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.  <

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