What is 30 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 38 miles long?

In 1832, a few years after Maine became a state and three decades before the Civil War, the Cumberland and Oxford Canal was opened, providing transportation from Portland to Harrison. The “big ditch” was about 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep, big enough for specially built canal boats to traverse.

The idea of a canal, that would provide a way to get products into the middle of Maine and also receive lumber and other produce from the interior to the markets of Portland, was a hard sell but eventually it was successful.

The big ditch was completely dug by hand – if you can imagine this project, and mostly dug by Irish immigrants, many of whom lived right beside their work on the banks along the canal, which followed the Presumpscot River.

The canal required 27 locks to reach Sebago Lake at an elevation of 267 feet above sea level. One additional lock was constructed in the Songo River to provide 5 feet of additional elevation to reach Long Lake from Sebago Lake.

Total navigable distance was approximately 38 miles from Portland to Harrison at the north end of Long Lake. A state lottery was authorized to help raise $50,000 for the project, and the Canal Bank of Portland was chartered in 1825. The canal was completed in 1830 at a cost of $206,000.


The flat-bottomed canal boats had blunt bows, square sterns, and a draft of 3 feet. A tow path adjacent to the excavated portions of the canal enabled horses to tow the canal boats while the boatmen steered with poles. Canal boats using the lakes had a removable keel and two short hinged masts capable of supporting sails or being folded down for passage through the excavated canal. Cargos included lumber, masts, barrel hoops and staves, box-making materials, and firewood from the interior to Portland. Apples were an important agricultural product of the area; and Oriental Powder Co. mills adjacent to the canal in Windham manufactured nearly 25 percent of the Union gunpowder supply for the American Civil War.

Canal boat passengers were charged one-half cent per mile. A wide variety of manufactured goods moved inland through the canal from Portland. The south end of Long Lake is locally known as Brandy Pond because a barrel of brandy was lost from a canal boat during passage through that part of the waterway.

The arrival of the railroad in the 1870s spelled the end of the canal as a method of transportation and shipping goods.

The Sebago Lake, Songo River and Bay of Naples Steamboat Co. continued to offer summer passenger service to tourists until the last steamboat Goodrich burned at its Naples dock in 1932. Songo Lock remains in service for pleasure boats.

On Monday, July 27, a Windham Historical Society program about the canal, along with many photographs, will be presented to the public at 7 p.m. at the Windham Veterans Center. On Monday, Aug. 24, “Steamboats on Sebago” will be the topic of the historical society’s program, also at the veterans center. For more information, email: [email protected]

Canal boats like this one used to ply the Cumberland and Oxford Canal through the Lakes Region.Photo courtesy of the Windham Historical Society

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