PITTSTON — The Maj. Reuben Colburn House, painted red and surrounded by bright summer flowers, has been a center of American history, including Col. Benedict Arnold’s march to Quebec in 1775, and the focus of a thriving Maine family for 248 years.
Now a Maine Historic Site, owned and managed by the state, the Colburn House is nearing completion of an ambitious and successful three-year restoration project that cost $200,000. At present, the barn and carriage house contain more historic objects and are more nearly finished for public viewing than the house itself.
“The Life of Reuben Colburn” will be the topic of a free lecture at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Colburn House barn, sponsored by the Kennebec Historical Society. The presenter will be Tom Desjardin, historian for the Bureau of Parks and Lands in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
In 1763, Jeremiah Colburn left Dracut, Mass., with his family to settle along the Kennebec River on some property he had bought in what was then called Gardinerstown. He migrated there with his wife and eight children.
One of Jeremiah’s sons, Jeremiah Jr., continued north and founded what became the Old Town-Orono area.
Another son, named Reuben Colburn, who was then 23, bought about 800 acres of his father’s land, including substantial shoreline along the river. Reuben built the Colburn homestead in 1765 and began harvesting and selling lumber.
Reuben was a shrewd, well-liked businessman who specialized in building boats, schooners, brigs and even full-rigged ships that sailed around the world. He built his smaller watercraft in a barn that was larger than the one standing today. The present-day barn was built in 1849 by Reuben’s grandson, Gustavus Adolphus Colburn.
Over the years, Reuben’s holdings expanded to include a saw mill, a grist mill and another saw mill on the falls in Skowhegan.
Reuben was a patriot who played a big part in the Revolutionary War.
The shipbuilder was on good terms with the American Indians of the Kennebec Valley, especially after the British wiped out an Indian village at Norridgewock, upstream from Skowhegan.
In 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Reuben brought a contingent of Abenakis from the St. Francis region of northern Maine and Quebec to Cambridge, Mass. They met with Gen. George Washington, who became commander of the Continental Army on July 1. The Indian leaders vowed that several tribes were willing to go to war on the side of the American colonists. Washington was pleased, but said the Continental Congress already had decided it would not use Indian warriors in battle against the British. A few Indians could be used as scouts, however.
Washington had been meeting with Arnold to discuss the feasibility of launching an expedition up the Kennebec River valley, across several poorly charted portages and down the Chaudi? River to attack Quebec, “the Fortress City.”
The Americans understood that the city was only lightly guarded by the British, who had not made much progress in pacifying the colony’s smaller villages, and the Americans thought that if the they could capture the city, they could split the British forces in North America.
When Washington gave Arnold the go-ahead, Reuben Colburn was given instructions from Arnold to build 200 bateaux at his shipyard in Gardinerstown, capable of moving an army north into the wilderness.
Arnold asked for wooden boats “capable of carrying six or seven men each, with their provisions and baggage (say 100 pounds to each man), the boats to be furnished with four oars, two paddles and two setting poles each.”
Maine bateaux at that time stood 3 feet tall at the bow and stretched about 22 feet from bow to stern.
Colburn was authorized to employ 20 local workmen for the project, but he was given only two weeks to complete the job.
Because in was late summer, the heavy boats had to be made from green wood, which was heavier than dry wood and harder to carry around portage places. It was also harder to make it watertight, especially since Reuben had a shortage of nails.
“They knew they weren’t going to work very well,” said Desjardin, who has written a book on the Arnold expedition, called “Through a Howling Wilderness.”
When Arnold arrived with 1,100 men Sept. 21 at the Colburn House, he was disappointed in the size of the bateaux. He ordered Colburn to build another 20 boats in just two days, another giant task that Reuben tackled without complaint.
Colburn also volunteered to follow the expedition with 40 carpenters who would make repairs to the bateaux as needed.
Arnold and Aaron Burr, an officer in his expedition who later was elected vice president, stayed three nights at Colburn House as the last bateaux were being put together.
The flat-bottomed boats served all right on the smooth-running sections of the Kennebec, but they proved disastrous on the difficult portages, such as the cliffs at Skowhegan, the 12-mile-long Great Carrying Place and The Height of Land.
“We only know for sure that out of 220 boats at the start, only seven made it into Canada,” Desjardin said. “At some point Arnold said, ‘Leave the boats and walk.’ “
Many of the stragglers in Arnold’s army had lagged farther and farther behind and then just turned around and deserted. Out of 1,100 soldiers at the start, only 600 made it all the way to Quebec.
America’s first military expedition turned out to be a disaster, as the better-organized British beat back the exhausted, starving Americans in a midwinter battle.
Today, the barn is chock full of bateaux, including one that is equipped with paddles, poles and muskets, and a Penobscot Indian birch-bark canoe.