Promised immortality, investors only lost their shirts on this canal scheme

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

In the mid-19th century, you could take a boat ride from Portland’s Stroudwater to the end of Long lake in Harrison. That’s about 40 miles inland from here. If you did, you would have traveled on the long-gone Cumberland and Oxford Canal. It closed a century-and-a-half ago.

When it got built, before the Civil War, organizers thought they were making something for the ages. But they were wrong. It never turned a profit and went belly up 20 years after it opened.

It was never wholly forgotten, though, and 43 years ago this week, on November 1, 1974, the canal got placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The idea for a canal connecting Portland’s waterfront to the interior was first floated in 1791. At the time, getting raw materials out of western Maine, and finished goods back out there, was tough. Roads were bad and wagons were small. A canal system would connect Portland with Sebago Lake, Brandy Pond and then Long Lake. Canal boats could then haul goods by the ton.

It sounded like a good solution but the vague notion never turned into a viable plan.

Folks got serious about it again when Maine became a state in 1820. In 1823, a group of Portland investors, inspired by the successful Erie Canal, hired an engineer to draw up plans. Then they started selling shares in their transportation venture. They definitely thought they were making history. One of their brochures read:

“Works of this stupendous character are not merely designed for the convenience and comfort of the passing age, but to endure beyond the ravages of time and revolution, and are of infinite value to posterity. If the present generation of men can be made sensible of their true interests, and awakened to a just sense of social duties, they will not only secure a plentiful harvest for their exertions and toils, but will establish a claim of gratitude on the coming age, that shall insure them an imperishable fame.”

The investors convinced the Maine Legislature to give them eminent domain powers and let them run a lottery funding scheme.

The engineer had told them the canal would cost $130,000. They hoped to raise $50,000 with the lottery and the rest in shares.

After selling lottery tickets for two years they held the drawing. The $5,000 prize went to Cyrus Shaw, a decon at a Baptist church in Oxford. He used some of his prize to fund a new church building.

After expenses, though, the lottery only raised about $11,000, which was well short of its goal.

So, in 1825, investors chartered the Canal Bank to raise funds. It worked. Digging started that year with a loan from the bank. Five years later, in 1830, they completed work on the canal. The final cost was way over budget at $206,000.

On a side note, Canal Bank operated into the 1980s before merging with Key Bank. Its building is still on Middle Street. Stand in front of Urban Outfitters at 188 Middle and look up. You’ll see it says Canal Bank Building.

The Cumberland and Oxford Canal was, where excavated, dug by hand. It was After leaving Stroudwater in Portland, it ran next to, and sometimes in, the Presumpscot River. It took 27 locks to get to Sebago Lake at the Basin in Windham. The lake is 280 feet higher than the sea. One more lock, at the far end of the lake, on the Songo River, got boats up to Brandy Pond.

That lock is the only one still operating today. It’s part of Sebago Lake State Park and serves thousands of pleasure craft every summer.

The canal was 30 feet wide at the waterline and ten feet widea at the bottom. The average depth was just three-and-a-half feet. The dirt dugout to make the canal served as the towpath for horses hauling the boats.

The boats were blunt and wide. They had flat bottoms and square sterns. Each had retractable centerboards and two collapsable masts for sailing on the lakes. Some boats were as big as 30 tons and sported bright paint jobs. Within a year of opening, over 100 boats had registered to ply the canal.

None of them survive today but we still know some of their names: the Columbia, the Legislator, Water Witch, the Peacock, the Mary Ann and the Jack Downing.

The canal men had a reputations as characters. They tended to wear red shirts, chew tobacco and swear a lot. They were also known to “lose” barrels of whiskey and rum overboard. Supposedly, this is how Brandy Pond got its name.

The first boat to make the trip was a passenger boat called the George Washington. It was very fancy and even had a bar. Most boats were freighters, though, carrying lumber, shingles, barrel hoops and apples to Portland. On the return trip inland, they brought finished goods like furniture, stoves and canned food.

The ponderous, and slow-moving canal boats paid tolls at each of the 28 locks. Canal men would gab, gossip and share a snort with the lock tenders as the waters went up and down. They had to pay different rates for each kind of cargo. For example, apples cost three cents a mile. Lumber was seven cents a mile and passengers were half-a-cent per mile.

The tolls were reasonable but the canal was expensive to run. The locks and waterway were in constant need of repair. Each of the 27 locks took two men to operate. Everyone, including the bank, needed to get paid. At best, the C&O Canal only broke even.

A canal boat, complete with sails for getting across lakes, sits tied up in an undated photo. (Photo from interpretive panel at Stroudwater in Portland)

A canal boat, complete with sails for getting across lakes, sits tied up at a dock in an undated photo. (Photo from interpretive panel at Stroudwater in Portland)

It’s death knell came in the form aof a steam whistle. The faster, year-round, St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad opened in 1850 and business went south — fast. Soon, the canal defaulted on several morgages. It’s namesake bank took it over, then sold it at a loss to two local businessmen.

The new owners ran it on a shoestring, making no improvements and only the smallest repairs. It was sometimes closed for months at a time. By 1868, they were looking for a buyer. A new company piping water from Sebago to Portland thought about buying it but didn’t. The owners then thought briefly of running a narrow gague railroad on the towpath or putting mills on the locks. But, in the end, they just abandoned it in 1872.

It was supposed to be a project for the ages. Organizers promised investors immortality in exchange for their money. In reality, it never turned a profit and now most of it has vanished.

One small section in Windham still holds water. You can see it on the Middle Jam Road. The Portland end, at Stroudwater, is now part of the Portland Trails system. The footpath runs right on the old towpath where the horses used to tread. My dog and I love to walk there.

Sometimes, at sunset, especially in fall, if we listen hard enough, I swear we can hear the canal men singing and clop of the horses’ shoes. I guess that’s close immortality.

Note: I got most of the details for this story from a 1924 edition of Sprague’s journal of Maine history.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.