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. <


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