12-4 Canal Paul French

Paul French, of Bridgewater, thinks the stretch of the Winnipesaukee River between Paugus Bay and Lake Winnisquam should be turned into a canal. He's been promoting the idea privately for five years, and now is trying to build public support. (Adam Drapcho/The Laconia Daily Sun)

LACONIA – Almost 200 years ago, the Erie Canal opened in New York, connecting New York Harbor to the Great Lakes. More recently, the San Antonio, Texas, Riverwalk opened, providing a peaceful and profitable stretch amid a bustling city. Each of those waterways is now worth millions of tourism dollars each year, and a local man thinks there’s a lesson to be learned for Laconia.

Paul French, of Bridgewater, thinks the Winnipesaukee River should be transformed into a canal, connecting Paugus Bay to Lake Winnisquam and giving boaters direct access to downtown Laconia.

“This is an unusual piece of waterway that has some value,” said French, a 71-year-old former businessman who now gives boating lessons. He lives in Bridgewater, but used to live in Laconia, and he sees the Winnipesaukee River as underutilized.

As a canal, complete with locks, the waterway would expand boating possibilities in the Lakes Region and would boost the economic activity along its banks, French said.

“You’ve got an old town that’s getting older,” he said. “There’s something that’s got to be done that’s going to liven things up. Boaters have money, and they’re willing to spend it.”

In French’s vision, the 1.3-mile canal would begin with a lock — a gated enclosure that can raise or lower a boat to access a waterway at a different level — at the end of Paugus Bay, where it flows into Lake Opechee.

The end of Paugus Bay, where water flows out of Lake Winnipesaukee, under the Elm Street Bridge and over the first of two dams, is the first of what French calls seven “choke points” along the route.

Other engineering obstacles, which are included in a pre-engineering study performed by Dubois & King, include the Messer Street Bridge, the railroad trestle, the Church Street bridge, the Avery Dam by the Belknap Mill, and the Main Street bridge. The level of Lake Winnipesaukee is roughly 20 feet higher than that of Lake Winnisquam.

It’s an engineering challenge, but one that French sees as a series of hurdles rather than roadblocks.

The Panama Canal, for example, spans more than 50 miles and raises and lowers ocean freighters 85 feet as they transit from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.

“We need to put a lock at Elm Street, a lock at the Belkap Mill, and facilitate passage under all the bridges — you can raise the bridges, or you can lower the water,” French said.

Once those problems are solved, a boater could explore Winnipesaukee, Opechee, and Winnisquam lakes without having to take the boat out of the water. He suggests “WOW Canal” as the name. He said it would improve one of the region’s most popular recreation activities, and would increase the desirability of real estate on any of the three lakes.

“The real economic impact is what happens to the town here,” he said, referring to downtown Laconia. In his vision, boaters could dock on either bank of the canal as it passes through the downtown area, and walk to shopping, entertainment, or dining.

Meanwhile, the canal would become an attraction for non-boaters, who would frequent cafés and restaurants that would spring up along its route. He said that’s just what has happened in San Antonio and along the Erie Canal.

French has been promoting his idea, privately, since 2014. He has met with business owners, city and state officials, and advocates for tourism and business development. Some have been excited by his proposal, some ambivalent, and some have called him crazy, which, he said, “doesn’t hurt a bit.”

Officials contacted by The Laconia Daily Sun were reserved with their comments. Tom O’Brien, president of the New Hampshire Lakes Association, said he was concerned about effects that a canal would have on other users of the Winnipesaukee River, such as the whitewater park initiative that’s already well underway in Franklin.

“I just hope that whoever is spending their time on it is considerate of the communities upstream and downstream of it,” O’Brien said.

Laconia Mayor-elect Andrew Hosmer said he was “not familiar with the details” of the proposal, but that he would be happy to learn more. “It’s nice to encounter people who have big visions, and they look at our city and they see potential, not obstacles,” Hosmer said.

The state Department of Environmental Services did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

French’s next move is to make his campaign public to build support for his idea.

“We need to get a greater groundswell of people who recognize that this would provide a strong economic benefit to Laconia,” French said.

French said he welcomed feedback, which can be sent to allhandsondeck@gmail.com.

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