Book Review of "The Incredible Ditch",
Carl and Alan Seaburg and Thomas Dahill, The Incredible Ditch: A Bicentennial History of the Middlesex Canal (Medford, Massachusetts: Anne Miniver Press, Medford Historical Society, 2000).
Reviewed by Linda Barth
One of the earliest canals built in the United States, the Middlesex Canal (1803 - 1853) in Massachusetts connected Boston with Lowell to provide a transportation route for lumber from New Hampshire.
The Incredible Ditch uses a unique blend of contemporary narratives, fictional accounts, old survey maps, and recent aerial photographs to create a fascinating look at this historic waterway. Beginning with a list of over 200 "Workers Who Built the Middlesex Canal," the authors use an amalgam of three accounts of a July 18, 1817 trip to take the reader on a ride from Charlestown to Woburn.
"How the Canal Was Born" is the memoir of Judge James Sullivan, President of the Canal Corporation. In "Diary of a Dig," Loammi Baldwin, the canal's first superintendent, describes the arduous process of construction, from the 1793 surveys through the last year of the dig (1803) and the opening of a branch canal in 1805. The avid canaller will enjoy descriptions of the little-known bypass canals along the upper Merrimack. "How the Canal Worked" is drawn from Agent Caleb Eddy's 1835 report, supplemented by general information from standard works.
"Overview" consists of a series of delicately-drawn maps showing the canal as it passes through the varied topography of northeastern Massachusetts. The aerial photographs taken by Nolan Jones are used in "Overflight"; the canal is superimposed upon these views of its route through a much-changed modern landscape.
"Closing Down the Canal" is based on Agent Richard Frothingham's report, and "A Canal Scrapbook" contains excerpts from canal-era authors such as Henry David Thoreau and the New York State Canal Commission, as well as from modern publications.
The book concludes with "Afterglow," which describes the canal after its abandonment, and a final chapter detailing the preservation work done by the Middlesex Canal Association, the Woburn Canal Society, and the Middlesex Canal Commission.
Lovely paintings of locks, bridges, aqueducts, vessels and life along the canal are interspersed with photographs both historic and modern. You can even learn a canal song, "Haulin' Down to Boston On the Middlesex Canal," written by David Dettinger.
The Incredible Ditch can be purchased from the publisher, or from the Middlesex Canal Association, c/o Osterberg, 79 Nichols St., Wilmington, MA 01887-1625.