Back in the early nineteenth century, when road travel was limited at best, getting Maine’s timber out of the woods and into the markets which so desperately hungered for it most often depended on river travel. Legendary waterways like the Kennebec, the Androscoggin, the Allagash and the Saco became avenues of commerce with their storied log drives, connecting ports and commercial hubs with the Pinetree State’s forested interior.
Sometime around 1847, it became important to connect the great waters of Lake Sebago in southwestern Maine, with the Songo river and the maize of rivers, lakes and ponds which flowed into it north of the town of Naples. To make the river more navigable for boat and barge traffic, a dam was built in order to fill the shallows below Brandy pond. To make the step between the levels, a set of locks had to be built and operated along a lonely stretch of the river, and so the Songo Locks were born.
Little has changed over the years except that today’s river travelers are mostly recreational boaters, seeking the adventure of slow scenic meandering through some of Maine’s most beautiful countryside. The locks are still operated by hand, raising and lowering the coming and going river traffic, one fifteen-minute lockful at a time. The whole procedure is complicated by the fact that a low bridge crosses the Songo just above the lock station, and if occasional road traffic happens to coincide with boat traffic, the old bridge – a swing bridge – must be opened and closed accordingly. The bridge is also hand-operated.
The tour group of Utahns I was leading one lovely October day, were listening eagerly as the friendly lock master was explaining all of this to us in the parking lot adjacent to his tiny lock-side shack. So intent were we all, that the rather excited warning whistle of an approaching pleasure boat took us all by surprise.
“Can you folks help me “ he asked, with some exasperation, “I am all alone today !” Four of us happened to be of the “Guy” persuasion, and so we were quickly dispatched with precise instructions. Duane and Ian helped open and close the lock gates, while Darryl and I ran to operate the swing bridge, turning the ancient hand crank to swing the bridge out from over the waterway just in time to accommodate the approaching water craft.
It all went well, and we were still laughing about our unplanned and exciting interlude at Songo Locks when we arrived, a half hour later, in North Conway, New Hampshire – a REAL tourist mecca with five miles of “Factory Outlet” temptations. A world-famous steam-powered railway also operates from Conway, and I chose to park our rental van in its expansive parking lot near town-center. From long experience as a tour guide, I issued specific orders as our group dispersed in various directions, setting an absolute deadline for departure. (I knew all about the town’s seductive appeal to shoppers.)
As departure time arrived, everyone was back and ready to go. Except Darryl. He was nowhere in sight. This was so uncharacteristic of his almost-obsessive sense of duty and time-consciousness that we began to worry. A long tourist train was slowly chugging its way out of the depot, and as the caboose finally passed by, there stood our AWOL traveler, crossing the nest of intermingling tracks in the switching yard. “Where have you BEEN!” We all asked at once.
“Well”, the unrepentant Darryl explained, “I was just standing here minding my own business when this train conductor came running up and asked me if I had ever operated a train switch before. When I told him no, he said ‘well, you’re going to learn real fast; follow me’ The next thing I know, I have the job of switching that train that just passed, from one set of tracks to another. Sorry to be late”.
And so. . . in a single morning we had operated the Songo Locks, hand powered a swinging bridge, and manually switched a passenger train.
Guests who have been with me on subsequent tours no doubt have wondered why I break into a fit of soft laughter when we pass a roadside arrow sign pointing to “SONGO LOCKS”.