Friday, May 27, 2022

A matter of historical record: Nature’s Staircase – curious geologic formation in Windham is one of only two in the state

Dennis stands atop the basalt staircase,
located on his property in East Windham.
Myths and legends have surfaced over
the past two centuries regarding the
origin of this unusual anomaly ranging
from man-made stairs created by early
settlers to the site of a Native American
religious ritual. In modern times, 
geologists have determined it is
a natural geologic formation, one
of only two found in the state of Maine.
By Walter Lunt

History has many influencers. Among them are imagination, hearsay and truth. Imagination is historical fiction; hearsay is historical fiction that contains a kernel of truth and has a storyline that changes from time to time, much like the so-called “whisper circle” where a message is changed and embellished once it travels from one ear to another. This source is often referred to as “tradition.”

Truth, on the other hand, is the accurate portrayal of a person or event, and is the aspiration of historical storytelling. Entertainment value, however, is sometimes lacking.

The discovery several hundred years ago of a set of steps seemingly chiseled into sheer ledge prompted someone’s imagination in explaining how it could possibly have been formed. Eventually, more embellishments were added until it became accepted truth. It wasn’t until the 1990s when the real truth was discovered. Chock one up for the local historical society.

The rock staircase, embedded into a 15-foot-high hill of solid ledge, contains over a dozen steps with risers ranging from a few inches to over a foot. It is located in a wooded area off Albion Road in East Windham on private property. Understandably, the owners wish to maintain privacy and are identified only as Dennis.

Common among the early stories about the “the steps” were those associated with Native Americans. Supposedly, the stairs were connected with a death ritual involving a Native princess whose last rites were proclaimed at the top of the ledge just beyond the steps where she was buried.

Another scenario maintains the steps led to a lookout tower at the top of the ledge, although it’s unclear who was looking out or for what.

Windham resident Kenneth Cole, Jr., writing in the former 302 Times newspaper in 1990, recounted that “…romantic believers envisioned a ceremonial ground facing the setting sun where Red Men had worked for months, carefully fitting stone steps in a twenty-inch crack in the outcropping ledge. They can “see” an Indian Sachem with headpiece and flowing skin robes climbing those steps to pray to the Gods of the East for good weather so the summer crop of corn would reach the sky.”

Records at the Windham Historical Society indicate one former owner of the property sincerely believed in the Native American connection and conducted musical and mystical ceremonies on the steps.

Such fables and stories, enhanced by embellishments generation after generation persisted well into the 20th century until the late Kay Soldier, historian at the Windham Historical Society, contacted geologists at the state and college levels and requested a scientific investigation of the site. The answer she received indicated the rock formation was entirely natural, with little or no evidence that human hands were ever involved. Associate Professor of Geology Irwin Novak, Ph.D. of the University of Southern Maine wrote, “The ‘Indian Steps’ is a naturally occurring geologic formation call a basalt dike… similar to lava. (It) was injected into the surrounding schist deep within the earth about 200 million years ago. The schist, known as the Windham Formation, is even older…about 400 million years old…The work of water and ice acting on naturally occurring nearly horizontal weaknesses (called joints) in the basalt formed the step-like appearance…”

Novak went on to explain that another famous set of steps exist on Bailey Island near South Harpswell. Known as the Giants Staircase, the steps are greater than six feet wide, formed by the work of sea waves.

Novak concluded by saying “Paleo-Indians would have been attracted to the site just as we are…and may have camped there since the cliff provides a measure of protection.”

Interestingly, others have surmised the hand of man may have contributed to the steps following nature’s inception.

In 1988, the American Journal newspaper reported on a visit to the Windham site by the New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA) and noted, “Remarkably, tool marks (from early stone cutters) are absent from the steps, yet they are fitted with a great degree of precision.”

In 1990, Woody Thompson of Maine’s Department of Conservation wrote, “I would suspect that differential weathering scooped out the basalt to create the ‘stairway,’ and probably it was improved as a whim by early settlers…”

And so, in the words of the Ken Cole, Jr., mentioned earlier, “You take your choice as to what to believe.”

Few Windham residents have had the privilege of a close-up view of the rock phenomenon. However, in 2014 during their study of Windham history, several third-grade classes from Windham Primary School took a field trip to the site as guests of the property owners who were the parents of three of the children. Their names were Max, Alex, and Blake who, prior to the trip, bushwhacked a trail through the heavily wooded area leading to the steps, making a path better suited to accommodate the nearly 200 young history scholars. Teachers noted a high degree of fascination among the kids, who loved the somewhat challenging ascent to the top of the ledge. And while they understood it was formed from nature, they enjoyed the myths and legends better.

Dennis, the current owner of the step property, says he and his wife did not know about the peculiar set of rock-bound steps until after they moved into their house. “We moved here not knowing something so special was in our back yard.” Their realtor later sent them information about it. As to its origin, Dennis thought for a moment and mused, “…it seems to be geologic and eroded over time (but) the way the rocks (fit) side-by-side I do wonder if humans helped create the final shape of it.”

So now, dear reader, what do you think: imagination, hearsay or truth. Most think there’s a little of all three in this 400-million-year-old history mystery. <

Friday, May 13, 2022

Before the memory fades: Harness racing on the Windham Hill Driving Park

This 130-year-old poster (or perhaps a
broadside) publicizes horse races, games,
competitions, and animal shows at a two-
day agricultural far being held on the
grounds of Windham Hill Driving Park.
By Walter Lunt

The Windham Hill neighborhood is much quieter today than in earlier times when race day attracted hundreds of spectators to the “driving park,” located near the intersection of Park and Pope Roads. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term driving park referred to a “racetrack used for harness racing.”

“My grandfather, Robert “Dag” Timmons, used to race his horses there,” said longtime resident Roger Timmons, “…a long time ago a lady showed me a race card from way back. My grandfather’s name and the name of his horse was on it. (I was surprised) to see how much they could win back then…it was pretty good money.”

Timmons remembers seeing the outline of the oval track on Windham Hill around 1950, long after it had closed, “You could see where it used to be; the ground was different.”

He said he wasn’t around when grandfather raced on Windham Hill, but driving parks continued to be popular into the 1950s in the nearby communities of Gorham, Cumberland and Cornish, where his grandfather continued to race “right up to the time he died” in 1958.

Timmons lived briefly with his grandparents on the big farm on Swett Road (often referred to at that time as the Dag Timmons Road) and in the 1940s observed his grandad training his race horses.

“He’d have them jogging in a big circle in the farmyard, and he’d harness them up and ride the sulky down Swett Road (toward Route 202), turn right onto Town Farm Road, another right onto Pope Road all the way down to Chute (Road) where he’d join up with Swett Road again. His little dog, Smokey, would run all the way with him under the sulky seat.”

The workouts were designed to strengthen the horses for racing. In the early days of harness racing the horse’s owner was both the trainer and driver.

Timmons said he loved helping his grandad with the standardbreds, and still remembers their names: Gracious Lee, Goldie Brewer, and Goldie’s offspring, Penny Lee.

Asked if he had seen evidence of a grandstand that might have stood on the Windham Hill site, Timmons said no, but other parks did have one, and its likely Windham had one too because “…they’d need the height” to overlook what seemed to be a half-mile oval track.

Today, Windham Hill Driving Park has disappeared, overtaken by nature and a few houses. The area is remarkedly flat with spectacular views of the region; and for some, it’s easy to picture what it must been like to see and hear the flying sulkies, the even beat of the trotters, and the whoops, hollers and roar of the crowds.

Evidence of the park’s very early years will soon be on display at the Windham Historical Society’s Village Green, a re-creation of an 1890s public square now nearing completion behind the Society’s brick museum at Windham Center.

A tattered and yellowed poster announcing an upcoming agricultural fair at the Windham Hill Driving Park in 1892 describes a two-day event that will feature horse races, oxen and draft horse trials of strength, trotting (featuring a $40 purse) and ladies’ competition for speed in harnessing horses.

Tax records dating from the turn of the century show the owner of Windham Hill Driving Park to be Charles M. Stuart, who paid a total of $20.32 on real estate and personal property that included his homestead and the park valued at $1,035.

In the 19th century, harness racing attracted spectators from all walks of life. In some communities the event was so popular that businesses closed for the day. It is not known if that was the case in Windham.

With the advent of the automobile in the early 1900s, many driving parks throughout New England were transformed into auto racetracks. Not so in Windham however, many longtimers remember the Windham Hill Driving Park turning into a lovers’ lane in the 1930s.

The next time you’re jogging or driving on the hill, listen carefully for echoes from the last two centuries; “Heeeeeere they come!” <

Friday, May 6, 2022

Songo Lock bears witness to history of commerce in Lakes Region

A postcard shows a steamboat carrying passengers through
Songo Lock during the 19th century. The lock remains to this
day but was originally part of the waterway system created
during the heyday of the Cumberland & Oxford Canal.
By Ernest H. Knight

A local territory that has been important through the years not only to Raymond and Casco but to all the towns around Sebago and Long Lakes is Songo Lock. A stone’s throw from the original Raymondtown and present-day Casco, before land to the north of Crooked River was taken to help form Naples, Songo Lock is the key to travel by boat between Sebago and Long Lakes.

Originally a natural waterfall contained in a series of ponds and streams including Long Pond, Chute River, Brandy Pond, Songo River, and Sebago Pond (lake was not a term that was used in the early days of settlement), it was necessary to provide a lock for passage of craft larger than canoes.

This was Lock #28 in the route of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal from Portland to Harrison, constructed between 1827 and 1830, with the other 27 locks being in the dug portion of the route between the “Lower Guard Lock” at tidewater near the present Portland Bridge up through Stroudwater, Westbrook, Gorham and Standish to the “Upper Guard Lock” into the Sebago Basin below White’s Bridge.

To complete the intended route to Thomas Pond (now Lake Keoka) in Waterford more locks would have been required to climb from Harrison along Bear River to Bear Pond and Thomas Pond.

The original lock at Songo Falls was of the conventional construction as were most of the others, laid up stone with plank facing to provide smooth passageway of 10-foot width to pass the standard canal boat of the day. Before the abandonment of the dug portion of the canal route to Portland in 1870, the Songo Lock had been enlarged to allow passage of the newer and more sophisticated side wheel steamboats that gave the first competition to the canal boats on the lakes.

These began with the era of the “Fawn” in 1847, or at about the same time with the “Monkeydena,” depending on the history source you prefer.

Later came the larger steamboats, both freight and passenger with further enlargement until the Songo Lock was converted to cement construction in 1913 to accommodate the largest of the steamboats, the “Goodridge,” which was built that year at Bath Iron Works and transported to Naples in pieces for assembly.

When the canal era created a booming commercial enterprise, the Songo Lock area almost became a canal junction with all the status that distinction would have provided.  The Androscoggin Canal was proposed, which was to follow the Crooked River from Songo Lock up to Songo Pond and then on down to the Androscoggin River in Bethel.   

This would have greatly expanded the inland country to be served by direct route for commerce to Portland. But the advent and development of the railroad had spelled out the death knell of the canal and all expansion of the canal system ceased.

Though the dug portion of the canal with its 27 locks was closed in 1870, canal boats remained in operation on Sebago and Long Ponds, with the one lock at Songo left to salvage their feelings of pride in their traditions.

The Songo River itself did not, however, qualify as a canal as there was no tow path as on the rocked route to Portland for horses to draw the canal boats to the open water where their sails could be used for propulsion. Instead, it was necessary to use poles to push the awkward craft up the snaky stream with seldom a chance for a fair wind for their sails, an experience that would seem more frustrating to us now.

At present time, Songo Lock is operated from May through September for the passage of pleasure boats as a Maine State Parks Service activity. For a small fee charged for the lift or drop, once six cents for a canal boat that filled a lock, but now a dollar per boat for as many as can be crowded in at once, a boater can be convinced of the fact that boats as well as other conveyances can climb hills.

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. <