February 17, 2013

The canal to nowhere

No economic stimulus to 18th-century Maine, the Peterson Canal is still part of history.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BATH -Billed as the oldest canal in Maine, the Peterson Canal shows each winter how much Mainers love history -- as well as how some of history's most-celebrated projects end up ill-planned efforts.

click image to enlarge

Historian Brenda Cummings leads a hike on the Peterson Canal’s frozen 2.5-mile route to connect the New Meadows River with Merrymeeting Bay, a project that made sense on paper back in the 18th century, but not so much on shallow tidal water.

Photos by Deirdre Fleming/Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Low water levels precluded the moving of goods on the Peterson Canal, but when frozen at least it can be traveled by cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

Built in 1792, the Peterson Canal was dug to connect the New Meadows River with Merrymeeting Bay to make shipment of goods out to sea easier than going down the fierce Kennebec River.

A good idea in theory, the canal did not work as it should because the New Meadows River is tidal water. And the early engineers who designed the canal didn't consider the level of the tidal water. As a result, the river water was never high enough to move the goods along.

So the much-heralded canal was dug but sat ineffective. Today, local historian Ed Benedikt with the New Meadows Lake Association calls it little more than a scar on the land.

But the locals love it, and each winter Mainers who love learning about their state's history line up to hike along the canal's roughly 2.5 miles. This year, the day after a blizzard, more than 20 came to experience the walk through time.

"It's one of the earlier canals in the United States. The Massachusetts legislature authorized it. Maine wasn't even a state. The canal predates Maine," said local historian Brenda Cummings, who led the hike there on Feb. 10.

The early settlers got permission from the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1786, according to the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust, one of the three local land trusts that sponsored the canal walk.

Hiking the canal only is possible in winter when the water is frozen, and after a storm like the blizzard, only possible with snowshoes or skis.

The canal walks have been held since 2005. And they have drawn as many as 50 who want to explore the path of the canal experiment.

Last weekend 20 enjoyed the experience on a warm winter day.

Benedikt and Cummings organized the hike this winter and had to redirect traffic when the blizzard left nowhere to park. The canal took place anyway. These local historians were determined to showcase their natural history lesson.

"It's absolutely visible because it was dug along a low route. But they dug it by hand. There were no machines to do that back then. Then they tried to take a shorter route to Merrymeeting Bay and took a dogleg turn. That didn't work very well," Cummings said. "And there wasn't enough time between the tides, when the tides were going in the right direction, to move the logs. What a bummer that must have been."

But to the natural historians around Bath, the canal is a gift left by history, a walkway that tells us a living story about those who went before.

"But we have it now," Benedikt said as he collected old Nordic ski poles to hand out to snowshoers.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:


Twitter: Flemingpph


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