Historic Cahoon Canal property donated to HCT
By Jamie Balliett (HARWICH ORACLE)
Back in 1850, Harwich resident Captain Alvin Cahoon (1812-1883) was looking to supplement his fishing income.
When walking around the woods and bogs of Pleasant Lake, he noticed the bounty of wild cranberries growing and decided that he wanted to farm them on his land off Punkhorn Road.
Cahoon began gathering cranberry plants but ran into difficulties finding sufficient fresh water and the right soil conditions to get them to thrive. To get an abundant supply of water, he decided to dig a five-foot wide by 500-foot long canal between Seymour’s Pond and Hinckley’s Pond.
Ridiculed by neighbors who rejected his offers to share the cost (and ultimately, the water flow), Cahoon financed the two-year project using a handful of family members and hired workers armed with axes, shovels, and wheel barrels. When the canal was completed in 1853, those in dissent recognized Cahoon’s success and reimbursed him for much of his costs.
The canal was key to the success of multiple cranberry farms in the area and a 1.4-acre parcel that fronts it is being given by Harwich resident Donald T. Bates, Jr. to the Harwich Conservation Trust.
A native Cape Codder whose father established the Bates Hardware Store on Main Street, Bates’ ties to the community run deep, whether he’s participating as a Water Commissioner or a high school track coach.
Harwich Conservation Trust Director Michael Lach said the organization is very grateful for the land gift, especially because it’s, “Another piece of the puzzle for protecting Harwich.”
“This historic land is not attached to another parcel we own, but it’s an extremely important and a welcome addition to the Trust,” said Lach.
Bates, whose current home sits on a hill just a hundred feet off the canal, said that he spent his childhood running up and down the terrain and the preservation of the area meant a lot to him.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working to keep it open and passable,” said Bates, who pointed out a pair of ducks swimming in the waterway, which is a foot deep at the most. While the canal is man-made, numerous species have thrived in the shortcut between the two ponds, including river otters, eels, and herring.
“Just this August it was bone dry due to the low flow. We were really concerned because that’s when the herring fry come down to head out to the ocean,” he said.
Luckily, the water was restored after a blockage of accumulated sediment was discovered and cleaned out.
While a moratorium exists on the removal of herring, Bates recalled the canal, “Thick with them in the 1960s. People would gather them in nets and take them out of here in barrels and plow them, still wriggling, into their soil beds for summer crops.”
Bates bought the parcel in the 1980s for around $1,500. No houses could be built on it because of the adjacent wetlands.
The land also has a small frontage along Seymour Pond. Lach noted that, “The Harwich Conservation Trust is grateful for the Don’s forward-thinking action to protect the land, water and wildlife.”
Lach explained that the Trust runs a program called the Priority Ponds Project, which includes both Hinckley and Seymour Ponds.
“The goal of HCT’s Priority Ponds Project is to preserve watershed lands that specifically protect pond water quality and habitat. So far, through this project, HCT has helped individuals and families preserve 105 acres with 5,850 feet of shoreline across eight different ponds,” he said.
The canal will need to be maintained, which includes cutting any woody vegetation or trees back and removing sediment. A crew led by the Harbormaster Office does an annual spring cleanup to make sure the herring and other species have safe passage.
Punkhorn Road crosses the canal at a low point. Bates noted that the original stone culvert built by the Cahoon family is still in place to allow fish and wildlife to travel under the road.
“That’s the original and was built to last,” he said of the 160-year-old structure.