FRYEBURG, Maine — Exactly 200 years ago, a group of local farmers in Fryeburg changed the course of the Saco River with oxen and hand tools.
First, they had to dig through bureaucratic red tape put in their path by Massachusetts government from which they had requested help. Frustrated by that and the state’s refusal of funds, they dug a canal at their own expense. It was completed in 1820, the same year Maine finally broke from Massachusetts to become its own state.
After rising near Crawford Notch in New Hampshire, the Saco River enters Maine in Fryeburg. Although the town is only about 10 miles square, the Saco meanders through it for 36 miles.
Early settlers cleared land and farmed, but the most fertile land in the northern part of town flooded nearly every spring. It was so bad, in 1786, farmers petitioned the Massachusetts legislature (which governed Maine at the time) for flood relief.
For the loss of a grist mill, nine houses, numerous animals and much produce, Fryeburg was granted a tax abatement of 200 pounds.
But that was temporary relief, and farmers wanted something permanent. In 1812, they petitioned Massachusetts to fund a canal for flood control.
They had a good idea about where and how to dig it because near the center of town, the meandering courses of the river were only 4 1/2 miles apart. A canal there, through mostly sandy soil, would cut off 17 miles of river through the fertile intervale in North Fryeburg.
The plan was sound and would eventually relieve much of the flooding, but Massachusetts would not give them any money — only permission. So farmers decided to dig it on their own.
First, however, they had to indemnify themselves against legal liability for whatever damages their canal might cause, for along with getting state permission to form a corporation called “Proprietors of the Fryeburg(h) Canal,” to which the state attached — to both the corporation and three dozen individual proprietors — legal responsibility for damages in perpetuity.
In February 1816, the farmers went back to the state seeking relief from this endless liability. Massachusetts responded in June by limiting it to four years. Only then did the farmers feel they could break ground in earnest.
Looking into the sequence of actual construction, however, is a bit confusing. One account said the digging of the first phase began in 1812; others say 1816 or 1817. But all agree the canal was completed in 1820 with the assistance of Mother Nature.
It’s also hard to say exactly where that construction started. Some say it was done in segments over an eight-year period between 1812 and 1820. The most comprehensive account seems to be in John Stuart Barrow’s "Fryeburg, Maine: An Historical Sketch," published in 1938.
There were two ponds within the 4 1/2-mile stretch of land across which the canal was planned. One, Bear Pond, was situated about where Canal Bridge crosses the present course of the river and was completely drained by the canal. No trace is left of that pond. But the other, called Bog Pond, was larger, and while the canal drained most of that one, too, a small segment remains of it off Bog Pond Road between Route 5 and Menotomy Road.
According to former Fryeburg Historical Society President Diane Jones, the digging began behind what is now the Al Barton farm in West Fryeburg. She said her late husband, Ed Jones, together with the late Phil Andrews, found what they believed was the beginning of the canal, and none of the other accounts found contradict this.
For those who said the first segment was dug between what is now the Old Course of the Saco and Bear Pond, the Jones/Andrews claim is as good as any about exactly where. Going there today, the vegetation is so thick in the many old oxbow riverbeds, one can see little. A better bet is to go back after leaf drop in the fall and try again.
The farmers began constructing their canal with a narrow ditch leading into Bear Pond. One account from Bill Vinton of Lovell said that a man could step across it in certain sections. Then came a freshet (river flooding) in 1820 that turned the ditch into the wider canal we see today, It drained Bear Pond, then proceeded to Bog Pond and beyond to connect where the main course of the river below Hemlock Bridge now flows.
Another account speaks of two separate phases -- the second phase was dug between the ponds a few years after the Bear Pond phase, and the 1820 freshet widened and deepened that part as well to complete the course of the Saco as we know it today.
Today’s course is the river with a sandy bottom that so many canoers enjoy. There’s little water left now in the Old Course of the Saco — what the 17 miles of river cut off by the canal has been called.
There is more water where tributaries still flow in but not enough to use a canoe or kayak until one gets to the “Fryeburg Harbor” area where the Cold River flows in from Stow and the Kezar Lake outlet enters from Lovell. Even there, the old river is slow-moving and choked with weeds, especially in late summer. Snapping turtles like it and grow very large, but no one would want to float a tube or swim in it.
Indians had traveled the winding Saco in Fryeburg, possibly for 9,000 years or more. Archaeologists believe they farmed its fertile intervale, planting corn, beans and squash beginning about 3,000 years ago.
In the late 20th century, amateur archaeologist Helen Leadbeater excavated two significant Indian settlements, one at Fryeburg Harbor and the other at Lovewell’s Pond. That pond is only a short canoe ride from the Saco as it flows south out of Fryeburg at the southern end of town. She amassed her huge artifact collection primarily from these two sites.
She also investigated the entire shore of Lovewell’s Pond, and based on the patterns of where she found artifacts, she surmised that Indians often portaged across a 2-mile stretch of what is now Fryeburg Village from Weston’s Bridge area to the northern shore of the pond.
That shortcut would eliminate about two dozen miles of paddling through north Fryeburg for those traveling express from settlements in Conway to other encampments along the river’s course all the way to its mouth in what is now Saco/Biddeford.
The Pequawkets were part of a subgroup of Abenaki Indians called Sokokis who settled Fryeburg in historic times. They also included the Ossipee, after whom both the New Hampshire town and a tributary of the Saco flowing from the Ossipee area are named.
The Pequawkets and the Ossipee traveled up and down the rivers between the coast and the White Mountains regularly. Capt. John Smith and Samuel Champlain both had contact with the Sokokis at the Saco River’s mouth in the early 1600s. The section of Maine’s Route 5 between the Fryeburg/Brownfield area and Saco, Maine, is still called the “Sokokis Trail.”
The first white person thought to have entered what is now Fryeburg was likely Darby Field in 1642 on his way to Mount Washington. He described a tribal village of about 200 and was probably referring to Pequawket — now Fryeburg. We know Capt. John Lovewell arrived in 1725 from Dunstable, Mass., to fight Pequawkets at the pond named for him. Some historians claim Lovewell came to take scalps, but other sources say he was retaliating for Pequawket raids into Dunstable and nearby Andover, Mass. Lovewell died battling the native inhabitants of Fryeburg, after which most of the Pequawkets retreated to St. Francis on the St. Lawrence River.
The man destined to have the most impact on Fryeburg was Col. Joseph Frye of Andover. A surveyor by trade, he knew of the fertile Saco intervale the indigenous settlers prized and persuaded the Province of Massachusetts to grant him the land in return for his service in the French and Indian War.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, a lot of canal digging took place in New England for two main purposes: transportation and power. Constructing the Saco River canal for flood control was relatively unusual at the time. As it was completed, though, a huge transportation canal project was being planned nearby called the Cumberland and Oxford Canal. It opened to traffic in 1832 from the outlet of Sebago Lake to Portland Harbor on the coast. Canals for water power were dug along the Androscoggin River in Lewiston for powering its textile mills.
In the 1970s, an older Lovell, Maine, citizen recalled how her grandfather shipped barrels of apples to England from Lovell in the 1800s. First, he took them by wagon over the hills of Sweden, Maine, to the northern tip of Long Lake in Harrison Village. There, they were loaded onto specialized canal boats for transport down Long Lake, through the Songo Lock to Sebago Lake, then across it into the Cumberland and Oxford canal on the lake’s southern end. From there, it was onward to inner Portland Harbor at Stroudwater.
There the apple barrels could be loaded onto ships bound for England, or they could remain on the specialized canal boats for transport along the Atlantic Seaboard to the Port of Boston. These specialized canal boats were designed to drop a keel and erect two hinged masts, enabling travel along the coast in good weather.
When coal-driven steam power was introduced, however, both the power function and transportation function were undermined. Steam power made railroads possible, and they proved cheaper and faster than transporting goods by canal. Steam power also replaced water power for mills of all kinds: saw mills, grist mills, fulling mills and textile mills. In Lewiston, water-driven turbines were replaced by steam turbines.
The Saco River was the biggest obstacle to travel between the old settlements of Fryeburg (1763) and Bethel, Maine (1769) over a historic trail that today's Route 5 largely follows. Bethel is located on the Androscoggin; Fryeburg, on the Saco. Native Americans preferred rivers for transportation but sometimes traveled overland between river systems. Excellent farmland on the intervales of both rivers first drew indigenous settlers, then attracted Bethel’s and Fryeburg’s early white settlers, Col. Frye among them.
Frye had fought in 1757 at the Battle of Fort William Henry and elsewhere as commander of the Massachusetts Militia during the French and Indian War. For that, he obtained a land grant comprising the town bearing his name.
Like fellow French and Indian War Col. George Washington, he was a surveyor by trade. Both also became generals when the American Revolution broke out, but Frye, being much older, saw little service in it compared with Washington.
After Massachusetts made its grant to Frye in 1762, he built his home in the center of town just above the Saco’s intervale. All that’s left of it now is a cellar hole in the woods at the end of a dirt road just off Route 5 north of the Fryeburg Fairgrounds. The road is marked by a brass plate set in a stone beside the paved highway.
Frye knew the Saco intervale’s rich soil and huge potential for farming when he sought to acquire his land grant, but apparently not so much about the regularity of its annual floods and the bane they would be to farmers.
He soon learned after settling there. But Frye, who's buried in the Village Cemetery, died in 1794 before the canal was dug.
Other members of his family, however, lived to see the canal completed in 1820 — very close to his original home on Frye’s Hill.
The Fryeburg canal stopped much of the flooding in North Fryeburg but didn’t eliminate it entirely. I can remember twice that my brother Dan, when living on the McNeil Road in North Fryeburg at the edge of the intervale, had to use a canoe to get around for a few days.
Tom McLaughlin is a retired Fryeburg Academy history teacher. He lives in Lovell and Portland, Maine.