snatch a railroad from under the noses of Boston’s powerful capitalists.
He was bedridden for two months after his sleigh ride through Dixville Notch. The journey haunted him for the rest of his life, he wrote, 'as a lurid dream.’
But if his sleigh ride was a tormenting nightmare, the outcome was a dream come true. Poor envisioned Portland, a backwater, as a booming winter seaport for Montreal. The Canadian city needed a way to ship goods when the St. Lawrence River was frozen.
There was one big hitch: Plans were drawn for a railroad from Montreal to Boston, and that city’s wealthy businessmen were prepared to back the venture. Boston then was six times the size of Portland, and growing fast. Portland, with only 15,000 residents, was barely growing at all. People called it ‘the deserted village,’ after it lost the state capitol to Augusta in 1832.
John Alfred Poor
John Alfred Poor was born in Andover, Maine, on Jan. 8, 1808, the son of Sylvanus and Mary (Merrill) Poor. His brother, Henry Varnum Poor, founded the company that became Standard & Poor’s rating service.
John Alfred Poor grew into an imposing figure; at 6’2”, 250 lbs., he had a deep booming voice, prodigious energy and a hot temper. He studied law, married Elizabeth Adams Hill and joined his uncle’s law practice in Bangor, serving as counsel to family friend Daniel Webster.
In 1834, John Alfred Poor happened to be in Boston to see the first locomotive in New England. “It gave me such a shock that my hair seemed to start from the roots rather than to stand on end,” he recalled.
But all was not rosy in the life of John Alfred Poor. Elizabeth died after only 3-1/2 years of marriage. Three daughters by his second wife, Elizabeth Orr, died, though one survived. Then Elizabeth died suddenly.
John Alfred Poor grew obsessed with Maine’s economic decline, as his state was losing population to the workshops and factories of Massachusetts. By 1844, he decided to throw his energies into promoting a railroad from Montreal to Portland to reverse that trend.
He believed a railroad would spark an industrial boom, put people to work and connect the city with the waterfront.
It was an audacious plan: a 250-mile, international railroad would cost more than the aggregate of all the wealth in the city.
But it made some sense: Portland was 100 miles closer to Montreal and a half day closer to Europe than Boston. Casco Bay was clear of ice when Boston Harbor was frozen over.
John Alfred Poor went to Portland in the fall of 1844 to pitch his idea. He created a sensation. Many of the town's leaders supported the idea. A survey of the route was made before December, while Poor organized a company and worked on getting a charter for the road. In early February 1845, he learned agents from Boston were appearing before the Montreal Board of Trade arguing their case.
The Sleigh Ride
On Feb. 5, 1845, five days before the Maine Legislature granted the charter for his railroad, he set out from Portland in the most terrific snowstorm of the winter. Shortly after midnight, John Alfred Poor stepped into a horse-drawn sleigh as the driving snow cut his face like a knife and the temperature hovered at 3 degrees below zero.
The wind and snow made it hard to follow the road, and he covered only 7.5 miles to Falmouth in three hours. He had breakfast at a tavern, and continued for another 40 miles until stopping at nightfall in South Paris. By then his nose and ear were frostbitten.
On February 6 he reached Andover, then encountered snowdrifts higher than his horse in Rumford. Residents of the town helped him break a path through the snow. He rode another 40 miles, reaching Colebrook, N.H., at midnight. Passing through Dixville Notch, he wrote, was ‘the great feat of the expedition.’
“The terrific howl with which it sweeps down those giant cliffs eight hundred feet high,” he wrote. “The huge mountain bank of snow that is piled in the bottom of the gorge, at the summit line of the road, made one shudder at the recollection."
Our experienced guide, known as the "Notch-Tender," led the way with shovels, others soon made a foothold for the horse; the sleigh and baggage were carried over by hand, until we came to the principal barrier, a mountainous drift twenty feet high, rising directly across the gorge.
Two young men of Erroll, N.H., by the name of Bragg, assisted by three others enlisted on the way, after two hours' labor, opened a cut, through which my horse was pushed. The fearful thing to the uninitiated is the danger of being smothered in the snow. Every few steps we had to turn round to catch our breath. The wind blew through the Notch a fearful gale, so continuous as hardly to exhibit a lull or pause, and the air was dark with the drifting snow. The place is over two thousand feet above the level of the sea, and the biting sharpness of the cold can hardly be described. Slowly and toilsomely we made our way onward, shifting horses as we could find them, keeping an outrider ahead to engage relays.
It was ‘no trifling task,’ he noted, to break a track 60 miles to Sherbrooke, Canada, through 18 inches of snow.
Poor rested in Sherbrooke and set out for Montreal in 18 below zero weather. At 5:30 on the morning of February 10 he reached the city and checked into a hotel for a few hours. It was 29 below zero.
Over five days he had changed his clothes twice and slept a total of seven hours. At 10 a.m. he appeared before the Montreal Board of Trade and persuaded its members not to adopt a resolution in favor of building their railroad to Boston.
Ultimately they agreed to the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad to Portland.
John Alfred Poor returned to Portland with frostbitten feet and pneumonia. It took him two months to recover. He said he’d never do it again. "The terrors of a Canadian winter are too fearful to encounter in this way a second time,” he wrote.
He got his railroad.
Work began at Fish Point in Portland in 1846 and was finished in 1854. The 298 miles of the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad (later the Grand Trunk) fueled an industrial boom based on shipping, shoes, textiles and machine ships. Portland became a major port and a cosmopolitan city.
From 1840 to 1848, Portland’s population grew by less than 800 per year; from 1848 to 1850, it grew at the rate of 4,000 per year.
“By the 1850s southern Maine was experiencing an industrial boom of hitherto undreamed of proportions,” wrote James H. Mundy in Hard Times, Hard Men: Maine and the Irish 1830-1860. “The key to its explosion was the coming to fruition of John A Poor’s dream, linking Portland and Montreal by means of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad.”
“Portland became an entrepot, shipping grain to Canada, importing raw materials and exporting finished goods,” wrote Mundy. “Huge quantities of molasses were moved across Portland’s docks to be converted into sugar at J.B. Brown’s state-of-the-art-factory, or to become New England rum 'for strictly medicinal and mechanical purposes'.”
John Alfred Poor also organized the Portland Company in 1846 to produce railroad equipment and rolling stock, with works at the foot of Munjoy Hill. He negotiated a deal that made Portland an international port with regular steamship service to Liverpool.
John Alfred Poor died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 63.
This story was updated in 2017.