Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Billerica, Massachusetts

Vol. 9, No. 2             April 1971


The annual meeting of the Middlesex Canal Association will take place on Saturday, April 24, 1971, at 2:00pm, at the First Parish Unitarian Church, in Concord, Massachusetts.

After the business meeting, which will include the election of officers and directors for the ensuing year, we will have the pleasure of hearing Mr. W. Glen Gray, Park Manager of the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site in Saugus, Massachusetts. Mr. Gray will talk about the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Washington and will outline the National Park Service's plans for the development of the Canal as a national park.

We have planned this talk on the C & O Canal this time because of the increasing discussion of creating a national park in the area of the Middlesex Canal and also because, on the following weekend, the Canal Society of New York and the Pennsylvania Canal Society are holding a joint meeting in Washington to visit the old C & O Canal. All Middlesex Canal Association members and others are invited to attend this meeting. Along with this issue the registration forms are being sent to all our members and others on the mailing list.


The reason for holding our annual meeting in Concord this year is that, starting on March 27, there have been on display at the Thoreau Lyceum, 156 Belknap Street, Concord, Massachusetts, various materials from the collection of the Middlesex Canal Association. This exhibit was suggested by Mrs. Thomas W. McGrath, curator of the Thoreau Lyceum, as a result of her attending a hearing on a bill in the Legislature to direct the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a study as to the feasibility of developing the Canal as a recreational and historic area. Since Henry David Thoreau and his brother made a celebrated journey through the Canal during their "week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers", it was felt that the exhibit at the Lyceum of Canal memorabilia would be a very interesting and logical one. The exhibit will continue through at least April 24 so that any members who have not had an opportunity to see it before will be able to do so either before or after the annual meeting. The Lyceum is open every day from 10:00 to 5:00 and from 2:00 to 5:00 on Sundays. Members, guests and friends are most welcome.

Reminiscences and explorations of the long-since disused canal, now remarkable chiefly as a mouldering ditch that runs cross-country through the pine barrens of Middlesex County Massachusetts, an interesting landmark of earlier times.
by Mal Wood
(June 1931)

The traveler on the main line of the Boston and Maine railroad from Lowell to Boston, has frequent glimpses of a partly-dry ditch paralleling the tracks for several miles in Billerica and Wilmington. Near Silver Lake station it is most readily noticed. Possibly not one in a hundred realizes that this swampy, tangled gully marks the site of the former Middlesex Canal, which once permitted boats and barges to travel from the Charlestown Mill Pond (present Charles River Basin) to Middlesex Village on the outskirts of Lowell. Thence the river traffic made its way upstream to Concord, New Hampshire, and even beyond. Timber and the produce of the soil came down from the northern forests and champaigns, proceeding safely inland to Boston across Middlesex County. Returning cargoes of manufactured goods, implements of husbandry, and household effects, completed the exchange of commodities, and supported this fluvial commerce.

A large scale map, such as the topographic sheets of the United States Geological Survey, will reveal how the Merrimac at Lowell bends northeastward with its valley and swings in a jagged hook to enter the ocean at the Joppa Flats by Newburyport and Salisbury. If the mouth of the river lay on the prolongation of the axis of its general course southeast from the White Mountains to the Massachusetts boundary, it would reach the sea near Lynn Harbor or on the south shore of Boston Bay. The geological formation of the country, however, is not so disposed as to permit this rectilinear rigidity on the part of the river. Fort Hill, a glacial drumlin in Lowell, and the highland surrounding the Boston Basin (remnant rampart of the once-mighty Quincy Volcano) shunt the Merrimac northward, where its valley curves gracefully amid rolling hills to the sea. Above Pawtucket Falls at Lowell, the river has but ninety feet to drop to mean tide-water, whereas the hills opposing it frequently reach elevations between three and four hundred feet above sea level.

When the Bay Colony was chartered, its northern county of Middlesex was granted under false presumptions concerning the lay of the land both as concerns the course of the Merrimac and the extent of North America.

The mouth of the river had been discovered by the Sieur de Monts and by Champlain, exploring southward from the Saint Lawrence. The French were previously aware of the existence of the river from the Indians, who had told them of a beautiful river of Merrimac lying to the south. The name of the river refers either to the rocks and rapids or to the falls, and the reputation for beauty was surely justified, as we of today can testify with only the bedammed, polluted, and harassed stream of our times as evidence. In granting the lands of the Bay Colony, the Crown assumed that the "Monomacke or Merriemacke" (over a score of variants appear for the spelling of the Merrimac, including that form with the "K" which the city of Lowell "legalized" by an act of Congress) ran in a general west to east course, and the northern boundary of Massachusetts was established as a line following the course of the river and three miles to the north of it, extending westerly to the Pacific ocean, presumed to be somewhere about where the Hudson River actually is. Prior to adjustment of notions of the geography of the country to the facts of the case, and long after, a period of debate and uncertainty ensued as to just how large the State of Massachusetts was to be.

Thus New Hampshire was for long a province of Massachusetts as far north as Lake Winnepesaukee, where the Endicott Rock, protected by a canopy, still points to the earlier boundary near the Weirs.

The Merrimac River, formed by confluence of the Winnepesaukee and Pemigewasset Rivers, offered the easiest and most natural access to the intervales and forests of the northern region. Except for the meadows along the rivers and streams, and occasional glades in the wood, an unbroken forest covered the country, and made travel difficult to any save the forest runner and the Indian. Waterways possessed necessarily great advantages, then, over land routes in the development of transportation, even after the advent of the first highways, in the era previous to rail and automotive travel. Even now, travel by water has the edge over other methods in cheapness, cleanliness, and leisurely ease of locomotion when time is not a major factor.

At the close of the eighteenth century, in the area embraced by modern Lowell, were situate the Indian villages of Wamesit and Pawtucket, while Nathan Tyler's family pastured cows in the heart of the future industrial and mercantile city. Boston, metropole of 20,000 souls, rather than the cities of the lower Merrimac valley, was the objective of travelers on the river. To follow the Merrimac all the way to the sea, meant a lengthened journey northeast to Newburyport and further circumnavigation of Cape Anne, the latter part of the trip being on the open sea along a rocky coast fraught with peril to the shallow skiffs and barges, with their low freeboard suited to river going. Today, canals make it possible for light craft to navigate the protected estuaries of the Plum Island and Squam Rivers, cutting off the Cape behind Rockport and Gloucester; but even if these aids to navigation had existed in the early eighteen hundreds, they would not have shortened the distance from the Pawtucket Falls to Boston sufficiently to compete with the undertaking of the canal across Middlesex County. The navigation of the Merrimac from Lowell to the sea was not untrammeled, either, for a canal was necessary around the Pawtucket Falls, and rapids in Lawrence and Haverhill required skill in descent, unloading and carrying.

Fate seems to have conspired against the settlement at Newbury from the outset. Not a few antiquarians, and all true boosters of Bossy Gillis' home town, will inform you that Newburyport was settled before Plymouth. Careless records and the weight of inaccurate but established and unprotested authorities would account for the legend of Plymouth Rock and all that. Be that as it may, Newburyport's partisans feel that their city was cheated of its true title of glory in the history of Pilgrim settlement. It is incontestable that there are many old houses and other landmarks pointing to occupation since the earliest days of the Colony.

In another matter, Nature rather than History, cheated Newbury of its full due, in making it the mouth of an important river, and yet rendering its harbor of scant account. Large enough for the Atlantic Fleet to ride at anchor, the harbor is closed off by a sandbar that up to the present has defied the efforts of engineering skill to maintain a channel of sufficient depth and stability.

Subsequently, Lowell has long cherished a dream of being a seaport, and in the heyday of her industrial prosperity presented bills before Congress to render the Merrimac navigable to that city from the sea. Cheap coal, waterborne from southern ports, and her own shipping facilities for her textiles, might have greatly strengthened the position of Lowell in the manufacturing world. The expense of the project, however, and its difficulties seem to have precluded any serious entertainment of the idea. A really important project of a sewer from Concord to the sea, to free the Merrimac from pollution, was merged in the seaport scheme, and the two projects finally were shelved and all but forgotten.

Thus, at the time of the canal, and later when Lowell dreamed of ships of the seven seas anchored in the lee of her mile of mills, Newburyport narrowly but completely missed out in great doings. The irony of it all, is in part that Newburyport capital provided for the first improvement of navigation on the Merrimac, the Pawtucket Canal, and looked to the river for expansion and prosperity.

However that might have been, Newburyport was not much consulted when the project of a canal from Lowell to Boston was conceived: or rather a canal from the Pawtucket Falls in East Chelmsford, since Lowell did not exist at the time, and James Cabot Lowell had not yet attained that fame in textile manufacture which won for his name the baptism of the city on the Merrimac. Less than thirty miles overland separated the two points, while the journey by river and sea was upwards of an hundred miles or more.

The student interested in the records of the old canal will undoubtedly take pleasure in consulting the sources to which I have had access for the following account. The Lowell Public Library and the Old State House in Boston contain many references; the Special Libraries of the Boston Public Library possess unrivalled source-material in the Sullivan scrapbooks, and the libraries in Chelmsford, Billerica, Wilmington, Woburn, Medford, Winchester, Somerville and Charlestown may be consulted for the sake of thoroughness. Persons making a sort of hobby of the old canal form a select few, who might well organize a Canal Club to further interest in and preservation of remarkable portions of the old canal. Town engineers along the line of the canal route are usually familiar with the course it followed across the streets which since have obliterated parts of it, and most of us faddists who have followed the old towpath, are indebted for help to one or another of the daedalian fraternity. Frederick W. Coburn, of the Lowell Courier Citizen, one of the personae docti of canal lore, suggests a book embodying records and reminiscences. Forthcoming or not, probably no account will ever succeed in including all the memoirs and records of the old days, many of which have forever disappeared. Eighty years since the canal was discontinued, and hardly a man is now alive who can do better than remember someone who could once tell from personal recollection of going to Boston by packet from Middlesex Village. Old landmarks are fast disappearing, and early enterprise has yielded before the industrial revolution.

The Middlesex Canal never formed any part of the Locks and Canals system which gave to Lowell the travesty title of Venice of America. In 1792, the Pawtucket Canal, forerunner of the Locks and Canals, was begun by Dudley Tyng, William Coombs,, supported by Newburyport capital and incorporated as the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on Merrimack River. In the same year, the first bridge was constructed by Parker Varnum across the river at the falls. By 1796, two successive contractors had completed the mile and a half of canal, via the Lily Pond and Speen's Brook (no trace of either remaining), at a cost of $50M. At ceremonies inaugurating the canal, the main lock burst, immersing dignitaries and spectators in a river-bath with, fortunately, no injuries to any concerned. Historians of the times construct elaborate rhetorical periods on the incident, not without a certain humour.

Designed primarily as an aid to navigation, the canal had four sets of locks, which let down around a fall of thirty two feet. Later, in 1821, when Kirk Boot and Patrick Tracy Jackson undertook their model experiment in industrialism which, after many vicissitudes, became the cosmopolitan-provincial present-day Lowell, a period of transition was inaugurated by which the Locks and Canals Proprietors acquired a strangle-hold on Lowell's industrial prosperity, through the control of water rights. Even today, long after the era of river-travel, traffic on the river can demand to be locked around the falls via the Pawtucket Canal. The usual reply on the part of engineer Safford to such a request, is to place a truck at the disposal of the canoeist who travels the murky Merrimac, as the expense of lowering the canal level is quite large in view of the diversion of water-power. Much could be written of the Locks and Canals in Lowell, the sole surviving Proprietors of such vested rights, who have exercised a guiding control on the destinies of the city and it would be easy to distribute both extravagant praise and excessive blame in so doing.

The Housatonic Canal Proprietors could claim the honor of having been incorporated prior to the Act of 1793 whereby the General Court and the signature of Governor John Hancock chartered the Middlesex Canal. Still, nothing ever came of the scheme to build a canal from Boston to the Connecticutt River, via the Housatonic Valley; and the original intention of the Middlesex Canal promoters being to reach the Connecticutt via the Merrimac River and Lake Sunapee, the "Oousatonic" project fell through after a survey had been completed and prospectus issued. Indeed, the ambition of Boston dreamed of tapping the Saint Lawrence waterway by means of the Middlesex Canal, Merrimack River, Lake Sunapee, the Connecticutt River, and the lakes and streams of northern Vermont. A departure showing more concern for Boston's trade expansion than for the logical development of the Saint Lawrence, Great Lakes, and Hudson River waterways!

The moving spirits behind the proposed canal were Loammi Baldwin, the Honorable James Sullivan, Honorable John Brook, and the Hall family, inter alia, all distinguished members of the early republican community. Loammi's (the name is redolent of other-time-ness) titles to fame include, besides a Harvard College education, the propagation of the apple that bears his name, the Baldwin, his boyhood association with America's least known and most distinguished son, Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, and the sponsorship of the canal. The Honorable Mr. Sullivan had held the high post of governor of the Bay Colony, among many other offices, and acquitted himself with distinction in all.

The preliminary survey of the terrain, by one Thomas, a local surveyor, gave rise to a belief that the Merrimac would be used to supply the water for the canal. He estimated that the land dropped away sixteen and a half feet from above the Pawtucket Falls to the Concord at Billerica Mills, and thence sixty eight and a half feet to the tidewater of the Charles. It was agreed that the canal should follow a course across Chelmsford, Billerica, Woburn, Medford, and Charlestown, although the Concord River had been considered, with a canal to the Charles in Sudbury. The discarded route was too circuitous and required improvement almost as great as that of the more direct route. No construction was begun, wisely, until the services of a Mr. Weston, an English surveyor, then in Philadelphia, had been secured. He disclosed that the Concord would have to furnish the water for the canal, the level at Billerica Mills being twenty-five feet above the Merrimac, and one hundred and four feet above the Charlestown Mill Pond. This upset in calculation led to a second petition to the Legislature, resulting in the Act of 1795 authorising canalisation of the Concord to Sudbury and as far beyond as deemed practicable. Besides ensuring a water supply this was partly to forestall competitive enterprise. Work on the canal began in 1794, and the Mystic Terminal was completed in 1803, the canal going into operation the succeeding year, although boats appeared on it before. The cost of construction was just over half a million dollars. By November, 1851, the last boat traveled down to Charlestown, and in the same year the proprietors surrendered their charter; in 1852, the proprietors disposed of their holdings in sections, for the sum of $130M, mostly to abuttors; and in 1859 the attorney general delivered the coup de grace, declaring all rights forfeit for non-user, neglect, non-feasance, and mis-feasance.

The land over which the canal ran had to be purchased from over one hundred owners; resort was taken to seizure by right of eminent domain in but sixteen instances, while for thirteen parcels no deed could be discovered by investigators into the records of the canal company. Finished, it was twenty-seven and one quarter miles long, from Middlesex Village to Charlestown; there were twenty sets of locks at ten points in its length; it crossed seven streams or ponds on aqueducts; crossed the Concord River by a floating towpath and guard locks; and was spanned by fifty bridges. The cost in 1804 was over half a million dollars, one third of which represented land damages and claims including over one hundred assessments, however, levied up to 1819, the cost was $1,164,200.00, which covered improvement of the Merrimack to make it navigable as far as Concord, New Hampshire. The dykes were thirty feet apart, and the bottom of the canal eighteen feet wide. The depth is stated to have been four feet. The canal was cut or excavated in few places, being mostly a combination of ditch and dyke, and occasionally crossed marshy lowlands on a high embankment, as in the vicinity of the Shawsheen acqueduct. It was the first American traction canal, of a type already familiar in Europe. The Chesapeake and Ohio and Erie canals owed their inspiration to its successful realisation.

Although some talk was made of utilising the Concord River as a waterway to Sudbury, and a steamboat did actually navigate to Concord, Massachusetts, nothing ever came of the discussion. Shares in the canal, originally eight hundred in number, sold for twenty-five dollars when first floated, steadily rose to a peak of $500 each in 1804, but fell off to $300 in 1816 during the period of assessments. From 1819 to 1836 was the period of prosperity. Receipts mounted to $30M annually, and a yearly income of $40M was anticipated. Estates invested in canal shares, and many women were stockholders when the crash came, indicating the confidence of the most cautious type of investors.

The first burden of assessments was due to damage suits arising from leakage and the flooding of meadow lands, and later demands were made by projects on the Merrimac River, which falls ninety feet from Concord, N. H., to Lowell. Local enterprises undertook construction of dams and canals around obstacles in the river, but proving unequal to the task, fell back on the Middlesex Proprietors for capital to continue. The Proprietors themselves applied to the legislature for aid, and received the grant of two townships of land in the Province of Maine near Moosehead Lake, which were sold without realising much profit. In 1817, there was much pessimism, which led to a special committee and report (a first having been formed in 1810), which was very favorable, and stressed the fact that the canal was completed, owned stock in many subsidiary companies, and should enter into a period of remunerative operation. This optimism was entirely justified, and the canal showed firmly increasing profits up to 1836.

In order to work the canal boats up the river to Concord, N. H., a distance of over fifty miles from Middlesex Village, many improvements were undertaken. First came Wickasee Falls, at Tyng's Island, ancestral home of Wannalancit, the great Basheeba of the Pawtucket Indians. Tyng's Island has an interesting history of its own, later becoming Lowell's favorite picnic ground when steamers ran on the river, and at present being the home of the Vesper Country Club, a beautiful and delightful attraction of the city. The backwater of the Pawtucket Dam at Lowell subsequently drowned out the rapids here. Other undertakings were the Union, Hooksett, and Bow Canals, under which headings were grouped the various rapids and shallow reaches requiring improvement. At Amoskeag, now Manchester, the most important construction was necessary, a canal of one and a half miles around the sixty foot falls. Early accounts refer to Moor's, Little Cohoes, Goff's, Short's, Griffin's, Merrill's, Craven's, and Turkey Falls. Some of these are identified with more or less ease today, and others are with difficulty to be recognised.

Competition came from two sources. In 1815 the Middlesex Turnpike was incorporated, from Medford to Tyngsborough. This gave access over the Mammoth Road into southern New Hampshire, and to the Merrimac Valley road. Turnpikes, that institution of early road-building, were so-called from the sharp pointed pikes on the gates used to turn aside travelers seeking to enter over them without payment of tolls. Today they extract it in the form of a gasoline tax. This turnpike, as most others, ran in an airline cross-country, even dividing Nuttings Lake by a causeway across the middle: the Londonderry, Chester, Salem-Lawrence, Newburyport, and Middlesex turnpikes still survive as roads, although the latter has never received the improvement it deserves as an express highway from Boston to Lowell. Few, indeed, are aware of its existence of the regular commuters between the two cities, such is its surface and the present inaccessibility of the Lowell end. Two early turnpikes, the Salem and the Newburyport, are modern routes, and serve as object lessons that for modern speeding traffic the curve which takes a road "straight" up over the brow of a hill may be even more dangerous than that which would skirt its base.

A regular transport system of wains, ox-drawn, traveled the turnpike, and reached to the Connecticutt valley and Vermont. These wagons were canvas-covered and advertised as proof against water-damage. The mud and rainy seasons rather tended to disrupt schedules, as winter and ice did on the canal. Storekeepers bought stocks twice a year, and the economics of purchasing were quite different to what they are with express deliveries. The wains withdrew a large army of men and productive employment, and yielded before the coming of the railroad.

In fact, despite complaints against the turnpike, which they regarded as an intruder on their privileges, the canal owners did not really find themselves pressed to the wall until the building of the railroad. When, in 1828, the Boston and Lowell Railroad was chartered, vigorous opposition was concerted by canal and turnpike, in league against the common enemy. The railroad was characterised as an impious undertaking, and the Speaker of the House was informed that while quite suited to the old world, railroads would never do in a young country such as ours. It must be remembered that the only real railroad, aside from short narrow gauge experiments, in America at the time, was the Schenectady and Albany. The Canal Proprietors went on to object that the railroad was neither the cheapest nor the safest means of conveyance, that it never could hope, like the canal, to extend to the Connecticutt River Valley, and that a slight saving in time was no object with honorable gentlemen. Furthermore, the canal owners claimed the protection of the legislature, as the railroad would obviously preclude their ever realizing a fair return on their investment. The rights of widows and orphans who had property in the canal, were argued. Notwithstanding, the canal and turnpike were doomed. Winter interrupted canal service for five months and the muddy season raised havoc with the turnpike, which was by no means imperviously surfaced.

June 5, 1830, Patrick Tracy Jackson's railroad, with a graded right of way and flattened curves, was put into operation. It was one of the pioneer roads of the world, and for the first year ran over stone sleepers, a measure of false economy which wore out rolling stock, and in the frosts of the ensuing spring failed utterly by losing the spikes. A portion of the old roadbed has been re-laid on granite ties in Lucy Larcom Park, Lowell, as a monument to the old days. Granted a monopoly for thirty years within a radius of five miles about their terminus, the Boston & Lowell fared little better at the hands of the legislature than the Canal Proprietors, for within ten years the Lowell and Lawrence, Lowell and Salem, and Lowell and Nashua railroads had invaded their rich manufacturing territory.

By 1835, the canal tonnage dues had fallen off 50% from the yearly average of the previous decade. Even the novelty of steamboats failed to meet the gage thrown down by the railroad. The latter put Lowell across, and made possible the seemingly absurd miracle of manufacturing cotton goods at a remote point from the raw materials. In 1838, the city was incorporated, and in 1847 aroused the attention of the entire civilised world with the Lowell Offering and the Operatives' Magazine, literary media of the working girls. Lucy Larcom's poetry, local and minor though it may be in national letters, was first published in the mill girls' magazines. Those were days made splendid by the large idealism and constructive accomplishments of Lowell's founders days alas, forever gone and besmirched by the small and corrupt political era of today. Cheap immigration by its influx changed the worthy and native scene.

James Langdon Sullivan, who succeeded Loammi Baldwin on the latter's death in 1808 as superintendent of the canal, experimented with steam propulsion on the canal, and built a sternwheel boat in 1819, which, however, damaged the soft gravel banks with its wash. In 1834, a regular service was established between Lowell and Nashua. The boats did not develop power enough to stem the strong current of the rapids and haul freight, and so failed in their chief object. Droughts and freshets on the Merrimack River constantly raised nob with the river traffic; experience in Europe, where canals are an important feature of the transportation, has shown that rivers are not dependable in every instance, the Merrimac being of the type which would require a canal along its bank, with locks for immission of feeding water, and reservoirs and dams for supply.

In 1852, the canal gave up the struggle, a year memorable also for the Great Freshet on the Merrimac River. Since its inception, the great city of Lowell had grown to prominence in the pastures of Chelmsford, and far outshadowed the Middlesex Village brought into being by the canal. The city brought the railroad, and the railroad killed the canal. It has been remarked, with sly humour, that the canal, like an accusing ghost, never wanders far from its murderer, being almost constantly in sight from Lowell to West Medford on the Boston-bound train. One of the last of freight carried by the canal boats, by a strange irony, were the stone sleepers for the railroad, which were floated to convenient points, and another was the first locomotive to run over the rails, which was shipped piecemeal to Lowell, by water, that the honor of starting off the first train might belong to the city on the Merrimac.