The half-rotten bateau that had been sitting in the barn at Churchill Depot for the last 35 years has been restored by the Boat School, an affiliate of Husson University in Bangor. The Boat School, in Eastport, donated the time, materials and expertise for the restoration project.
Students working under the supervision of master boat builder Ed Scott provided the labor for the restoration project.
A bateau is a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed boat which was used extensively across North America, especially in the Colonial period and in the fur trade. It was traditionally pointed at both ends but came in a wide variety of sizes. The name derives from the French word bateau, which means boat. Its plural, bateaux, follows French word use.
The recently restored bateau on display at the Churchill Depot History Center in the heart of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway is of the design commonly used during river drives before World War II. It was the workhorse of the river drive, carrying men and supplies needed to successfully drive logs to mills downriver.
Our bateau is 28 feet long and 6 feet wide. The planking in the bottom of the boat is all chewed up from years of use by river drivers wearing caulk boots.
There are names and dates carved on the inside of the boat — Allagash names such as Jackson and McBrierty, with dates in the early 1930s. When you look at the boat, you can just imagine the lumberjacks following the drive downriver, keeping the logs moving along and the antics that must have gone on during that yearly event.
These are the same style of boats used by the American Colonial army during the Revolutionary War to attack Quebec City in 1775. That ill-fated attempt was led by then-patriot Benedict Arnold, who made his headquarters at the Colburn House in Pittston, now a historic site managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
I can’t imagine portaging boats as heavy as these across the height of land between the Kennebec and St. Lawrence rivers. It took eight people just to load our bateau onto a trailer for the trip to Eastport.
If you’re up in the North Maine Woods this fall hunting or sightseeing, stop by Churchill Dam to see the newest addition to the history center. The center also has a fully restored dump wagon that was used during the construction of Long Lake Dam, a restored velocipede used on the Eagle Lake West Branch Railroad and many other logging artifacts on display. There also are many pictures of the early settlement and logging activity along the Allagash, as well as replicas of Native American stone tools found along the waterway.
The river drivers and bateaux that once worked the waters of the AWW have been replaced by people paddling canoes and kayaks seeking opportunities for solitude and a closeness with the natural world on one of great canoe trips in America.
Matthew LaRoche is superintendent of Allagash Wilderness Waterway.