One of the earlier methods of transportation in this country was our waterways, (viz. rivers and lakes) and as time progressed in the early days; canals were often built when there was no waterway. Here in Maine we had few canals that were actually built for the purpose of moving freight and people. The vast majority were simply for the direction of our water powers to better advantage of the mills that used them.
One of the best known canals would be the Cumberland and Oxford Canal, stretching from Portland’s Fore River estuary to Sebago Lake, and thence to Long Lake through the Songo River. A total of 27 locks for the canal and one on the Songo allowed travelers and freight to journey from Harrison, ME, all the way to Portland Harbor. Another well known canal is the Telow Canal, This canal was engineered strictly for the passage of logs from Telos Lake into Webster lake and then on down to the Penobscot River. We will get into these stories another day though. Today, I want to share a little about a relatively unknown canal in Maine called the Merry Meeting Canal.
Constructed in the early 1800’s, this canal was cut for the purpose of trafficking logs from Merry Meeting bay. It was not a successful enterprise, although the mill at New Meadows found it useful for a time. Authorized by the Massachusetts legislature in 1790 before Maine gained its independence, the canal was constructed in the early 1798.
John Peterson, one of the proprietors lived on the Brunswick side of the New Meadows river, and built a dam across the river, and erected tide mills, one of them a sawmill which utilized the canal to obtains logs. Peterson also built ships there at New Meadows and was involved in a successful trade with the West Indies.
Unfortunately for the proprietors, there was an insufficient difference between the water levels of the two waterways, and while if it had been dug much deeper with the intent of navigation for vessels instead of for light traffic with an emphasis on the lumber trade, perhaps it would still be in existence today. Steamboat travel had yet to come into existence when the plans for the canal were laid, but if it had, I am certain the outcome would have been much difference. A great deal of time would have been saved if the steamboats could have travelled from Harpswell to Brunswick and up the Kennebec through this canal.
Dug eight feet wide and only a few feet deep, enough to float logs, the canal would only have allowed passage of very shallow draft boats of the one and a half miles of its length.
William C. Purrington wrote about the canal in “A Look Into West Bath’s Past” and had this to say:
It might be mentioned here that because of the difference in the incoming tides between the New Meadows River and the Kennebec River at Welch’sCreek, and because it was not excavated deep enough, this canal never proved to be a success. I am quoting from Professor George Leonard Vose’s article entitled ” The Old Canal at New Meadows”, which was originally read March 12, 1901, and republished by the Pejepscot Historical Society in a book entitled “our Town” in 1967: “We find that the New Meadows tide came in about two hours before the tide from the Kennebec making it hard work to get logs up to the summit. That after a while the Kennebec tide came up, and balanced that from the New Meadows, so that there was little or no movement of the water in either direction. That the New Meadows tide commenced to go down first, and soon lowered the water in the canal so that it was of no use. The length of the time during each tide that the canal could be used was only about three hours; and this time, depending upon the moons position, was not a fixed time, but varied from day to day through the month.” That canal was built for the purpose of floating logs through, but these had to be poled through with great difficulty. Because of the difference of the dates given in various history books we find it hard to date this exactly, but we can come to one conclusion, that it was between 1179 and 17798, for Capt. John Peterson had removed to Bath by the later date because the Brunswick people had taken so little interest in it.
The dates given are fairly accurate here, as the Massachusetts Legislature granted approval for the incorporation and construction of the canal in 1790. The proprietors were allowed four years to construct the canal of forfeit the right by the act as passed, so Peterson and company would have had the canal finished prior to 1795, and would have been using it until 1800 or so. The following is an excerpt from those records:
Re — Canal from New Meadow River to Merry Meeting Bay. Commonwealth of Massachusetts
In the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety
An Act for incorporating certain persons into a corporation for the purpose of opening a Canal from the head of New Meadow river to Merry meeting bay —
Whereas great advantages may arise to the towns west of New Meadow river, and to the publick[sic] in general, by opening a Canal from the head of the same river to Merry Meeting Bay —
Be it therefore Enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court Assembled, and by the authority of the same that Isaac Snow, Aaron Hinkley, and Samuel Thompson Esquires, Phillip Higgins, Nathaniel Larrabee, Benjamin Hammon, John Peterson, and Samuel Snow, so long as they shall continue to be proprietors in said Incorporation, together with all those who are and those who shall become proprietors thereof, shall be a Corporation and body Politic for the purpose of opening and keeping open a Canal from the head of New Meadow river to Merry meeting Bay, under the name of “The Proprietors of the New Meddow[sic] Canal”
And by that name may sue & prosecute, & be sued & prosecuted to final Judgment and Execution, and do & suffer all other matters and things which bodies politic, may or ought to do and suffer, and that the said Corporation shall & may have full power and authority to make have & use a Common Seal, and the same to break alter & renew at pleasure—
And be it further Enacted, by the Authority aforesaid, that if it shall so happen that any individual or body corporate shall be damaged in his or their lands or other property, by cutting & keeping open said Canal the damage so done shall be recompensed by the proprietors thereof in such sums or proportions as shall be ordered by the Court of General Sessions of the peace in the county of Cumberland A upon inquiry into the same by a Jury summoned for that purpose at the expence[sic] of the proprietors of the aforesaid Canal.
And be it further Enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that Isaac Snow Esqr be & hereby is empowered & directed to issue his warrant to one of the proprietors aforesaid requiring him to notify a meeting of the proprietors in manner as the Law directs — And the proprietors at said meeting shall choose a Clerk (who shall be duly sworn to a faithful discharge of his office) and also shall agree on a method for calling future meetings.
And be it further Enacted that if the said proprietors shall refuse or neglect for the space of four years after the passing of this Act to open and compleat[sic] said Canal then this act shall be void & of none Effect
And be it further Enacted that the said Canal shall be kept open — for the passage of Boats, Rafts & other water craft and for all persons who may wish to pass or transact business therein; and c no fee, toll, or other perquisite for the same shall be required
In Senate March 1, 1790
This Bill having had two several readings, passed to be Engrossed
Sent down for concurrence
Sam Phillips Presid
In the House of Representatives March 5, 1790.
This Bill having had three several Readings passed a concurrence to be Engrossed with amendments Sent up for concurrence
David Cobb Spk “”
The mills Peterson built at New Meadows were powered by the tide, not by the flowing of the river as there really is no current sufficient for that purpose. According to Parker Reed’s History of Bath, Peterson moved from New Meadows to Bath about 1798, where he built a home just above his shipyard on the Kennebec. About 1809, he left for Liverpool England with two ships loaded with cargo, sold them and then moved to Newport, RI, and settled to end his life at Portsmouth.
An interesting side note here is that in 1807, plans for a canal to be constructed from the Androscoggin over to Maqouit Bay were also discussed, but no work was ever started, even though a thorough survey had been completed. The photo in the above corner is an early 20th century postcard from my collection of the New Meadows Inn.