All is calm on Long Lake, except for a little choppy wind, as Gerald Smith, 73 of Harrison, climbs onboard his labor of love – a 32-foot wooden canal boat he built in honor of last weekend’s Harrison Bicentennial. After many late nights and thousands of hours of work, the boat is finally ready on this quiet August afternoon for its maiden voyage.

Smith, with help from his grandson Casey Pearson and brother-in-law Norton Little, push off from shore with long poles, reminiscent of those used to pole the old canal boats up the Songo River. As they set sail and coast slowly across the water, curious boaters flock to their side to take a look at the handcrafted canal boat, the likes of which have not been seen on Long Lake since the 19th century.

Smith’s boat is half the size of the 65-foot boats that once shipped goods from Casco Bay, up the Cumberland and Oxford Canal and on through the lakes. Though short lived, this trade route turned lakeside towns like Naples, Bridgton and Harrison into bustling inland seaports during the 1800s.

“In my opinion, the Cumberland and Oxford Canal was the most important thing to happen in Harrison in the early years,” said Smith who has lectured for many years on the subject at the Harrison Historical Society. “It’s a very important part of history that has been lost.”

Long fascinated with the old canal system, Smith decided to build the boat on a rainy day in March, drawing from old photographs and rough descriptions from historical records. Smith, a retired civil engineer who once traveled the world building pulp and paper mills, designed the canal boat after a three-foot model he made for his lectures at the historical society.

“I’m an engineer and we engineers think we can do anything,” Smith said.

Like the canal boats of yore, Smith built the boat with high sides and a slender width. Back in the 1800s, Smith said, the canal boats had to be deep enough to hold up to 30 tons of cargo, but thin enough to squeeze through the winding Songo River and the canal. Whereas the canal boats used poles to navigate the winding Songo, horses once pulled the boats up the 18-mile Cumberland and Oxford Canal that ran parallel to the Presumpscot River from Casco Bay to Sebago Lake. A series of 27 locks along that canal raised the boats from sea level up 260 feet to the lake. It was there on the lake that the canal boats then put up their sails to coast across Sebago Lake to the mouth of the Songo River and, from the Songo, they sailed up Long Lake.

“I don’t know anywhere else that canal boats were built as a combination sailboat,” Smith said.

The canal trade lasted from 1830 to 1870, Smith said. Owned and operated by the Cumberland and Oxford Canal Co., consumer goods, like rum, were hauled up to Naples, Harrison and Bridgton while farm goods and wood products, like ship masts and wooden barrels, were shipped back down to Portland. During the Civil War, the canal boats brought gunpowder from the old Gambo Powder Mill, alongside the Presumpscot River in Gorham, to ships in Portland Harbor.

The Cumberland and Oxford Canal Co. saw its decline as the railroads became more popular, especially the railroad that connected Portland to Fryeburg, said Smith.

“The railroads immediately hurt the canal business,” Smith said. “It was inevitably when they started to build the railroad that the end was in sight.”

And so fell the Cumberland and Oxford Canal Co. The canals were closed and the corporation sold its canal boats to private owners, some of whom outfitted them with steam engines. But after over 200 years, not one exists today, except for Smith’s recent resurrection.

For the most part, the new canal boat will be kept on display at a museum at the Harrison Historical Society, said Smith. He does plan to take it out on the lake once in a while, and possibly on a trip down the Songo Locks, Smith hints, once he masters how to sail it.

A 35-foot canal boat, built by Gerald Smith of Harrison, sails across Long Lake. Smith modeled the boat after those used to haul goods from Portland to lakeside towns during the 1800s.


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