Maine Irish Heritage Trail

Portland Site Number 52
by Matthew Jude Barker

The Portland Expo
239 Park Avenue
Portland, Maine

The Portland Exposition Building, or, simply, the Expo, has been entertaining audiences for over ninety years. Basketball games, track meets, boxing matches, boat shows, craft shows, civic events, conferences, and concerts have all been held here. Everyone from President John F. Kennedy to Janis Joplin to James Brown has graced the stage in this building, said to be the second-oldest arena in continuous operation in the country. Almost 600,000 people pass through its doors each year (see www.portlandevents.com). A parade of 20th Century Irish and Irish-American illuminati have appeared at the Expo, including boxers such as Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey.

The auditorium was erected in 1914 by the Exposition Building Association and designed by Frederick A. Tompson, who also designed the nearby IRIS Network (see Site No. 51). The building, which originally seated nearly 5000, cost $80, 944. Beginning in 1915, the Expo hosted the Maine State Exposition, a two-week event that promoted and endorsed Maine products in a state sponsored endeavor called “the develop Maine movement.” It was under the direction of the Portland Chamber of Commerce. In a time when automobiles were still rather rare on Maine roads, “200 pleasure cars,” festooned with American flags, drove in a parade to the Expo in time to witness a “grand display of fireworks” in 1916 (see Chamber of Commerce Journal of Maine {Board of Trade Journal}, May 1916).

One of the greatest draws in the early days of the Expo were the boxing matches. Since the 1850s, high-spirited young local Irish men such as Pete Daly (the lightweight champ here at one time) and later Mike Barry, emulated their pugilist heroes such as John Heenan and John “Smoke” Morrissey (in the 1850s), and the Great John L. Sullivan (1880s-90s), by squaring off in some clandestine spot at Gorham’s Corner or in a wooded locale in Cape Elizabeth. The decades rolled on, with many local Irish boxers briefly flashing in the limelight, fighting anywhere and everywhere, until the early 20th Century when boxing promoters such as Rueben Dyer and Jack Caley created indoor locations for the matches. Then the Expo came along and for the next five decades many important matches in Maine were held here, from the days of Laddie Lee O’Connor and Coley Welch, Portland boys, to Irish Jimmy McDermott and Pete Riccitelli, who revitalized local boxing in the late 1960s. The first broadcast of a fight in Maine was held at the Expo in 1940 when Coleman “Coley” Welch, the New England middleweight contender, beat Babe Verila. Welch held his crown for six years and eventually moved to Vegas.

The Expo has been home to Classes A, B, and C basketball games and tournaments almost since day one. Many championship Portland High School basketball teams, under Coach Jimmy Fitzpatrick, played here. In recent years there has been talk of bringing a semi-professional basketball team back to Portland. In the spring of 2008, it was announced that the Expo will become home to a National Basketball Association farm team, a D-League sponsored by the NBA. According to local media accounts, the team hopes to be affiliated with the Boston Celtics and will pay $250,000 for building improvements and team-related operating costs. Investors include Irish-Americans Bill Ryan, Sr., owner of Oxford Plains Speedway and his son Bill, chairman of the board of TD Banknorth, as well as Jon Jennings, former assistant coach of the Celtics. The team’s colors will be, naturally, green and white. It is hoped that this projected endeavor will breathe new life into the old Expo building, with the City of Portland investing in new locker rooms.


RELATED SITES: Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland High School

Acknowledgements by Matthew Jude Barker

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