Ever wondered why Wharf Street is a block removed from the wharves? Fore Street was the original water line, named after the river that flows into Portland Harbor. In 1853 the city began to fill in the wharves in front of Fore Street, extending the land mass and creating Commercial Street, in order to lay down railroad track and enhance the city's position as a hub of commerce (at least according to Creating Portland: History and Place in Northern New England).
Any time you're curious about Portland past, a few search terms on the Maine Memory Network often yield a trove of results, including the 1890 shot of Commercial Street above. But there's also the primary method: talking to shopkeeps.
That's how I ended up beneath the street, checking out two basements that are nearly front-to-back, one on Wharf and one on Commercial. While the two subfloors have been maintained differently (one whitewashed, the other full of interesting refuse piled up over many years), they both have the same reinforced rock walls, and both have dealt with flooding from time to time. Huge timbers help shore up the floorboards overhead in one, and in the other, the impressive width of the planks covering the dirt floor is not something you see in lumber yards today.
While Portland's appealing brick facades are a constant reminder of our history, there is something more visceral about going below street level and taking in a different perspective and slightly dank smell. Often times, renters and owners know or have heard stories about the buildings they're in, it's just up to you to ask. Have any readers heard great stories, or gotten a below-the-street peek or behind-the-scenes tour of Old Port buildings this way? What have you seen?