Friday, September 24, 2021

A matter of historical record: The Wolfman of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal and an account of a headless horse – more stories and legends

Part seven of a series

By Walter Lunt

Although hard to imagine today, over a century and a half ago, and for about 40 years, a canal measuring 30-feet across and just shy of 4-feet deep wound its way through Windham and Gorham on the westerly side of the Presumpscot River between North and South Windham. Boats, 60-feet long and loaded down with merchandise weighing many tons, were pulled by horses as they proceeded at a walker’s pace, occasionally being raised or lowered through locks.

The Wolfman of the Cumberland &
Oxford Canal. His hideous appearance
precluded daytime activity, so to survive
he robbed canal boats by night.
Drawing by Hannah Bowker, age 14,
of Windham.  

The canal enterprise added a special nuance to the culture of the neighborhoods through which it passed. Children, in particular, were fascinated by the big boats, the cargo and especially the men who maneuvered them. Crews that steered, sailed and poled the ungainly looking vessels tended to be high spirited, outspoken and tough. Most worked seven to 10 days at a stretch and were, at times, short-tempered with inattentive crewmen, bank cave-ins or slow (or absent) lock tenders. After all, time was money. Late shipments could affect shipping schedules at Portland harbor or hold up production at various mills along the Presumpscot. Still, there was always time for a friendly wave or a trumpet blow for children who had paused their play to greet the passing fresh-water ships.

Horns, whistles, conch shells or trumpets were familiar sounds along the “big ditch,” as they were used to alert lock tenders of an approaching canal boat. Residents along the route were also accustomed to the shouts of the canal boat captain as he bellowed orders to crewmen. There was also the flurry of activity when horse-drawn wagons pulled in and out of neighborhoods to meet the boats that had stopped at local wharves. Men with loud voices scurried to load or unload cargo, such as the one located near the South Windham/Little Falls bridge (Note Towpath Road at that location which follows roughly the path used by hoggies – young men who led the horses pulling the canal boats).

At nightfall, tired and sometimes disgruntled canalers would frequent taverns that lined the route of the C. & O. Canal, sometimes resulting in loud liquor-induced altercations, replete with inglorious language that spilled out into streets. In Portland, deep water sailors from the tall-masted sloops and schooners would spot canalers at Broad’s Tavern and begin shouting “Fresh water sailors from the raging canal.” The taunting would inevitably lead to a boisterous full-scale brawl.

Most boat crews, however, spent their evenings in more sedate surroundings. Night travel on the waterway was prohibited. Boatmen would drop anchor, stable their horse at a boarding house and enjoy a meal and a comfortable place to sleep. Others would catch and cook trout from the canal, boil potatoes and dandelion greens on the stove in the small, square cabin at the stern of the boat where they would also sleep.

In late August of 1859, a writer for the Bridgton Reporter newspaper traveled the C. & O. Canal from Bridgton to Portland aboard the canal boat Green Lake. Notes from his log-book recorded the start of his voyage back “up” the canal:

“Leaving Portland, the scenery becomes beautiful – fair cottages, elegant mansions half hidden by the rich foliage; green lawns sloping down to the water’s edge, where the willow and other shrubs bend gracefully down and are reflected in the glassy surface of the Canal; little boats drawn upon the bank; the many bridges; the view of some distant village; the occasional appearance of a canal boat…At one place we pass a host of naked urchins bathing in the canal – all comprise to form a picture seldom surpassed.”

Farther on, upon leaving the canal at Sebago Basin, the writer described what seemed to be a perilous lake crossing:

“The waves ran high and our boat tipped sideways to a fearful extent, as ever and anon a big wave dashed over the deck; but our little vessel ploughed gallantly through the waters under the guidance of our skilled helmsman; while the faint light of the moon aided in making the scene of unusual grandeur…the dark outline of the opposite shore (appeared) around 9 o’clock (and) we ran safely into the mouth of the Songo. (Here) the scene changed as if by magic – no sound of wind and waves…but a death-like stillness.”

Entry from Sebago Pond into the Songo River was notorious for the change of atmosphere and scenery. The poet, Henry W. Longfellow, describing the river’s tricky twists and turns and its umbilical hitch to Sebago and Long Ponds, penned these words following his journey on a canal boat:

Nowhere such a devious stream,
Save in fancy or in dream,
Winding slow through bush and brake
Links together lake and lake.

Two of the most peculiar stories from C. & O. Canal days involve a “headless” horse and a Wolfman (not the New York disc jockey type):

Before night travel on the canal was banned around 1835, passengers and crews were aware of nocturnal animals following the boats on the waterway. Passengers and crew reported seeing eyes reflected from the bush, following the progress of the boats. Big cats, known variously as cougars, mountain lions or catamounts, in search of a meal, were usually stalking the horse as it slowly pulled the floating cargo along the 20-mile channel.

The Bridgton newspaper writer recorded a story he heard from a crewman during his journey on the canal. His log-book entry read:

“Mr. Plummer (the crewman) who had had long experience as a voyager, related many thrilling stories of the adventures of the Canal when boating was in its infancy, how he and others had been followed by catamounts and being met by other wild beasts; how boat crews had been frightened and fled in the cabins. One night while following the horse on the towpaths, seeing a horse without a head coming towards (them) bearing some fearful monster on its back.”

And then there’s the story, both fascinating and tragic, of the Wolfman of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal.

Irish immigrants were largely responsible for construction of the canal in the late 1820s. After completion, many were left homeless and destitute. Some moved on, a few even became canalers – one, the individual who would become known as the Wolfman, suffered horrible facial burns in a fire. Taunted mercilessly by children, he grew long hair and an unruly mustache and beard to hide his deformity. To ease pain and depression, the poor soul took to drink and stealing brandy and foodstuffs from moored canal boats at night. Some boat crews were aware of his thievery but chose to ignore it out of sympathy. The boat owners felt no such compassion and hired detectives to rout out the scoundrel. According to the legend, Wolfman broke his ankle in the midst of a robbery one night and escaped to his cave in Stroudwater, detectives in pursuit. A posse smoked him out and killed him. The Wolfman now resides in an unmarked grave somewhere at Stroudwater Cemetery.

Next time, the final installment of our series will examine the demise of the canal, and one man’s modern- day tribute to this intriguing era in regional history. <

Friday, September 17, 2021

An eventful baseball trip to Bridgton by canal boat

A canal boat converted to seam, like this vessel,
was grounded while taking a baseball team and
its supporters home from a game in Bridgton 
back to Raymond in 1904. The group was
rescued the next morning. COURTESY PHOTO 
By Ernest H. Knight

Shipwrecks anywhere in the world are now instant news everywhere, thanks to such modern aids as satellite communications and rapid air travel by various news media to the scene, but it was not many years past that even local events happened beyond the knowledge of those nearby.

The people of Raymond were once faced with the imagined possibility of a nautical emergency due to slow communication that turned out to be only a minor inconvenience though it did cause much concern to those involved on the scene and back at home. 

On Aug. 6, 1904, an excursion was arranged for a group of people from Raymond made up of the Raymond Red Stripe Baseball Team and supporters from both local families and summer vacationers from the many hotels and boarding houses in the area. A canal boat once used on the old Cumberland & Oxford Canal, still being used on Sebago and Long Ponds, and owned by the Crockett Family that had a sawmill, store and other enterprises on the Muddy River on the north shore on Sebago not far from the Songo River, was chartered to convey them to Bridgton for a baseball game.

In those days, baseball was a very popular activity with any respectable town having its own team to uphold its honor and public spirit, and enthusiasm ran high throughout the summer season. But with the roads of the day very poor and vehicles limited to horse and wagon, the main means of transportation was by boat on Sebago and its connecting waters, for which there were many boats left over from the canal days plus the newer steamboats for both passenger and freight transport, providing more comfort, speed and scenery to travel.

The Crockett canal boat, as were many others still in use, had been converted to steam power in addition to the two original sails to permit operation on somewhat of a schedule independent of the weather. As the weather that weekend was threatening, the group on board totaled only about 75, all carried on deck except for a few who might get into the tiny cabin along with the steam engine and its engineer.

The events of the day were a great success as the traveling team from Raymond defeated Bridgton by a wide margin and all was joyful as they started home after the game. Darkness came on early and travel through the winding and treacherous Songo River was slow so that when they emerged on Sebago, visibility was very poor.

From the mouth of the river to deep water there was a half-mile long channel that still had to be followed even though the level of Sebago had been raised. In the darkness, the craft grounded on the channel bank and remained stuck in spite of efforts of the captain and engineer to refloat, which suited the captain as the weather conditions and lack of navigational aids made running on the rocks while rounding Raymond Cape a real possibility.

Rowboats, presumably carried or towed by the canal boat but perhaps also provided by cottagers on the nearby shore, ferried the passengers to land. The women were taken into the cottages for shelter while the men made themselves as comfortable as possible on the beach with whatever means were at hand and cheered somewhat by a bonfire of driftwood. Totally out of contact with anyone except for the cottagers, Raymond seemed a long way off.

But four of the more resourceful undertook to walk to the first farm they could find where a horse and carriage were obtained and they drove on to Raymond, Paul Revere style.

Word spread quickly along the way and at Raymond Village to allay the fears of the families and the hotels waiting for the overdue travelers.

Now knowing where to go, a small steamer was dispatched to rescue the stranded group, which arrived back at the wharf about 6 a.m. Sunday morning. Those who were weary had part of Sunday to recover from that ordeal, and for some of those there was no doubt a need for explanation. <

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646.   

Friday, September 10, 2021

A matter of historical record: Traditional and true stories, fascinating facts and the subculture created by the 50-mile route of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal

A C.&O. boat, converted to steam power, in the 1890s is shown
here at the rail depot at Sebago Lake Station. Captain Benjamin 
Knight (tall, bearded fellow at center of standing gentlemen) was
the grandfather of C. & O. Canal historian Ernest Knight.
Part six of a series

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.

In the next two parts of the series, we attempt to capture the life and times, and the subculture created by the 50-mile transportation corridor that stretched from the town of Harrison near Oxford County, to the seaport of Portland in Cumberland County. What follows, in no particular order, are some of those facts and stories.

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. <

Friday, September 3, 2021

Remembering a Raymond legend, Edgar Welch

Once each year, Edgar Welch of Raymond would
run from Raymond to the top of Mount
Washington in New Hampshire while wearing a
suit, boots and a tall beaver hat. Here he is shown
following one of those runs.

By Ernest H. Knight

Raymond and Casco have had many distinguished sons, but perhaps none captured the imagination or stirred the spirit of the people as did our legendary Edgar Welch.

He was born close to the Raymond/Casco line on the County Road to Otisfield (Route 85) in Raymond, though his labors and exploits covered both towns.

Edgar’s grandfather, James, born 1765, came from Cape Elizabeth as an early pioneer settler of Raymond where his son was born in 1819 and Edgar on Sept. 21, 1849. As was the norm in those days, Edgar was adopted into the life of a farmer and worked all of his later years for a neighbor, David McLellan, whose barn and part of his house are still in use, the main house having burned about 1954.

Edgar was a bright, pleasant person though inclined toward strange ideas on work and physical activity, which were extreme to say the least. Besides hard work, running was his pastime for which the urge seized him after a week or so of labor. Dropping whatever he was doing at the time, winter or summer, he would be off running to Portland, Norway or wherever fancy directed, and on his return, he’d pick up where he left off.  On frequent occasions his route was through the White Mountains and once a year he would jaunt to the top of Mount Washington, an event to which proprietors and guests looked forward to with anticipation.

For this event he wore a suit, boots and a tall beaver hat where on his ordinary runs his garb was his overalls with woolen socks in the winter and barefoot in the summer.

On one occasion he ran to Boston, circled through Tremont Street and Boston Common and then head for home. Once an owner of a nice span of driving horses challenged Edgar to a race to Portland. Starting from Raymond Village, the team soon left him far behind but when the team reached its destination on Congress Street, Edgar was there waiting for them. 

Edgar had friends everywhere and my mother fondly recalled that in the 1880s and 1890s when my grandfather farmed what is now called Crockett House by the marina on Jordan River there would be a cry from somewhere “Here comes Edgar” and all those able would go to the edge of the road to greet and cheer Edgar on his way.

Edgard had other unique ideas of labor and benefits to mankind. An astute observation that the McLellan farm, being on the easterly slope of Rattlesnake Mountain, had the sun set much earlier than farms to the north or south, set him on a mission.

To correct this fact of nature, he worked for many years off and on as time permitted, day or night, rolling boulders from the top of the mountain to reduce this bothersome interference. In the stillness of the night, people would awaken to the sound of crashing on the mountain, and remark that Edgar was at it again, and go back to sleep.

While piling logs on the ice at Crescent Lake (then Great Rattlesnake Pond) to be floated to Sebago when the ice melted, Edgar would get hot feet, take off his boots and run on the ice or snow until he could go back to work in comfort.

He was a great conversationalist and interested in the politics of the day. As a composer of rhymes and ballads, with a good voice always in true pitch, he would sing on picnic occasions accompanied by Carrie McLellan on her portable melodeon. His physical make-up baffled doctors, though he never had need of their services as he never even had so much as a cold. With all his work and running, Edgar never perspired, which the doctors said should have killed him.

He did perhaps have one more attribute, clairvoyance or a sixth sense. When he was young, a man named Eastman Bean in Otisfield fell from a haymow holding a pitchfork, was impaled on the tines and died. This was on Edgar’s mind all of his life and at odd times he was overheard muttering some rhyme of reference to Eastman Bean.

On Dec. 23, 1903, Edgar was working in the McLellan barn (still standing on the easterly side of Route 85 not far from the Raymond-Casco line) when he slid from the mow while pitching hay down for the cattle. He was impaled on his pitchfork and died as did Eastman Bean. His funeral was conducted from the Village School at Webb’s Mills (now Crescent Lake Village) and was attended by so many that the overflow stood outside near the windows, left open so they could hear the orations honoring their friend. <

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646.