That’s My Dump!



photos/Cotton Estes
photos/Cotton Estes



Rigby Yard in South Portland is the largest rail yard in New England, and a good case could be made that it’s also the dumpiest.

The yard and its structures were built in the early 1920s on the site of Rigby Trotting Park, a one-mile horseracing track renowned in the late 19th century as one of the fastest in the country. 

The Portland Terminal Company, a joint venture of the Maine Central Railroad and Boston & Maine Railroad, constructed the switch yard and roundhouse during a period in which rail barons were merging and consolidating their facilities. The yard was quite active for most of the past century, with upwards of 75,000 cars arriving and departing annually by the 1980s. 

Guilford Transportation Industries (now Pan Am Systems) bought the Portland Terminal Company in 1981, and then snapped up several railroads (including Maine Central and Boston & Maine), ultimately acquiring a rail network that stretched across New England and into Canada and New York. 

The freight rail company eliminated a number of lesser-used Maine Central routes in the mid-1980s. More recently, the decline of Maine’s paper industry and a shift toward trucking have further reduced the amount of rail traffic through the yard, though it is still operational. 

The 205-acre site has an appraised value of over $9 million, according to South Portland tax records. Add in the value of the railroad tracks (over $4 million) and a few buildings and the property’s worth tops $14.5 million. But unless you plan to play life-sized choo-choo there, it’s not an attractive buy (nor is it for sale).

The landscape around the yard is most accurately described as “post-apocalyptic.” Piles of weathered wood and rusty metal dot the grounds, as do several abandoned sheds, broken-down vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment long past their productive lives. 

There’s a functional (and un-dumpy) brick office building on the site, but it faces the semi-circular roundhouse and its accompanying turntable, which date from the days of steam engines and show the wear of every year that’s passed since. The roundhouse — a ramshackle structure of wood, brick, sheet metal and glass block — is mostly empty, its ghostly spaces strewn with debris, though a section on one end is being used to maintain equipment.

“It’s a huge piece of property in the center of the city,” observed South Portland Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser. “From the city’s point of view, we wish [Pan Am] would do a lot more with it.”  

In addition to the remaining rail links, Haeuser noted that the site has good access to I-95 and has a rail spur to the Turners Island marine-rail cargo terminal in South Portland. A facility that integrated rail, truck and marine cargo operations would “make sense” there, he said.

Other than a couple relatively minor oil spills at the yard and a 2003 incident in which rail cars containing radioactive cement from the decommissioned Maine Yankee nuke plant collided, there have been no serious incidents at Rigby and few complaints from neighbors. 

Pan Am Railways president David Fink did not return a call seeking comment on the property’s current use and its future.

— Chris Busby and Cotton Estes
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