By Walter Lunt
Recent installments of this series discussed the origin and operation of one of the most advanced and celebrated engineering feats of 19th century Maine: the Cumberland & Oxford Canal.
The dug portion of the C. & O. Canal extending from Portland to Sebago Lake Basin, was approximately 20 miles long and, for most of the way, ran on the westerly side of the Presumpscot River. It passed through Little Falls Village (South Windham) and the farmland along River Road.
As a young boy living beside the canal in Little Falls, Ernest Bragdon would “go for rides” on the waterway by jumping onto a canal boat from the South Windham bridge, riding down to Horsebeef locks (Mallison Falls) and then hopping another boat back.
Although mainly a freighting operation, the canal boats would occasionally carry passengers, who would usually ride atop sacks of merchandise. Some would travel from Portland to Harrison, but it was more common to travel partial distances between neighborhoods. Some of the travelers paid a fee, others just hitched a ride. Many were pressed into service, helping to raise or lower masts for lake travel, or wield 20-foot poles during the trip on the Songo River. One passenger, lacking experience with the maneuver, described the task this way: “They have long poles with one end padded and the other pointed with iron. First placing the pole perpendicularly, they sent it with a quick motion to the bottom, then lean with their shoulders against the padded end and walk toward the stern as the boat moves along…We found upon trial that even this work required some practice, as we were unable to throw the pole to the bottom. When placed for us and we had walked to the end of the boat, we could not get it out of the mud again.”
Poling was also necessary when boats entered and exited locks, when moving across Sebago Basin from the canal headgate to White’s Bridge and when traversing a dug channel in Sebago Lake leading into the Songo River.
Once in operation, the canal’s sole source of income was tolls placed on the value of cargo moving through the locks. Sawed plank, boards and joists, for example, were assessed at 3-cents per thousand feet per mile and molasses at 2-cents a hogshead. In the five-year period from 1832 to 1836, users paid the canal corporation an average of $14,000 annually. The revenue went to pay the interest on loans secured from the Canal Bank and for upkeep and damage costs on the canal.
Repairs were never ending; they included flooding, cave-ins, vandalism and lock damage (malleable clay soil at Saccarappa and Stroudwater pressed against lock walls causing major damage). Where the canal cut across pasture land, the canal corporation was obligated to build fences, and when public roads were bisected, bridges had to be built – 13 in all.
In 1836, William Whitney submitted a claim for the value of his horse that drowned in the canal. Alley Hawkes, an ancestor of a well-known Windham farming family, placed a claim for damages to his horse and carriage after busting through what he insisted was weak planking on the bridge at Great Falls.
Following opening day of the canal in 1830, the 50-mile corridor became busy, even crowded, almost immediately. At its peak of activity in the 1840s and 50s, almost 150 boats plied its waters. Red-shirted captains and crews carried all manner of merchandise to and from Portland, and numerous wharves in between; wood products were the most common. The town of Portland, for example, burned about 20,000 cords of firewood a year. With the advent of the canal, transportation costs for cordwood were reduced from $4 per cord to one dollar. Other products flowing into Portland for local consumption or for shipment to foreign ports were lumber, shook and staves, farm products – especially apples (500 to 700 bushels per boatload) – powder kegs for the Gambo gunpowder mills, clapboard and shingles, and even shade trees to be planted around Portland, a municipality destined to be known as the “Forest City.” It was also not uncommon to see disassembled barns and other structures being transported from town to town for re-building. Granite slabs, quarried on Raymond Neck, were also hauled on the canal.
Products moving north into the Sebago hinterland included salt, sugar, chests of tea, coffee, ingredients for the manufacture of gunpowder at Gambo, molasses and rum by the hogshead, tobacco and certain dry goods.
Canal boats approaching each other, travelling in opposite directions, had to deal with tow lines getting crossed. The tow-horses, pulling the boats from the same tow path, also came face-to-face. The two boats were able to pass when one hoggie (person leading the tow horse) disconnected the tow rope and dropped it onto the tow path, clearing the way for the other horse to continue on. The “downstream” boat always had the right of way.
Next time, we’ll discuss the foils and frustrations of the crusty canal boat captains and crews. And we meet the tragic “Wolfman of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal. <