A COMPARISON OF THE BLACKSTONE AND MIDDLESEX CANALS
by B. H. DICKSON
By the 1790's, inland waterways had proved their merits in industrial England and Americans were beginning to recognize them as an important means of transportation. About this time two major projects were conceived - the Middlesex Canal from Boston to Lowell and the Blackstone Canal from Worcester to Providence. The Middlesex began operating in 1803 but the Blackstone didn't get going until 25 years later – a delay that proved disastrous. The reason for the delay was lack of cooperation on the part of the Massachusetts Legislature in granting the Blackstone its charter. The idea of a canal connecting Boston with the Merrimack River and diverting the great natural resources of New Hampshire away from Newburyport and into Boston met with wholehearted approval in the capital city; however, the idea of the landlocked treasures of Worcester County making their way to market through Rhode Island, and seeing Providence benefit from business that rightly belonged to Boston, was unthinkable. When the Blackstone Canal finally got its charter in 1823, Bostonians dreaded more than ever the evil effects of such a waterway. A few months before it was completed, the Boston Centinal issued a stern warning: "If the canal is not counteracted by some similar enterprise in this town, Boston will be, in a very few years, reduced to a fishing village."
The situation was somewhat alleviated, three years after the canal went into operation, by the Boston and Worcester Railroad getting its charter. The president of the House of Representatives who signed the enacted bills was a gentleman by the name of Leverett Saltonstall.
During the first twenty years of the nineteenth century a number of canals were proposed to keep Boston from becoming commercially stagnant, among them one from Boston to Worcester to counteract the Blackstone, another from Boston to the Connecticut River to divert traffic away from the Farmington and another from Boston to Troy, New York, to get a share of the Erie Canal business for Massachusetts. It is interesting to note that the route surveyed for this last project is very much the same as the route of the Boston and Albany Railroad. The surveyors recognized the necessity of tunneling through the Berkshires. To get over them would require 220 locks. These would not only consume an enormous quantity of water but it would take a boat two days to get through them, while a four mile tunnel would only take an hour and twenty minutes. The location they chose was where the Hoosac Tunnel was bored many years later. The canal surveyors estimated the cost at less than a million dollars; actually it cost over 10 million, which would have been the financial ruin of any canal company. All sorts of unforseen obstacles kept cropping up, more and more money had to be raised and each raising was accompanied by the usual legal complications. At one point some frustrated party remarked that he knew a way of finishing that tunnel in no time – just put a group of lawyers at one end and a large fee at the other.
When the Blackstone was finally completed the Middlesex was a well established institution and enjoying its era of greatest natural prosperity – natural because its biggest money-making days had an unnatural impulse behind them – namely, construction of the Boston and Lowell Railroad. Rails, ties and other building materials were transported to their respective destinations on canal boats – and finally, the British-built locomotive traveled by boat to Lowell to be assembled in the machine shops there. It has been said that the Middlesex Canal, "like an accusing ghost . . . seldom strays far from the Boston and Lowell Railroad to which it owes its untimely end."
The Middlesex Canal operated nearly 32 years unharassed by railroad competition – the poor Blackstone, only 7. An original investor in the Middlesex Canal, by retaining his interest, would have recovered 75% of his money; a Blackstone investor, $2.75 and the privilege of subscribing to stock in the Blackstone Canal Bank. The canal has been called the "greatest financial fiasco in the history of Providence."
The Blackstone was beset with other difficulties that didn't affect the Middlesex. For water it depended on a source that was already earmarked for manufacturing. Many establishments had sprung up along the line during the years of delay and in order to assure an adequate water supply for the canal, reservoirs had to be provided. Unfortunately the increase in supply fell far short of requirements – especially as more and more mills began using the water. The Middlesex, on the other hand, had its own mill pond in North Billerica, formed by a dam in the Concord River. There was no competition with industrial establishments on the sluggish Concord. For 21 miles upstream from the millpond the rise was only 3½ feet. According to Henry Thoreau, the only bridge ever washed away on this section was blown upstream by the wind.
Now compare this head of less than 2 inches per mile with the Blackstone's 10 feet per mile and you can see why the water power potentials of the latter were early recognized and utilized. Though "a very Tom Thumb of a river, as rivers go in America," according to the Technical World, the Blackstone is, "the hardest working ... the one most harnessed to the millwheels of labor in the United States, probably the busiest in the world."
The Middlesex Canal, except for where it crossed the Concord River at its North Billerica reservoir, was confined to its own ditch for its entire length. Except for months when it was frozen over, uninterrupted service could be maintained. The Blackstone used slack water navigation in the river for about one-tenth of its distance. This involved entering and leaving 16 times. During periods of low water the boats would get stranded on the river shoals and during periods of flood the river sections were too swift to be navigated. Clients had to wait for days or even weeks at a time for delivery or pick-up of freight. Worcester warehouses bulged with stranded merchandise. As time went on merchants got more and more disgusted with these interruptions to service and, with the canal being closed 4 or 5 months in winter on account of ice, they naturally sought more reliable means of transportation.
However, none of these difficulties were anticipated. When the canal stock was offered in Providence there was a wild scramble for it and within three hours it was oversubscribed. Messengers were quickly dispatched to Worcester to see if any additional stock could be picked up there, but when they arrived they found that the Worcester quota had also been oversubscribed. Those who were not allotted any stock little realized, at the time, how fortunate they were!
There was no wild scramble for Middlesex Canal stock. In those days American canalling was in its infancy and the stock had a speculative flavor. But by the Blackstone's time, canals had proved themselves to be a growing and reliable form of transportation and the shares a promising investment.
The Middlesex was a pioneering enterprise and a courageous undertaking. It penetrated a countryside of sparse population – Medford, Woburn, and Chelmsford small villages – Lowell non-existent while Boston itself was a town of but 20,000. The Santee Canal in South Carolina, the only one to antedate the Middlesex, was still under construction. Pennsylvania canals, for which surveys were being made, were still very much on paper and the Erie only a dream. When the route for the Middlesex was first laid out surveying and leveling instruments were unknown in New England. Loammi Baldwin of Woburn, the chief engineer, and Samuel Thompson of the same town spent a week making elevations by a method Thompson had devised which consisted of squinting along a carpenter's level and making laborious calculations. His mistakes were amazing, to say the least. For instance he estimated that the Concord River in Billerica was 161 feet lower than the Merrimack at Middlesex Village where the canal would enter it. Actually it was 25 feet higher, or an error of 41 feet in 6 miles!
Perhaps the best thing that came out of this original survey was the Baldwin apple. While working in Wilmington the surveyors noticed an unusual number of woodpeckers all apparently flying towards a certain spot. On investigation they found a wild apple tree with unusually good fruit. Baldwin, the engineer, did much to propagate and promote this apple. At first it was called the pecker apple on account of the woodpeckers.
The directors realized that an accurate survey would be necessary before proceeding with the construction of the canal and they sent Baldwin to Pennsylvania to consult an Englishman named Weston who was surveying for canals there. Mr. Weston consented to come to Massachusetts and survey for the Middlesex. Baldwin wrote back that "Mrs. Weston has more than once expressed a passionate desire of visiting Boston and has frequently told me that she longed to be acquainted with ladies and gentlemen of that metropolis. She observed that all English gentlemen and ladies enjoyed themselves better in Boston than any place on the continent. I daresay that in my important business this is a very trifling circumstance to report to you – however, I declare that almost my only hope of securing Mr. Weston's assistance . . . rests on this circumstance." It was Mr. Weston's levels that inspired confidence in the feasibility of the canal.
By the time the Blackstone came along, the art of leveling and surveying was pretty well established here. The company employed a Benjamin Wright who, they said, was "a skillful engineer under whose superintendance and estimates, the middle section of that stupendous work, the Erie Canal was constructed." His big mistake, as already mentioned, was using slack water in the river. Experience had earlier demonstrated to DeWitt Clinton and others that this sort of thing was not practical. Perhaps it was done for the sake of economy. However, there was no penny-pinching in construction of the locks. With one exception, they were all made of hand cut granite and there were 48 of them. The 28 locks on the Middlesex Canal, with the exception of three, were originally made of wood and they were all eventually replaced with stone. The Blackstone engineers undoubtedly bore this fact in mind in deciding against wood.
Construction of both canals was by hand labor – picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. It took 9 years to build the Middlesex; the Blackstone took only four. Building the Middlesex was a constant succession of trial and error – finding the proper lining to make the ditch watertight, devising a method for making hydraulic cement, etc. The ingenious Baldwin overcame all these obstacles in the end but they all took an abnormal amount of time – at least that was the opinion of the weary stockholders who grew tired of assessment after assessment with no prospect of any immediate return on their money.
In 1797, 6 years before the canal was completed, the management, in an effort to cheer the stockholders, ordered the opening of the 6 mile section between the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Baldwin protested violently but he was over-ruled. The passengers embarked on two horse-drawn barges. As they proceeded along the canal the workmen marched beside them on either bank carrying their tools over their shoulders; they had received instructions from a notice that stated in part, "It is requested that the dress of the workmen be decent and clean, their movements active but regular, their behavior civil and respectful; in short their general conduct such as shall do honor to themselves and those concerned will consider themselves honored thereby." Once through the locks at Middlesex Village, the passengers disembarked and walked over to Howard's Tavern for a handsome feast, and as they walked they passed between two rows of workmen still "martially holding their tools."
Over the next few years excursions were held on this section from time to time to console discouraged stockholders and impress prominent citizens. The boats were decorated "gaudier than a circus wagon" to add cheer to an otherwise drab situation.
No such junkets were necessary on the Blackstone. By now the technology of canal building was established and hopeful stockholders saw no delays other than those caused by the whims of the weather – or perhaps an occasional personnel problem. A few months before completion the following appeared in the paper, "The unusual supply of rain descending in continual showers, has been particularly unfavorable to the progress of the work. The contractors have been delayed in their operations by the fountains and streams bursting from the earth shadowed by constant clouds, and poured down from every hillside."
The first excursion, a ten mile trip from Providence, took place 3 months before the canal was opened for its entire length. Passengers embarked on the "Lady Carrington," a very grand and beautiful vessel. She had a "palatial cabin running most of the length of her body, which was "conveniently and neatly arranged." She was painted white and had red curtains in her windows and left Providence July 1, 1828 amid "a salute of artillary ... seconded by the cheers of those on board and the shouts of hundreds of spectators who crowded the banks and surrounding eminences." There was a band of music aboard of 8 or 10 pieces. The trip was most successful.
On a second excursion 3 days later, a man was sitting on the railing telling a story when suddenly the boat struck the canal bank and he went overboard. After being pulled back in, all wet through, he shook himself off and resumed his place on the railing and said "as I was saying," and continued with the story as if nothing had happened.
With the opening of the canal the "Lady Carrington" took passengers from Worcester to Providence or towns along the way but it was never a successful competitor with the stage coach. The trip took 14 hours with sometimes an overnight stop, either spending the night at a canal tavern or using sleeping accommodations aboard the boat, while the stagecoach left at 8 in the morning and arrived at 5 in the afternoon. However, the boat was considered "a pleasant conveyance for invalids who desire to travel or to take the sea air."
The Middlesex Canal did a more successful passenger business. The trip to Middlesex Village took 7 hours and it connected with a ferry to Boston on the Charlestown end and a stage to Lowell on the upper end – that is, after Lowell became a place of some consequence. When the canal was dug there was no Lowell - just a small settlement known as East "Chumsford" (translated: Chelmsford). Lowell didn't become a great textile center until several years later. The most pretentious of the passenger liners was the `Governor Sullivan' sometimes referred to as the `General Sullivan.' It had a carpeted cabin and upholstered seats and was considered a model of comfort and elegance. It was towed by two horses at a trot and had right of way over all other craft. The passenger on the Governor Sullivan was "protected by iron rules from the dangers of collision; undaunted by squalls of wind, realizing, should the craft be capsized he had nothing to do but walk ashore . . . (he) . . . had plenty of time for observation and reflection.
When the textile mills were built on the Merrimack, large quantities of coal and raw materials were shipped to them from Boston and finished goods returned, using canal transportation in both directions. But at first, cargos were represented primarily by granite, lumber and agricultural products from the Merrimack Valley and vicinity. For many years, the shipyards on the Mystic River and the Navy Yard at Charlestown relied on the canal for the greater part of the lumber they used in shipbuilding. With locks around the various falls on the Merrimack, a vast area was opened up, Plymouth, N. H. being the upper limit of river navigation.
On the Blackstone Canal, cargos shipped to Worcester included such commodities as salt, lime, coal and lumber. Soon after it opened a local paper announced that, "a quantity of cherry plank and joists was landed in this town ... which grew in Michigan or Ohio at the head of Lake Erie, from which it was shipped down the lake to Buffalo thence by the Erie Canal to Albany, from that place to Providence by sloop navigation and from Providence to this place by the Blackstone Canal – a distance ... of at least 900 miles, four hundred of which is artificial navigation. It is thus that articles are made valuable in one section of the country where otherwise there would be no market for them, and another section is supplied at a fair rate with that which it must otherwise do without or buy at . . . exhorbitant prices."
Cargos that came overland to the Port of Worcester to be shipped out by canal included dairy products, agricultural products, chairs and coal from the Worcester coal mine. When the canal was built it was expected that this coal would contribute substantially to profits. Professor Hitchcock in his Geology of Massachusetts said of the coal, "it will be considered by posterity, if not by the present generation, as a treasure of great value." It was considered "suitable for furnaces where intense heat and great fires are required." It received much publicity in the local papers. For instance, "Captain Thomas has fitted up a stove for burning it in his bar room where for about a week past, he has not used a particle of any other fuel, and has had as handsome and as good a fire as we have ever witnessed of either the Lehigh or Schuylkil coal." It's possible that these opinions were influenced by a touch of what Capt'n Thomas served in his bar room.
In developing the mine a shaft was driven 300 feet into the hill and at one time 20 men were employed there. However, when Col. Amos Binney, its chief promoter, died it was closed and the mineral "which might be made to give motion to the wheels of manufacturing . . . has been permitted to rest undisturbed in its bed." People who used the coal, the publicity notwithstanding, were inclined to feel it vastly overrated. One user caustically remarked that the residual ash weighed more than the coal itself!
The Blackstone had not been operating many months when boatmen discovered that short hauls were the most profitable – especially in stretches with fewer locks. Worcester people felt neglected. The inhabitants, the newspaper said, "have derived but little benefit from the canal during . . . the last fortnight, although they had hundreds of tons of freight which they were anxious to get up. The reason is that all the boats now on the canal can be more profitably employed in doing the business of the lower end of the route. We hope our citizens will take measures to have a regular line of boats from this place early in the spring."
On the pleasanter side, there were excursion boats that took passengers on holiday jaunts. One of the better remembered was a picnic in Waterford where the Congregational Society of that town played host to the Uxbridge Congregational Society. "So together with many from North Uxbridge they made a goodly number. They went by canal. The boat was decorated with festoons and evergreens and . . . a kind of bannerette . . . called Gideon's Lamp." The trip took three hours and progress was so slow that many of the passengers got out and walked. At one sharp turn the boat nearly upset. When they got to the picnic spot there was a scarcity of lunch. "The Uxbridge guests expected the Waterford people to furnish the repast so went without any food. The Waterford people evidently did not so intend their invitation, so when lunch time came the Uxbridge people were not invited to partake with them." One of the passengers came to the rescue and bought a barrel of crackers and a quantity of cheese out of which the Uxbridge people made their lunch.
On the Middlesex Canal, Horn Pond in Woburn was a favorite place to go on a holiday, being readily accessible from Boston by boat. Pleasure barges took passengers on scenic trips around the lake while "Kendall's Brass Band and the Brigade Band of Boston rendered sweet harmony and the crowds wandered from the groves to the lake and back to the canal where shots of lumber, rafts and canal boats were continually passing through the locks."
One young lady, writing in her diary about a trip to Horn Pond, mentions stopping near some water lilies. Some of the ladies expressed a desire for them and Daniel Webster, who happened to be aboard, remarked "If I was a young man I should not let a young lady ask for those flowers in vain." Whereupon two gallant men "dashed into the lake and wading about gathered a number of lilies, brought them to shore and distributed them at the great risk of their health as they were obliged to wear their wet clothes the rest of the afternoon. Fortunately they were attired in black silk or stuff pantaloons which were not injured in appearance." The diary also states that the young lady's mother considered it very thoughtless of Mr. Webster to say what he did and to encourage the young men to run the risk of pneumonia.
The Blackstone had one thorn in its side that the Middlesex managed to avoid – sabotage. There were constant disputes between boatmen and millowners. The millowners said that the canal was using too much water – the boatmen maintained, and correctly, that there wouldn't be all that water there except for the reservoirs built by the canal company. As early as 1829, the second year of operation, the embankment of a canal feeder near Millbury was destroyed by some laborers in the employ of a manufacturing establishment. The event received much adverse publicity and the embarrassed millowner, who had ordered the work done, made reparation. As time went on, sabotage became less and less of a transgression and millowners openly indulged in it. In order to conserve their dwindling water supply they sometimes dumped large stones into the locks by night, rendering them inoperative; the boatmen retaliated by threatening to burn the mills and armed guards had to be hired to prevent any such disaster.
Tolls on the Blackstone reached their peak in 1832 – 3 years before completion of the Boston and Worcester Railroad. That year nearly $19,000 in tolls was collected – rather a puny figure when you consider that the canal cost $750,000. They also paid the first and biggest dividend that year – $1.00. Receipts slumped badly with the advent of the railroad and continued downward during the remainder of the canal's existence. The last toll was collected in 1848, a year after the canal was dealt a fatal blow by the advent of the Worcester and Providence Railroad. Passengers could now make the trip in 2 hours instead of 14 by boat or 9 by stagecoach. The canal could operate from an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset; the railroad could run at night. When the Boston and Worcester Railroad went into operation 13 years earlier, night railroading was not permitted except when unavoidable. Locomotives were not equipped with headlights. Once a train got delayed outside Worcester and had to complete its journey after dark. The engineer reported, "ran into some cattle at 9 P. M. and killed two of them. It was so dark, could not see."
Tolls on the Middlesex reached a peak in 1833. The figure reflected business stimulated by construction of the Boston and Lowell Railroad. That year a dividend of $30.00 a share was paid but with it came this note of warning, "In a short time a large part of the tolls will be paid to another corporation." Three years later, in 1836, the canal lost its Lowell tonnage to the railroad, but continued to operate reasonably profitably for another 6 years by which time the railroad had been extended to Concord, N. H.; and after that tolls rapidly faded out until 1853 when the last one was collected.
When abandonment appeared inevitable a scheme was proposed for using the ditch as an aqueduct to bolster Boston's diminishing water supply. "If the canal cannot put out the fire of the locomotive," Caleb Eddy, the manager wrote, "it may be made to stop the ravages of that element in the city of Boston." Boston wells were going dry and the water in them was becoming contaminated. "One specimen," Eddy wrote, "which gave 3% animal and vegetable putrescent matter, was publicly sold as a mineral water; it was believed that water having such a remarkable fetid odor and nauseous taste could be no other than that of a sulfur spring; but its medicinal powers vanished with the discovery that the spring arose from a neighboring drain."
The Concord river water had been analyzed by "four of the most distinguished and able chemists in the country, all of whom agree that it is in every respect of the requisite purity for drinking and for culinary and for all other purposes." One of these distinguished chemists became even more distinguished later – his name was Professor Webster and he murdered Dr. Parkman in his Cambridge laboratory and disposed of the body in his incinerator.
Not only would Boston benefit from this project; also, vast tracts of meadowland in Wayland and Sudbury could be restored, if the flatboards on the Billerica dam were removed. This dam had been enlarged during a modernization program in 1830, causing water to back up over the Sudbury meadows and ruining, according to one authority, 10,000 acres of the most valuable meadowland in the state. This figure increased substantially over the years with silting from the sluggish stream. Considerable litigation had brought no benefit to the proprietors of the Sudbury meadows as there was a clause in the Middlesex Canal charter that couldn't be surmounted. When the aqueduct proposition failed the canal faced abandonment. It had been, as one of its original proprietors put it, "A magnanimous enterprise."
Today portions of canal and towpath can still be seen, especially in Billerica and Wilmington but each year a little more becomes obliterated by the bulldozer as it levels the ground for real estate development. Two aqueducts, one in Billerica and the other in Wilmington have been spared destruction.
Parts of the Blackstone can also be seen. In Pawtucket, several miles of canal and towpath are being preserved as a recreational park. One lock still remains almost intact – a fine example of the labor and skill that went into hand cut granite. When the canal was abandoned the other locks were dismantled and sold for building stones.
The Blackstone has been spoken of as a "magnificent enterprise." "To the Providence and Worcester Railroad it was a sort of forerunner, hinting at the grades, furnishing a path, and opening an avenue for the transportation of heavy freight . . . every town along the whole line is deeply indebted to it for the present growth and prosperity."
Had it been built 25 years earlier and confined to its own ditch it probably would have been a very lucrative enterprise even after the advent of the railroad. By controlling water rights on the river and selling power to the mills it could have continued prosperous even though the form of transportation it offered had become outmoded.
Upon completion of the Providence and Worcester Railroad a toast was given at a meeting in Worcester, hinting at the relative importance of the two methods of transportation – "The two unions between Worcester and Providence. The first was weak as water, the last as strong as iron."
(Mr. Dickson has written several articles on the Middlesex Canal and has lectured extensively on the subject. Some members may remember his interesting illustrated talk to us about his travels on the English canals. He is now again sailing through England and we hope to have the pleasure of hearing him again upon his return. Ed.)
Webmaster's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 1968 issue of Towpath Topics (Vol. 6, No. 1).