July 8, 2013

Colburn House is a true home of history

The Maine Historic Site will present a program about its remarkable lore on Saturday in Pittston.

By JOHN HALE / Kennebec Journal Correspondent

(Continued from page 1)

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Tom Desjardin, a Parks and Public Lands historian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, inspects an 18th-century birchbark canoe built by Indians on display at the Maj. Reuben Colburn House State Historic Site in Pittston. The Kennebec Historical Society will hold a program Saturday that features a collection of boats.

Andy Malloy/Kennebec Journal

click image to enlarge

The Colburn House in Pittston.


The Colburn House will be open to the public for self-guided tours from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in July and August.

Parking is available on Arnold Road, which runs in front of the homestead.

To get there, cross the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Bridge from Gardiner to Randolph, turn right on Route 27, drive 2.5 miles to Pittston, take a right where the road splits.

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.

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