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. <

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