Will Portland’s most historic forge—a remarkable, 168-year old workspace—be saved?
It’s a hot summer’s day but we’re sitting in the deep, dark ice cool air of The Portland Forge
, staring at a 30-foot-high stretch of boulders that make up Portland’s Old Sea Wall. The wall was first built in 1825. It is massive, covered with streaks of soot, and has a presence so overwhelmingly old that it feels as if we have been transported into a Dickensian landscape.
A moment ago, we were wandering around the hot sunshine of the decaying warehouses that make up the Portland Company Complex—with its railway museum, train tracks and yachts being washed. Then, 30-year old Sam Smith appeared in a back alley below Fore Street and welcomed us through the huge wooden doors into his 186-year old blacksmith workshop. It is like stepping into a time capsule and may be one of the most extraordinary, historic craft spaces left in the City of Portland.
“It’s all about traditions, this blacksmith shop,” explains the 30-year old blacksmith as we sit down amid all the anvils and iron. “This is a forge in the city center; you don’t really see forges in city centers any more, but that’s where they used to be because that’s where you needed them to be.”
A historic space
The day we visit, there are no fires lit in the space, which reveals why it was such a perfect setting for a blacksmith: literally built into the side of Munjoy Hill, there is the natural cooling effect of the stone and earth and huge ceilings that allow for ventilation—all of which makes it remarkably safe and fire-resistant.
“The shop was built during what I call the Age of Ingenuity,” explains Smith. “Which was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the end of the Renaissance, when people were clever enough to do things but didn't understand why it worked, and there were kept secrets. This entire complex was built and oriented to the dominant winds. When you open the door, 60 percent of the time the wind is blowing away which causes a Venturi effect to suck all the smoke out of the shop.”
The shop was connected to the Portland Company, which was established in 1846 to build locomotives for the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad. “They used to build iron clads during the Civil War here because they had the plate rolling technology,” explains Smith. “They also turned into an ammunitions factory during World War I, and II they made shells. This was a blacksmith’s shop the whole time and the brass foundry. It has been a blacksmith’s shop since 1846. It’s the oldest, still-working forge in the state of Maine. It’s why I wanted to be its steward.”
Luck and coincidence—and perhaps the resident blacksmith ghosts of this space—drew Smith here three years ago when the former owner of the Portland Company Complex
, Phineas Sprague Jr., invited him to use the space. Despite being only in his late 20s at the time, Smith had been an apprentice since the age of 14 and was the only master blacksmith in the state of Maine to only be using 19th century techniques. He’s a purist and a historian and has been flourishing in this space, restoring the forge, creating custom designs, taking on apprentices and teaching at Maine College of Art’s Continuing Studies program.
But when the Portland Company buildings were sold last summer to a group of developers
, Smith’s and the shop’s future came under question. His lease runs out in September 2015—and he says that having still not had an invitation for a formal discussion with the new owners, he has no idea of the forge’s future.
“I’m sure there’s a way to find a balance,” he says. “You can’t really have a condominium on top of a blacksmith’s shop. It won’t work. But if you could sacrifice a small amount, just think about what I could give you in return: unique, one of a kind, ornate fencing and gates and lanterns and brackets that would make your real estate more desirable.” He pauses and adds with a smile: “I don’t mind gentrification as long as I’m the gentry’s blacksmith.”
Then, becoming more serious, he adds: “I would like to think they have, for lack of a better word, the nobility,” he says. “To find the balance, to keep the trades person … It’s not just my livelihood. This is a place of continuity. It’s the only place being used for its original purpose in this whole 15-acre strip of industrial ruin. I’m okay with losing a warehouse, but I’m not okay with losing a workspace where people have worked their entire lives in it and helped win wars in it … They have to remember that with hammer and hand all arts do stand, and without blacksmiths, they wouldn’t have what they have now.”
Clare Morin is an arts writer based in the West End of Portland. She was born in Blackburn, England, raised in Hong Kong, and now calls Maine home.