It Happened in Windham: The Big Ditch

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As early as the late 18 th century, residents of Portland and towns in the Lakes Region began to realize that in order for commerce to prosper between these areas, a more expedient way of transporting goods was becoming a necessity. At the time, there was only one road used to carry goods and it was a long, winding, and rough route to take. Teamsters would slowly move oxen and carts and teams of horses down the rugged road heading to the docks in Portland to ship their wagonloads of freight out to sea.

A canal seemed like a perfect solution and was proposed as far back as 1791, but costs to build one at that time were prohibitive. It wasn’t until after the War of 1812, when the economy was thriving, that the canal became a feasible option. In 1821, the Maine Legislature granted a charter to the Cumberland-Oxford Canal Company giving them authority to build a waterway that would connect Thomas Pond in Waterford in Oxford County with Harrison, Long Pond, Sebago Pond and the Fore River in Portland.

A survey committee was formed in 1823. They hired an Erie Canal engineer who came highly recommended to examine the proposed route the Cumberland and Oxford Canal would take. He determined the route was feasible and estimated a cost of $130,000 to build the canal. The survey committee then began a stock-seeking campaign to try to raise the necessary capital.

They presented a compelling argument to the Legislature and were granted a $50,000 donation to be used in a state lottery where all proceeds would go to the canal. Response to the lottery was strong at first, but over time, enthusiasm waned. Three years later, the committee again approached the Legislature asking them to grant the Cumberland-Oxford Canal Company the authority to establish a bank where a quarter of the capital investment of $300,000 would be used to invest in canal stock. The Legislature again agreed and the Canal Bank was established purchasing $75,000 worth of stock in the canal corporation.

Surveying of the canal began in 1825 and land titles were secured and the route was cleared of brush and trees in 1828. Irish workers were brought in to do the excavation work. They and their families lived in rude shanties along the canalroute while work was underway.

In 1829, as the canal approached completion, the company began running out of funds and again had to approach the Legislature. This time, they asked permission to borrow money from the Canal Bank. Permission was granted and they received $30,000 in July of 1829, another $30,000 in August and $15,000 in October. This gave them the money they would need to finish the canal by the next year.

The Cumberland and Oxford Canal, affectionately called the Big Ditch by locals, officially opened on June 1, 1830. It consisted of 28 locks to raise and lower watercraft between stretches of water of different levels. The ends of the upper and lower locks of the canal were made of granite blocks. The remainder were built of wood with stone walls. They were built to lift the canal from tidewater level to the level of Sebago and Long lakes, 280 feet above sea level.

Canal boats were built by local entrepreneurs. When the waterway opened,  100 boats were ready for operation. They were all roughly the same size, most being 10 feet by 60-65 feet and were different from other canal craft. They were not merely horse-drawn barges normally seen in canals of the time because when they entered Sebago Lake or Portland Harbor, they had to function like actual boats and were equipped with twin masts and sails.

The Sebago Schooners as they were called were generally painted in bright, vibrant colors and their crews were often just as colorful. The most elaborate of the canal boats was the George Washington, a passenger boat that was finely furnished and equipped with a bar decorated with golden gilt work and fanciful designs. It was aboard this boat that local officials enjoyed their first ride down the new canal.

On June 3, 1830, the first freight boats hit the water with lumber as their cargo. Over the next 20 years, there was heavy freight traffic on the canal with boats with names like the Columbus and the Berrien carrying lumber, shook and farm products to market in Portland. Furniture, manufactured goods and liquor were brought to the interior towns.

By 1858, however, canal traffic began to slow due to the opening of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad that went from Portland to Gorham and Buxton. The railroad could also carry heavy freight, it was faster than the canal and it remained open in winter when the canal was closed. As other railroad lines came to the area, the canal became less essential and closed in 1870 marking the end of a valiant enterprise. It had served a useful purpose for decades and provided an air of romance and adventure along its scenic path.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be reached at haleypal@aol.com.

The steamer Sokokis was a typical Sebago Schooner.

A map of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal route from Sebago Lake to the
Fore River from the book “Sebago Lake Land” by Herbert Jones.

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