Rails & Roads: Canada Road 1817

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Barry Rodrigue,  July 1994

My dissertation is for research about the old "Canada Road," its support structures and the pre-Civil War migration of French Canadians along it to Maine. The Canada Road was the modern overland derivative of a system of water and portage routes linking the Chaudiere River in Quebec to the Kennebec River in Maine and served as the primary transportation corridor between Canada and Maine until the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1853.

The route has been used for millennia by indigenous peoples between the St. Lawrence River and the Atlantic Ocean. Euroamerican missionaries, soldiers, colonists and traders also followed this route in the 17th century. The Jesuit priest, Sebastian Rasle, regularly journeyed on it while conducting his mission to the Norridgewocks between 1694 and 1724. On the eve of the American Revolution, British officials planned a post-road through this area to connect Quebec with Boston, but hostilities interrupted its construction. The Arnold Expedition traveled along portions of this route to lay siege to Quebec City in the fall of 1775. However, this project is concerned principally with the early 19th century development of the overland route between Maine and Lower Canada.

With the post-Revolutionary War settlement of the Maine-Quebec frontier, two partial and primitive roads began to develop along the Chaudiere and Kennebec Road extending northwest from Augusta. Federal plans for a National Road from Maryland to Ohio and a turnpike from Maine to Georgia, as well as many other road and canal projects, helped to inspire this plan to create an international road between Maine and Lower Canada. Construction to link the Chaudiere and Kennebec Roads across the border began in 1817, but poor communication and primitive government infrastructure slowed the work, and it was not completed until 1819.

After Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820, the new state barely maintained its portion of the Canada Road, which primarily served drovers taking livestock to the market in Quebec City. The few residents on the border petitioned for a carriage road at a time when, according to local settlers' accounts, wolves would surround houses during hungry times and howl until dawn. Demands by residents led to the road's upgrading between 1828 and 1835. Early developments included a customs house, postal service, a stage line and roadhouses. A ten-dollar ticket would buy a two-day stage coach ride from Quebec City to Skowhegan, Maine. Construction of the state capital (1829) and the Kennebec dam (1834) in Augusta drew French Canadian workers with their families to Maine. A cholera epidemic in 1832 and the depression, famine and rebellion of 1837 hastened this migration.

The French Canadian migration down the Canada Road prior to the Civil War is one of the least known of their emigrations to the United States. Historians have only a very sketchy knowledge of French Canadian movements into New England before the 1870s, which usually receives only a couple of pages in the preface of even major texts about French Canadian and Franco-American history. Geohistoric studies have likewise tended to focus on the major water routes into the heart of North America, such as the St. Lawrence and Mississippi river systems, and have ignored secondary axis between regions like those of the Chaudiere and Kennebec Rivers. The story of the Canada Road is told in traveler's diaries, letters between Canadian and United States road commissioners, government documents, oral histories, surveyors' notebooks and maps. Research on this topic has been complicated by the fact that much of this primary material is scattered in Boston, Augusta and Quebec City.

The Canada Road lies in an area where little work has been done on locating historic archeological sites. Of more than 1800 sites in the inventory statewide, only twenty sites have been identified in Somerset County. This amounts to an average of 0.17 sites per town - far less than the state-wide average. Virtually all of the sites recorded so far represent contact and colonial periods. While there has been some interest in the Arnold Trail, virtually no work has been done on the 19th century development of this area, which in this case is of far greater importance in understanding the region as it is today. Whereas earlier work has focused on the waterways merely as a transportation route, this study is concerned as well with the settlement of this borderlands region.

This research will expand the dimensions of this Canadian-American borderland study, and is innovative in bringing together archeological, documentary, and oral history resources hitherto ignored. A review of the Chaudiere-Kennebec route will produce an expanded view of French Canadian culture and society in North America.



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