‘It’s deja vu all over again:’ History repeats itself with MMA and GNP

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway engineer Chuck Gould uses a remote control transmitter to move a locomotive at the railway's switching yard in Hermon. (BDN file photo by Kevin Bennett)

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway engineer Chuck Gould uses a remote control transmitter to move a locomotive at the railway’s switching yard in Hermon. (BDN file photo by Kevin Bennett)

Sometimes current events mirror the past so closely it makes your jaw drop.

That happened to me today (I’m writing this on Thursday afternoon). Let me tell you about it.

This morning, Jan. 23, a federal bankruptcy judge in Bangor approved the sale of the bankrupt Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway to a New York investment firm. That news was followed a few hours later by an announcement from Great Northern Paper that it would shut down its paper mill in East Millinocket, a customer of MMA, for at least 16 weeks because of high production costs and falling market prices for its paper.

The two events, seemingly unrelated, are eerily similar to what happened almost exactly 11 years ago.

Rewind to January 2003.

On the morning of Jan. 9, 2003, the former Bangor & Aroostook Railroad was in bankruptcy. That day, at about noon, papers were signed transferring the bankrupt railroad’s assets to the new Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. Just hours later, Great Northern Paper (the original GNP, unrelated to the current GNP) filed for bankruptcy. GNP’s two paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket were the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad’s largest customer at the time.

Back in 2010, when I was a staff writer at Mainebiz, I spoke to Bob Grindrod, MMA’s president, about that “infamous day” in January 2003. Grindrod believed GNP purposefully held off on its bankruptcy filing until MMA officially owned Bangor & Aroostook Railroad’s assets for fear the deal would fall apart if the railroad’s largest customer suddenly went belly up.

“If you think that was a coincidence, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you,” Grindrod told me at the time.

This afternoon, I called up Grindrod to get his reaction to today’s news.

“It’s deja vu all over again,” was the first thing he said to me.

He called it “a strange coincidence,” but wouldn’t go so far as to say GNP timed its announcement today until after this morning’s bankruptcy hearing.

“That may be the case, but Great Northern was a huge portion of the traffic base of the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad in 2003, and it isn’t any longer,” he said.

While the new GNP is still a customer of MMA, the volume shipped in and out of the sole remaining mill in East Millinocket via rail “is substantially less” than it once was, Grindrod said.

So, maybe today’s events are just some freaky case of historical parallelism that defies logic.

“You never know,” Grindrod said. “Maybe the sage of the American nation was Yogi Berra.”

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Whit Richardson

About Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.