March 12, 2010

Canal played big role in region's history

— Before trucks and trains shipped goods in these parts, there was the Cumberland and Oxford Canal, a 50-mile waterway linking Portland with the wilderness of Oxford County. Oxen and mules on towpaths pulled the 60-foot-long canal boats. Then, when the boats reached the open stretch of Sebago and Long Lakes, they raised their masts and unfurled sails across the broad expanse.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Finished goods such as cloth, sugar and rum came to the settlements upstream, while raw materials from the forest were brought back down to the port of Portland. Today, a single lock on the Songo River in Naples is the only functioning element left in this once-great feat of engineering.

On Saturday, the Windham Historical Society will present a free program about the canal, which operated for some 40 years during the mid-19th century.

''In 1820, the city of Portland required 20,000 cords of firewood for heating,'' said Ray Philpot, Windham Historical Society member and presenter of Saturday's discussion. ''The forests of Greater Portland were becoming depleted.''

According to Philpot, the idea for the canal had been proposed in the late 1700s.

But when Maine became a state in 1820, a special yearlong lottery raised $50,000 to start the project. And many Mainers will recall Canal Bank, an institution that was chartered by the state to finance the new shipping operation.

Like the interstate highway system under Eisenhower in the 1950s, canal building was all the rage in the early 19th century. Perhaps the best known is the Erie Canal, which was completed in 1825 and linked Lake Erie with the Hudson River. Some called it ''the eighth wonder of the world.''

According to Philpot, ''One of the engineers from the Erie Canal was hired for our canal here. The digging, which took three years, started in the late 1820s.

''Many who had worked on the Erie Canal were of Irish descent, and some of those folks came here to dig. They lived in shanty towns along the river.''

From Sebago Basin south, the canal followed the Presumpscot River on the western side but eventually diverted toward the Fore River in Portland. Because the Presumpscot was unpredictable and rocky, it proved unsuitable for the long canal boats in some areas.

Thus, the 30-foot-wide canal relied more on the river for its water supply. To handle the 260-foot gain in elevation from Portland to Sebago Lake, a series of locks was built to raise the boats over the terrain.

Philpot, who has plied the waters in his kayak, says much of the old canal is visible if you know what to look for. This will be part of the focus of Saturday's presentation.

''Many folks will see remnants and have no idea what it is,'' said Philpot. ''It's a re-education of what we had in the past.''

Philpot says much of the Presumpscot River became altered around 1910 when hydroelectric dams were built and flooded some canal areas. North Gorham Pond was born of such a project. Today, there is a submerged lock named Harding Lock in the old canal that was some 72 feet long. However, because it has been preserved underwater for a century, its remnants can still be found beneath the surface.

Because of ice, the canal could operate only seasonally, and this fact ultimately led to its demise. The railroads could run all year long. Though shipping ceased around 1870, Philpot says the canal was still used to sluice logs downriver for some years.

Saturday's presentation is a primer for an excursion that will take place May 2, when the Windham Historical Society partners with Windham Adult Education. Along with other historic points of interest in Windham, a bus tour will visit sections of the old canal where folks can see and learn about this historic route for themselves.

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at:

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