Friday, July 30, 2021

A matter of historical record: A second attempt to construct the Cumberland & Oxford Canal

 (Part 3 of a series)

By Walter Lunt

During the second decade of the 1800s, Portland, Maine’s preeminent seaport city, found itself struggling to overcome twin economy-crushing events: the nationwide embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812.  By 1815, however, the town’s population had risen considerably; its port, now one of the busiest along the New England coast, needed a quicker and more efficient transportation system. 

In his 1949 book Sebago Lake Land, author/historian Herbert Jones described Portland’s growing pains: “The streets…were invariably clogged with long strings of oxen hauling heavy loads to the…waterfront for shipments to Massachusetts and the West Indies. The peaceful early morning slumbers of the irate citizens would be rudely disturbed by the raucous cries of the drivers goading their plodding beasts, and their loud exclamations: ‘Gee Star’ and ‘Whoa hisk’ could be heard for long distances, leaving the suffering populace to infer that the oxen were exceedingly deaf.”

Sensing a return to austerity, certain business leaders revived the idea of an inland waterway that could tap resources like timber and lumber, manufactured products and farm produce that could be brought from the north to Portland for both local consumption and foreign trade.

As discussed in parts one and two of this series, efforts to join the inland treasures around Sebago Pond and beyond with awaiting vessels in Portland Harbor had failed a quarter century earlier. The most efficient route to the north was by water because rivers and roads presented too many natural obstacles.

The ever-optimistic Portland retailer Woodbury Storer, who also dabbled in the import-export trade, resurrected an idea he’d put forth 30 years earlier: the construction of a canal connecting Portland with Sebago Pond and Long Lake, which would extend freight travel up to 60 miles inland. The immediate problem with his notion was, of course, feasibility and financing. Canals were not a new phenomenon in the early 19th century.  The most well-known and celebrated at the time was the Erie Canal in New York. Still, skeptics denounced the idea as too expensive and unworkable.

The canal proposal stalled until Maine became a separate state in 1820. The next year, spurred by the efforts of Storer and others, the Maine Legislature enacted a charter, signed by Gov. William King, granting rights for the construction of a canal from Thomas Pond in Waterford, Oxford County, through Sebago, to the Fore River at Portland, Cumberland County. The charter also provided for the issuance of stock.

Mainers, a conservative brood often labeled as “cautious capitalists,” were slow to invest in what they considered was a risky scheme. It was noted that Stephen Longfellow, a prominent leader in the community, purchased only two shares – which did little to promote sales.

 Enlisting the services of Erie Canal engineer Holmes Hutchinson, the estimated cost of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal construction came in at just over $130,000. That figure, many feared, was too low. Canal incorporators also issued a feasibility report. The glowing and overly optimistic study assured Portlanders their cost for wood fuel would be reduced from four dollars per cord to one dollar. Additionally, it stated that the city would be the “grand receptacle” of new forest and farm products, enhancing the value of land and mills and proclaiming that “one man with the facilities of a canal is deemed equal to three men and eighteen horses…” Appealing to the sensibilities of the potential investor, the study said investment would go beyond personal gain, offering “imperishable fame as a public benefactor.”

Stock sales continued to lag. Again, canal proprietors returned to the Legislature. Storer and others petitioned for a lottery, explaining that the company’s “utmost exertions” had failed to raise the needed revenue (and) …” little hope exists of its accomplishment.” The response was authorization of a complicated lottery scheme aimed at raising $50,000 for the canal. Critics sounded off with “reservations about the economics and morality of lotteries.” A later inspection of lottery records showed a balance of over $11,000 “unaccounted for.” A legislative investigation failed to account for the shortfall and the state treasurer was instructed to cancel the balance owed the state. Ultimately, the lottery fell far short of its promised proceeds.

The future of a Cumberland & Oxford seemed daunting. Determined and resolute, the intrepid Woodbury Storer and other canal supporters would forge ahead in search of financing, labor and construction materials. Further issues on the horizon would be route revisions and eminent domain appeals. How these and other problems are confronted next time.  <

Friday, July 23, 2021

Festival helps unite St. Anthony of Padua parishioners

With a dedication Mass, a procession with a statue of St. Anthony of Padua, and an outdoor festival, parishioners came together in Windham on July 16 and 17 to celebrate the formation of the new St. Anthony of Padua Parish.

“Today, we celebrate our officially formed blended family as the new St. Anthony Parish, knowing that we have a powerful parish intercessor in St. Anthony of Padua,” the Rev. Louis Phillips, pastor of the new parish, told parishioners.

Priests from the new St. Anthony of Padua Parish lead a
procession helping to dedicate the recently merged
parish  at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Windham
The new St. Anthony of Padua Parish was formed July 1 by the canonical merger of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Windham, St. Anne Parish in Gorham, and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Westbrook. Parishioners voted on a name for the new parish, and chose St. Anthony of Padua, which Bishop Robert Deeley approved.

The new parish features four worship sites including Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham, the summer chapel of Our Lady of Sebago in Sebago, St. Anne in Gorham, and St. Hyacinth in Westbrook.

Prior to the merger, the parishes already shared the same priests and pastoral staff, but the move will further strengthen their ties and, at the same time, reduce some administrative work and costs.

“I think it’s going to be good. I think there are some financial savings that will accrue to all the parishes, and I hope that, in the spirit of ecumenism, we will support each other, as we’re doing today,” said Paul Concannon of Knights of Columbus Council 2219 in Westbrook.

While the merger is, in some ways, an administrative move, Fr. Phillips said it is also about bringing parishioners together as one family, and that is why he wanted to have a celebration. Although the first St. Anthony Festival was held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, folks from the churches in Gorham and Westbrook also volunteered and attended.

“It’s the first time that we have come together as three churches under one parish. It’s the first time that we’ve had to work together for one goal,” said Carol Kennie, one of the festival organizers. “It’s been wonderful meeting everybody from the other parishes on a more personal, casual level. It’s amazing the talent, the interest, and the enthusiasm that we’ve had from everyone.”

Parishioners agreed.

“I’m hoping we’re all going to get to know each other. That’s the reason we’re having this,” said Christine Lynch, who attends Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “It’s been a good team, a good working team.”

The festival began with a dedication Mass, during which Rev. Phillips blessed St. Anthony medals and prayer cards, which were then distributed to parishioners. Following the Mass, Deacon Dean Lachance carried a statue of St. Anthony, leading a procession of priests and parishioners to an outdoor St. Anthony Shrine, where people placed devotional candles.

The Friday evening festivities concluded with a light reception of appetizers, sangria, beer, and other beverages.

On Saturday, the St. Anthony Festival featured live music; booths with handmade items, jewelry, and books; a silent auction with items such as bicycles, kayaks, and a homemade quilt; a yard sale; raffles; and lots of food, including homemade meatball sandwiches, clam cakes, fried dough, hamburgers and hotdogs, and pizza. You could also buy a s’mores kit and roast them over a fire pit, and after a break for 4 p.m. Mass, members of Knights of Columbus Council 10020 in Windham put on a chicken barbecue dinner.

“We’re working the whole day. We’re working the yard sale. We’re helping with the other concessions, and we’re doing the chicken barbecue dinner,” said Charlie Bougie, Grand Knight of the Windham council. “We’re a pretty active council, and we do whatever we can, but this is the first opportunity for us to be a faith community that includes the other churches, and we’re up for that anytime.”

Bougie and the other volunteers said they are excited about the newly formed parish.

“I think it’s wonderful, and with the fact that St. Anthony is in charge, we’ll help all the lost souls,” said Bougie.

Some parishioners said they liked meeting new people.

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Rita Smith, who normally attends St. Hyacinth Church in Westbrook. “We need to unify our church and get new ideas from different corners and just celebrate together.”

Although the merger took place July 1, it has been in the works for months. The process included informational sessions with parishioners, which resulted in a proposal being presented to the bishop, whose approval was needed.

The bishop consulted with the Presbyteral Council and received the consent of both the College of Consultors and the Diocese of Portland’s Finance Council before agreeing to let the merger proceed. There was then a two-week window in which people could appeal the decision.

To reach the new St. Anthony of Padua Parish, call 207-857-0490. <        

Friday, July 16, 2021

A matter of historical record: Origins of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal – part two of a series

By Walter Lunt

Traveling back roads in the late 18th century was an extremely unpleasant and sometimes dangerous activity. Transporting cargo on the unimproved trails north of Falmouth (Portland), including the Sebago Pond (Lake) area, was nearly impossible. As discussed in part one of this series (The Windham Eagle – July 2, 2021), economic development was stymied by the inaccessibility of inland resources like timber and wood products. 

Influential traders and retailers like Woodbury Storer, Peleg Wadsworth and Enoch Freeman foresaw the potential for a lucrative trade in manufactured goods and farm produce, just out of reach in isolated woodlands to the north.

In his book, Canals and Inland Waterways of Maine (1982, Maine Historical Society Research Series, No. 2), historian Hayden L.V. Anderson notes, “By 1790 Portland was recovering from the effects of (the Revolutionary) war and feeling the influence of the new national spirit. A period of vigorous growth began. The town had…been surrounded by forests of towering pine, with ridges of oak, red and white ash, birch and other hardwoods, and settlers along the Presumpscot and Stroudwater rivers had for some time been cutting this easily reached timber…Portland’s splendid harbor and bustling inland settlements provided the setting and opportunity for the rise of an industrious and versatile merchant class.”

However, as Anderson observed, “…roads of the time provided poor freightways.”

Likewise, the Presumpscot River was an equally undesirable alternative with its shallow stretches, rocky obstacles and numerous waterfalls.

The chosen option, born of the trade route dilemma, was a hand-dug canal from Sebago Pond to the falls at Saccarappa (Westbrook), to be known as the Cumberland Canal. Because the Presumpscot did not directly connect to Portland, a second canal group was organized to construct the Falmouth Canal from the head of Saccarappa Falls to the Fore River in Portland. The prime mover of the joint venture was Woodbury Storer, who immediately spearheaded a committee charged with studying the feasibility of creating a “Big Ditch” from “Sebago to the sea.” The panel reported back promptly and enthusiastically, saying that such a canal system would be wise and warranted, as it would extend the region’s economic reach some 60 miles inland.

The Massachusetts General Court incorporated Storer and others as proprietors of the Cumberland Canal. Loammi Baldwin, designer and engineer of the Middlesex Canal at Boston was hired to come and “view the ground” and advise the group. Planning and preparation proceeded slowly; it wasn’t until 1803 that Governor Samuel Adams signed a charter authorizing $20,000 for the purchase of land and allowing up to ten years to dig the canal and bring it up to full use. The following year it became obvious that the initial $20,000 outlay was not enough, and it was increased to $120,000 for each canal company.

In the years leading up to what would have been the Cumberland & Falmouth Canal, it was estimated that Portland’s prosperity nearly quadrupled due to vigorous trade with Great Britain and the West Indies.

In 1806 and 1807, due to international events, the boom times collapsed. Nationwide trade embargos, instituted by Congress, and later by President Thomas Jefferson over issues related to the impressment of American sailors and American sovereignty shut down ports up and down the eastern seaboard.

Gloomy economic times fell on the port of Portland. Commercial shipping and related business interests valued at over a million and a half dollars were halted. One observer quipped, “Great distress prevailed…grass literally grew upon the wharves…”

The disastrous times also brought failure to progress on the Cumberland and the Falmouth canals. Recovery would not be realized for another 20 years, well after Maine statehood.

Next time, the story of the second attempt to construct “water communication” between Portland and Sebago. <

Friday, July 2, 2021

A matter of historical record: The Cumberland and Oxford Canal – first of a multi-part series

An illustration is
shown accompanying
an article about the
Cumberland and Oxford
Canal from the Portland
Advertiser newspaper
on Sept. 3, 1899.
By Walter Lunt

Before he was the first vice-president under George Washington, and before he became the second president of the United States, John Adams traveled the back trails of Southern Maine as a circuit judge.

In his journals, he revealed how he despised the journey, describing the steep hills and the mud and ruts as “vastly disagreeable.” He even stated that he “hated the trees” because they often blocked his path.

At the time, in the 1770s, certain spotted trails (many, old Indian trails) were all that connected the inner tier of townships like Gorham, Windham and Gray. An enterprising farmer might walk miles over unkept trails carrying a bag corn for milling.

Lumbermen of the time used rivers and streams to transport their stock-in-trade, however hundreds of acres remained untapped due to lack of suitable waterways.

Blocking the way were shallow stretches, waterfalls or rock-filled rapids. The Presumpscot, for example, sported seventeen waterfalls and turned north at Cumberland Mills, away from the wharves at Portland.

Nature and geography had endowed Maine with an abundance of two valuable commodities: fish and timber. The latter, however, remained ensconced and inaccessible north of Portland. Stands of tall pine and groves of hardwood trees stood since time immemorial in forests along the north and east shores of Sebago Pond (Lake), sheltered and untapped by early entrepreneurs.

Road improvement was an unlikely prospect, given certain stretches of watery lowland, steep grades and spring washouts, not to mention the distance of over 20 miles.

The easiest and most efficient mode of travel by the early settlers was by water. Gorhamtown and New Marblehead (Windham) were planned by following a river (Presumpscot), so it was natural for the founders to consider waterways as the best form of connecting settlements. Although turnpikes and toll bridges were favored early on, widespread interest in canal building surged after the Revolution - spurred by George Washington’s interest in internal improvements. Hand-dug canals, though costly to build and maintain, seemed like the only suitable option for “communication” between shipping interests in Portland and the inland towns.

Inland travel in America, even into the 1800s, was easiest by water. By 1793, over 30 canal companies had been incorporated in the original 13 colonies. Portland businessmen, including merchant Woodbury Storer, were eager to tap inland resources for domestic use and for shipping to foreign ports.

The use of canals was considered a public service but was carried out by private corporations which required authorization by the state legislature. The earliest overture for the construction of a canal between Sebago Pond and the port of Portland was advanced by Storer and others in 1791.

We’ll discuss that ill-fated attempt and detail the full story of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal (which never really reached Oxford County) next time.  <