Friday, August 27, 2021

A matter of historical record: Ye olde canal days, 1830–1872, a fascinating, but mostly forgotten era in Windham history

By Walter Lunt 

Part five of a series on the Cumberland & Oxford Canal

Jubilant crowds gathered on June 1, 1830 in the small towns along the 20-mile route of the long-anticipated Cumberland & Oxford Canal. Politicians, businessmen, mill owners, lumbermen and whole families were awaiting the appearance of the first canal boat to travel the C. & O. in its day-long journey from Portland, through 27 locks, to Sebago Basin. Gentlemen wearing tall hats and handsome suits, ladies in silk and ordinary folk in their work-a-day outfits cheered loudly as the stately and ornate George Washington canal boat, pulled by a great white horse and barely creating a wake at 4 mph, came into view.

The frontier-like region surrounding Sebago and Long Ponds was rich in natural resources and manufactured goods; Portland Harbor was a bustling seaport. And now there was a cheaper and faster way to move products for import and export.

Notably and sadly absent from the celebration was the man who had devoted nearly half a century to the creation of this engineering marvel, Woodbury Storer, whose last official act before his death in 1825 had been initiating a petition resulting in the creation of Canal Bank, the principal vehicle for financing the canal.

While construction of the canal was financed through a form of public financing, the vessels that would conduct the commerce over its waters fell to private enterprise. Seemingly overnight, farmers, millwrights and enterprising businessmen became “ship owners.”

For the next four decades the canal boats, or freighters, would move thousands of tons of merchandise, including lumber, cordwood, farm produce and mill products, between Portland and the town of Harrison, located on the northern tip of Long Pond. On average, the journey took each boat three days, one way, to complete. A wise canaler would deliver two to three tons of goods to Portland and return with a heavy load of imports from foreign ports, like sugar and molasses or raw materials for the mills. Wharves for loading and unloading were located up and down the canal at each town, as were taverns and inns for meals, drink, and overnight stays. Many provided stables for resting the horses.

The canal boats, of which 100 were in service within the first year (150 within ten years), were less than elegant in appearance. Their design was a prescription, dictated by the limitations and demands of passage on the canal, the sail over lakes and the jaunt on the twisty Songo River.

Unlike the graceful lines of the sea-going tall ships of the day, canal craft were boxy and inelegant at best. The typical canal boat was built, literally, to fit the confines of the canal channel. They measured 60 feet in length, 10 feet wide and had flat bottoms to limit the amount of draft. The bows were blunt, and the stern squared. A cabin, equipped with a stove, folding table and one or more beds was situated at the rear of the vessel. Two masts were mounted on hinges that could fold (or jack knife) onto the deck for passage under bridges, and two centerboards that could be raised for sailing, or lowered during canal and river travel.

Owners took great pride in the appearance and naming of their awkward vessels. The Forest City, for example, was painted like the forests it traversed, with multiple shades of green. The Red Jacket was colored bright red. The Northern Light was silver streaked to represent the heavens, and Reindeer sported sets of animal horns on its bow. The most elaborate and decorated canal boat was the George Washington; not built for freight, it was a pleasure, or party, boat for passengers and special gatherings. The hulls displayed patriotic stripes of red, white, and blue. The deck was graced with stenciled carpets, gold designs, and a brass rail; curtains were hung on the cabin windows, and inside there was a kitchen stove and copper sink. Carved, wooden heads of Martha and George Washington adorned the stern. The boat turned heads during its heyday when partying, music and dancing could be observed on its deck as it plied the waters of the lakes and canal. Unable to defray expenses, the George Washington was soon turned into a freighter.

Horses, and occasionally mules, towed the boats on the canal, led by young men or boys called hoggies. Fore and aft sails would be raised when the boat entered the lake at Sebago Basin. Upon reaching the mouth of the Songo, crewmen (and sometimes passengers) would use 20-foot poles, padded at one end and pointed with iron on the other, to “push” the boat along the river by walking along the tops of the hills. Once in Brandy Pond and past the drawbridge at Naples Causeway, the sails would again be raised for the trip to Bridgton and Harrison. The original survey would have carried the route by canal to Thomas Pond (now Lake Keoka) in Waterford, Oxford County, however due to the great additional expense, the plan was abandoned. Even though the canal never entered Oxford County, its residents added much commerce to the canal via the town of Harrison, and so a measure of veracity was given to the C. & O. name.

During its heyday of the 1840s and 1850s, the C. & O. Canal became an integral part of day-to-day life within the communities it touched. Numerous stories emanated from its business dealings, crews, and passengers – next time we’ll share some of those captivating, and almost forgotten, tales – some passed down, some recorded from primary sources. All, quite fascinating. <


Friday, August 13, 2021

A matter of historical record: Linking lakes to the sea, the Cumberland & Oxford Canal is, at last, a reality in 1830

Shown is a wall mural commissioned by Canal Bank (today its
successor is Key Bank). Upper left. the original directors of 
Canal Bank. The bank was commissioned in 1825 to finance
the Cumberland & Oxford Canal. Upper right, Woodbury Storer,
35-year promoter of the canal, and Homes Hutchinson, chief
engineer of the canal. Below, Irish immigrants at work during
construction of the c anal. Center block: A lock with canal
boat at top. Right block, upper right, the Little River aqueduct,
Gorham. Below, tow boats pass in the canal and a wharf for
freight. COURTESY PHOTO   
 (Part four of a series)

By Walter Lunt

By 1825, despite decades of funding and economic set-backs, Woodbury Storer’s dream of a twenty-mile hand dug canal connecting Portland harbor, a shipping mecca, with the wealth of forest, agricultural and manufactured products of interior Cumberland and Oxford counties was fast becoming a reality.

For over 30 years, Storer served in important positions during efforts to fund and build the man-made waterway, including president of the canal corporation’s board of directors. It was Storer that the canal shareholders, including John Tying Smith of Gorham and Eli Longley of Raymond, looked to for leadership following the failure of stock sales and a lottery to cover the C. & O. price tag, originally estimated by Erie Canal engineer Holmes Hutchinson to be about $135,000.

In 1825, the Maine Legislature once again rescued the fledgling canal promoters by establishing a new bank, chartered specifically to provide enough funding to build the canal. The Canal Bank was issued $300,000 in capital with the provision that one-fourth, or $75,000, be invested in canal stock and that the bank be exempted from state taxes.

Surveying began immediately. The original route, which was to have begun near Sebago Lake Village, crossing through the Otter Ponds and on to Saccarappa (Westbrook), was abandoned. The revised course started at the Sebago Basin waterfall (Wescott’s Falls) in Standish and followed closely the western shore of the Presumpscot River to Westbrook where it turned cross country toward Stroudwater in Portland. It also passed through the towns of Standish, Gorham and Windham. The altered route added five miles of digging but was favored because less land had to be taken, and it accessed the products of the mills located along the Presumpscot.

By 1827, land rights for the channel, acquired by eminent domain, were secured and trees and brush cleared along the 20-mile route. Landowners were promised “just compensation” for their property, but many farmers reported dissatisfaction with the payments; some settlements were paid half in money and half in canal stock (which failed to produce the anticipated dividends).

By 1828, actual construction was set to begin. Surplus laborers were nonexistent in the early 19th century, so Irish immigrants, many recruited from the just finished Erie Canal in New York, were brought in. One observer wrote, “…the whole course (of the canal route) was alive with freshly imported Irishmen who with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow excavated the earth and the tow path. The banks were dotted…with rudely built shanties which overflowed with kid(s) and healthy-looking buxom mothers…”

Digging and sculpting the canal channel was, to say the least, a formidable task. University of Southern Maine professor Joel Eastman, a recognized academic expert on the C. & O. Canal described it this way in an article for Maine Life magazine in 1973, “It is not difficult to understand why costs escalated as the actual digging of the twenty mile canal began. There was a lot of earth to be moved even though the canal was only 18 feet wide at the bottom, 34 feet wide at the top and designed to carry just four feet of water. The workers often ran into ledge and large boulders (and in places) the canal bed had to be blasted out of solid rock. The few hills and ridges which could not be avoided required laborious digging to get the route through.”

The escalating cost to which Eastman referred occurred in 1829 as the canal neared completion. Yet again, the Canal Corporation approached the legislature for Canal Bank loans totaling $82,800. Bank directors defended their approval saying the expenditure “…prevent(ed) the entire loss of so large an (investment already made) and to relieve contractors from great loss and ruin.” And so, with construction nearly two-thirds complete, work continued.

Excavation, Eastman pointed out, was only part of the job: …twenty-eight locks had to be built to lift the canal from tidewater to the level of Sebago and Long Ponds, 280 feet above sea level.”

The locks were literally watery elevators that lifted or lowered the freight boats, depending on whether the boats were headed north or south on the canal. Each lock measured about 70 feet long by 10 feet wide and was constructed of split stone and wood panels. Hinged gates on each end swung open and shut. Culverts were installed to allow streams to flow beneath the canal. In Gorham, the canal had to cross a river. In his book, Canals and Inland Waterways of Maine, author Hayden Anderson described what has been called the engineering marvel of its time: “The Little River aqueduct, with its two solid stone abutments and three stone piers in the river, probably cost more than any other canal structure. It was a heavy plank and strong timbered trough eight feet or so above the surface of the river and one hundred feet long; it carried the canal across the river with a bridge alongside for the tow horses.”

The Cumberland & Oxford Canal opened with much fanfare along its entire length on June 1, 1830. The story of that joyous occasion and of the 40 years of canal boating that followed, next time. <