BATH — The oldest canal in Maine, dug by hand at great expense and with considerable labor, is now passed over by motorists who likely don’t even realize it’s there.

Peterson Canal, carved out sometime in the 1790s, was originally intended to connect the New Meadows River to Merrymeeting Bay. Named after John Peterson, who provided a lot of the funding of the project, it was, in a way, on par with the construction of a new super-highway in terms of potential impact.

Prior to the canal, getting logs cut in forests farther up the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers to mills on the New Meadows River would require floating them all the way down to the ocean, around the Phippsburg peninsula, and back up.

Inventive colonists had the idea of connecting Merrymeeting Bay and the Kennebec River via canal, to make that journey much easier.

“In the late 1700s, there’s information in the Massachusetts legislature authorizing the canal,” said Brenda Cummings, who is leading a walk of the canal at 11 a.m. Feb. 11.

Of course, at the time Maine wasn’t even a state yet, hence Massachusetts being the governing body.

Soon after petitioning the legislature, the canal and the direction the canal would go was approved and work started. Before long, entrepreneurs hoped, a quick path between the bay and the river would open the New Meadows to more economic activity and expand the area’s capacity for processing lumber.

It would have changed the area drastically.

If it had worked.

The canal, as those who know its path can tell you, never actually made it to Merrymeeting Bay. Instead, it takes a sharp dog-leg turn to a point south of the Chops.

“They realized they could just take a nice right-hand turn and hook into an unnamed inlet,” said Cummings.

But the canal was completely useless for its intended purpose. The timing of the tides in the New Meadows and the Kennebec meant that logs put into the canal only made progress during a short window of time.

According to a paper written by a Professor George Leonard Vose in 1901, the waters of the New Meadows tended to rise before the waters of the Kennebec, creating a flow from south to north. Then, once the tides between the two rivers equalized, the water was deep enough to move logs, but the current was not strong or fast enough to promote much movement.

When the tide started to go back out, there was a three-hour window where the depth and direction of the water allowed logs to move, a time dictated entirely by the cycles of the tides. That three-hour tidal window was also different every day.

Vose’s research also shows conflicting opinion on whether or not the canal was ever used at all. Interviews he conducted in the early 1900s featured wildly conflicting information, with some people claiming they had a grandfather that worked the canal, and others claiming that after they tried and failed, the canal was all but given up.

“In some cases the same person being asked the same question at different times would give entirely different answers,” wrote Vose.

One man claimed his grandfather talked of how hard he worked moving logs in the canal. Yet, the date of the grandfather’s birth meant he would have been around eight years old at the time the canal was already purported to be closed.

One thing is certain in Vose’s account, the entire project was a complete flop and all the effort was pretty much for nothing.

“It’s quite something to ponder the amount of effort it must have taken, especially for them to turn out to be pretty darn unsuccessful,” said Cummings.

Yet Peterson Canal, and the efforts to build it, are still easily visible to this day. It can be spotted from the air quite easily. The New Meadows, north of Old Bath Road, meanders back and forth like many rivers do. Then, at one bend in the river, a waterway that’s straight as an arrow suddenly branches off to the north.

The sharp bend workers took is also easy to spot from the sky. Near the intersection of Ridge Road and Hawks Lane in North Bath, the waterway takes a graceful 90-degree turn from its original path, passing right under Ridge Road. What appears to be a small burbling stream is actually the result of lots of hard, hand labor.

“There were no machines to do this with. And walking along the section where it narrows up at the end, you can very much see the piles of dirt that were the leavings of it,” said Cummings.

While the canal was a failure, it serves as a great winter walking path. Kennebec Estuary Land Trust is leading a walk along the path of the old canal on Feb. 11. Provided the conditions are cold enough, the ice turns the canal into an easy 2.5 mile, walkway provided you’re wearing the right equipment.

“Generally, when we do hold it the ice is good all the way through and we march down the middle,” said Cheri Brunault, stewardship coordinator for KELT.

Cummings will also be present to give some presentations on the canal’s history, as well as to point out some interesting features of the canal.

While KELT has only walked the canal for a few years, the tradition is likely much older. The Bath Independent newspaper mentions canal walking in an article in 1911, saying “You who enjoy a stroll in the country these crisp winter days can find no more interesting and enjoyable tramp than that along the old canal which was built over 100 years ago.”

Potential hikers are encouraged to bring warm clothing, snow shoes, or ice cleats depending on the weather. The walk is 2.5 miles one-way, so either arrange a ride from the end of the trail or be prepared to walk back.

For more information, or to confirm that conditions are appropriate, call 442-8400, email [email protected], or visit kennebecestuary.org.

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