Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Vol. V, No. 2 August, 1967
Special Commemorative Issue
The Middlesex Canal Association is pleased to welcome its friends from New York, Pennsylvania, and points west to the first interstate canal meeting held in Massachusetts. The meeting takes place on the weekend of August 4-5-6, 1967, at the Holiday Inn in Tewksbury.
Many events have been planned, but the focal point of the weekend will take place on Saturday during a bus tour of the Canal: At 2:00 p.m. the American Society of Civil Engineers will dedicate the Canal as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by unveiling a plaque on the Shawsheen River Aqueduct (Route 129, at the Billerica-Wilmington town line).
The complete program is as follows:
Friday, August 4, 4:00 - 9:00 p.m. - Registration
Saturday, Aug. 5, 8:00 - 9:00 a.m. - Registration
9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.-Bus tour
12:00 noon - Lunch at Count Rumford birthplace, Woburn
2:00 p.m. - Dedication of A.S.C.E. plaque at Shawsheen River Aqueduct, Billerica.
7:00 p.m. - Banquet at Holiday Inn; among the speakers are: Dr. Richard W. Hale, Jr., Acting Chairman, Mass. Historical Commission; Commissioner Robert L. Yasi of the Department of Natural Resources; Mr. Earle T. Andrews, President, A.S.C.E. Showing of historic glass slides.
Sunday, Aug. 6, 11 a.m. -Tour of canals of Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River in Lowell.
In addition, special exhibits or events have been planned by the Billerica, Chelmsford, and Lowell Historical Societies.
THE MIDDLESEX CANAL
By Fred Lawson, Jr.
After the Revolutionary War the expansion of trade and manufacturing was limited by modes of travel. Roads were nothing but mud tracks, most rivers had some natural obstructions in their courses, and railroads were non-existent. Thus, men of vision and ingenuity began to devise artificial means of transportation by waterways. Before the year 1793, eight of the original thirteen states had incorporated a total of thirty canal companies. Most of these were abandoned before completion or lived on for decades in a fitful fashion with very little show of progress in actual construction.
Transportation had grown to be such a necessity that coastal cities lacking means to the interior of the country began to die. Manufactured goods could not be moved inland to sell, nor could raw materials be moved to the coast to be turned into manufactured goods. Wealthy men had to do something to stay wealthy, and struggling businessmen had to find ways to improve their livelihood or withdraw from business. This was the case of the Boston merchants. Their coastal trade was hindered by Cape Cod to the south, their inland trade was taken by the Connecticut River, which flows across the center of Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut, and by the Merrimack River which emptied into the sea at Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The only real answer to their transportation problem was a canal that would flow from the Merrimack River, above Lowell, to Boston. The concept of the canal had followed several weak attempts on the part of the first Secretary of War, General Knox, whose plan was to build a canal from the Connecticut River to Boston.
In 1792, there was a general commercial panic resulting from overspeculation, but Boston seemed to be prospering and was steadily outgrowing her means to get supplies from northern New England.
At the suggestion of James Sullivan, who was then the Attorney General of Massachusetts, and his friend Colonel Loammi Baldwin, a plan was drawn up for a canal from the southernmost reach of the Merrimack [now Lowell] to Medford. Later this plan was modified, to bring the canal to the Charles River at Charlestown making the total length 27¼ miles. Such a plan would open up a continuous 80 mile water route to Concord, New Hampshire. Through the persuasion of these two men, eleven Medford businessmen banded together and petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in April, 1792, for the, privilege of opening a canal from Boston to the Merrimack.
In February, 1793, they were incorporated as the Proprietors of the Middlesex Canal. In that era, a charter and the necessary capital were easier to come by than a capable civil engineer. The United States had no engineers and had to seek them in Europe, but most of these skilled men were from England and were mistrusted.
After an erroneous preliminary survey by Samuel Thompson, a local, self-taught surveyor, Colonel Baldwin was sent to see William Weston, an English engineer who at the time was working on two canals and a turnpike in Pennsylvania. The Colonel convinced Weston to make a survey for the Proprietors. Weston sent one of his leveling devices to Massachusetts with Baldwin, who used it until 1797 on the Middlesex Canal. This instrument was the first perfected leveling instrument ever used in America and its first fruitful use was on the Middlesex Canal.
In July, 1794, Weston came to Massachusetts and surveyed two separate routes, both of which were set forth in fairly general terms. The greatest value of the survey was the confidence inspired by Weston toward the project.
On September 10, 1794, the first sod was turned at North Billerica and The Incredible Ditch was started. During the winter, there was much sub-contracting done to build sections of the canal calculated to receive boats 40 to 75 ft. in length and 9 to 9½ ft. wide which would carry 16 to 38 ton vessels drawing about 2½ ft. of water. The canal itself would be 30 to 30.5 ft. wide at the water’s surface, 20 ft. at the bottom, and the sides would angle up at 33°. The depth of the water was to be 2½ to 3½ ft. and the towpath 10 ft. wide was to be one foot higher than the water’s surface. The berm, semi-finished side opposite the towpath, was 5 ft. wide.
From its start until its finish, the canal was the scene of constant labor problems. There was no labor force to be hired at will in this agricultural society. Men worked on the construction of the canal when things were slow on their farms, but whenever they deemed it necessary to return to their own fields, they did so. It was the first recorded project in America of people working with company tools, something a farmer was unaccustomed to.
Labor shortages often disrupted the canal time schedule and drinking and rioting were not uncommon in the company’s construction barracks. Men were often discharged for being troublemakes, only to be rehired again because there was no one to fill the vacancy. But canal trouble cannot be laid fully at the door of labor, because, more often than not, the sub-contractors did not quite know what they were doing. The Proprietors of the canal had violent arguments about how to overcome unexpected obstacles and even Colonel Baldwin, who was now the chief engineer and superintendent, threatened to quit over the constant bickering about his advice. It is amazing that, with no experience or knowledge of canal building and with its many labor and management problems, that the Middlesex Canal was ever completed. It is more amazing that the canal was completed within the ten year time limit set by the Commonwealth, thus making it the first and only canal to do so.
It was the beginning of two new eras. First, the birth of American civil engineering under Colonel Baldwin, and secondly, the beginning of a new relationship between man and his work. A man of those tunes could contribute nothing but labor to his employer, for he knew nothing of building locks, making earth watertight, how to carry a canal over a river, or how to make iron fittings for the canal locks, pumps, wagons or boats, and he knew absolutely nothing of hydraulic cement (set hard under water). Thus, the canal project was two decades ahead of the American cement industry.
Nine years were involved in the construction of the canal, so it is obvious that work was hampered by short summers, labor difficulties, poor equipment, use of gun powder (before the age of dynamite) for blasting, inexperience and constant need of repairs due’ to unwise economy in the original construction.
Finally in 1803, the last link was completed and the canal was opened to public navigation. It had 20 locks, 7 aqueducts, and was crossed by 50 bridges. It was supplied with water by the Concord River at North Billerica, which is 107 ft. above the tide at Boston, and 25 ft. above the Merrimack River.
The original course started- on the Merrimack River, a little more than a mile above the dam in Lowell in a 200 ft. diameter semi-circular basin, 12 ft. below the natural earth surface, and 5 ft. below the surface of the Merrimack at low water. From there, a double set of locks, now filled in, raised the boat to the summit level, passed under the main street of Middlesex Village (Middlesex Street), over a 110 ft. wooden aqueduct, 10 ft. above Black Brook, across the Great or Long Swamp, requiring two miles of embankments, over the small River Meadow Brook Aqueduct and on to the Mill Pond at North Billerica, where there are still the remains of a lock under the concrete platform of the Talbot Mills yards. The canal crossed Rogers and High Streets, passed through the present rail yards of the Boston and Maine car shops, after the required blasting of 800 ft. of granite, and paralleled the old Boston and Lowell Railroad tracks (now Boston and Maine) and crossed Pond, Gray, Andover, Charme, Keyes, and Brown Streets. In East Billerica, on what is now the Wilmington town line, are the remains of the canal’s largest aqueduct, "The Shawsheen," named for the river that passes 35 ft. below it. The Shawsheen Aqueduct was 188 ft. in its original length plus embankments 30-35 ft. high and several hundred yards long from each end of the aqueduct. It was later shortened to its present length.
A half mile from the Shawsheen in Wilmington was the first drop from the canal summit through Nichol’s Lock, now all but obliterated by time. Then the canal progressed across Sinking Meadow, which had embankments that took years of filling before they stopped settling into the swamp. From there, it ran to Gillis’ Lock, the second lock from the Billerica summit, and then the old canal passed west of Wilmington center via a small aqueduct and the Settle Meadow Brook embankments. Burlington Road and Butters Row were crossed before the canal reached Maple Meadow and another aqueduct was constructed over Maple Meadow Brook, a. source of the Ipswich River.
Then the canal took a sharp turn, "The Ox Bow," site of the rope marked rocks, to avoid further passage across this swampy meadow, and continued into North Woburn, paralleling Route 38 and the old Boston and Lowell Railroad tracks past Newbridge Village, site of the Baldwin Estate across from which Colonel Baldwin’s statue can be seen today. It then crossed under the state road and ran parallel to or merged with the present roadbed of the Boston & Maine Woburn Loop. It passed to the west of Woburn Square across the town meadow and along Wade Place (behind the library) and crossed Pleasant Street. Between Arlington and Beacon Streets was one of the chief engineering features of the canal, the Horn Pond Locks.
The Horn Pond or Stoddard Locks were three sets of double locks dropping a total of 50 ft. A half-mile further along the route, at the foot of Canal Street, Winchester, was Stone Lock at the crossing of Horn Pond Brook. The canal passed through a corner of the present Wildwood Cemetery, crossing Church Street on its passage to the Gardner Locks, a double set, just before the Symmes River Aqueduct, 124 ft. in length. There is a bronze plaque recording the site of the canal on the Mystic Valley Parkway near Wedgemere Station. From here, the canal ran in the present parkway until it turned away from the lake in the Sagamore Avenue area. On Boston Ave., was Gilson’s Lock and a 135 ft. aqueduct over the Mystic River. After the demise of the canal the trough of the aqueduct was filled with earth and it became the Boston Avenue Bridge, and later the wooden piers were replaced by the present concrete arch. Then the canal passed under the tracks of the old Boston and Lowell Railroad, the only place the two crossed along the route.
Then it was connected to the Mystic River, (then the Medford River), by the Medford Branch Canal (4/10 of a mile long) and started a treacherous course to avoid the Medford swamps and hills. It is now completely obliterated by factories and houses built on its path with only a stone monument in Foss Park, Somerville to mark its former route from Medford to Charlestown. The canal crossed and paralleled the Medford Turnpike, now Mystic Avenue, before it reached Sullivan Square. At Sullivan Square, there were two locks, the Malden Road Locks and, a short distance away, the lock that lead into the mill pond at Charlestown. The mill pond had two sets of locks, connecting it with the Charles River, working in both directions, according to the state of the tide. The mill pond is only a memory of the past, for after the canal company went defunct, it lingered until sometime after 1874 when it was drained and filled by the Boston and Maine for a railyard. The yards can still be seen from the Prison Point Bridge.
Once the boats were in the Charles River, they were sculled, poled or sailed to any part of Boston. In those days, there was a short canal that ran under the present North Station to Haymarket Square. The name, Canal Street, is all that remains of it.
There was another short branch canal that ran from the Charles River at the Charlestown mill pond into the State Prison yard. The prison was constructed in 1805 and the 100 ft. canal was built in 1823 to bring stone into the prison yard for the inmates to prepare for use.
The capital of the canal was raised through the sale of 1,000 shares of the stock, with no one person holding more than 20 shares. A price of $2.00 per share was paid at the time of subscription. Of the 1,000 shares issued, 800 were immediately subscribed for and the rest held for future disposal. Money for the purchase of land, equipment and construction of the canal itself was raised by assessments, 100 in all, which amounted to over $600 per share during the nine years of construction.
The estimated total cost of the canal proper was over $500,000, and the remaining property put this total over the million mark. Quite a sum in that day and age, when the common laborer received only $8 per month, plus room and board, in 1794; and $11, to $14 per month, excluding room and board, in the period between 1800 and 1803.
Though the canal was finished in 1803, there were no dividends paid until 1819. The first dividend was $15 a share and from then until 1846, the dividends per share amounted to $504. The only other dividends paid were from the sale of property and rights in 1852 and 1853. The stock itself had advanced from $25 per share in 1794 to $473 in 1803, and rose to $500 in 1804. Then the value declined slowly to $300. in 1816, and to $150 in 1846.
In 1835, the Boston and Lowell Railroad was completed. It had been engineered by James and George Baldwin, sons of the late Loammi Baldwin, who died in 1807 after severing ties with the Middlesex Canal in 1805 concerning differences over dividends. The tracks almost paralleled the course of the canal. The canal could not compete with the railroad prices and receipts fell below expenses. The irony is that the granite ties for the railroad and even the Boston and Lowell locomotive was transported up the canal by barge to Lowell, where it was assembled and put in service.
It was clear by 1850 that further competition was absurd, so in November 1851, the last boat passed through the canal and the charter to operate was surrendered.
In 1852, and 1853, the canal was sold by sections, usually to the owners of the adjoining land, for a total of $130,000. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1859 dissolved the corporation.
An era had passed. The greatest canal ever built, until the Erie, had become a thing of the past. Thereafter, it was used for pleasure only, short boat trips in the summer, skating in winter, and a source of water for washing to abutters when their wells went dry in the late summer.
Yet, more than a hundred years after its abandonment, the Middlesex Canal can still be traced for considerable distances to stir the hearts of canal buffs.
THE BOSTON AND LOWELL RAILROAD
By John A. Goodwin
With the growth of manufacturing and population in Lowell better communications between Boston and Lowell were needed. The transportation of merchandise was performed slowly in summer by the Middlesex Canal and over bad roads in winter by wagons at great cost.
A petition for a charter for a railroad between Lowell and Boston was made to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1829. This was bitterly opposed by the Middlesex Canal Company which had about one and one half million dollars invested in the canal. – In their plea against the granting of the charter, dated February 12, 1830, they cited that:
"The business establishments of Lowell have availed themselves of the canal for the transportation of all articles, except in the winter months that it is believed no safer or cheaper mode of conveyance can ever be established, nor any so well adapted to carrying heavy and bulky articles; that there is a supposed source of revenue to a railroad from carrying passengers, but that passengers are now carried at all hours as rapidly and safely as they are anywhere else in the world, and add that the use of a railroad for passengers only has been tested by experience nowhere, and that it remains to be known whether this is a mode of conveyance which will command general confidence and approbation. The remonstrants also further add that so far as they know and believe, there can never be a sufficient inducement to extend a railroad from Lowell westwardly and northwestwardly so as to make it a great avenue to and from the interior, but that its termination must always be at Lowell; that it is only a substitute for the modes of .transportation now in use between Lowell and Boston, and cannot deserve patronage from the supposition that it is to be more extensively used; that there is no such exigency as warranted the granting of the prayer for a railroad to and from Lowell, and if the prayer was granted, the remonstrants should be indemnified for the losses which will thereby be occasioned them."
The charter was granted on June 5, 1830 without any compensation awarded to the Canal Company, largely through the influence of Daniel Webster. This provided that no other railroad should be built parallel with it for 30 years and provided for a 75¢ fare from Lowell to Boston.
Patrick Tracy Jackson was the president and "agent" (general manager). Since Mr. Jackson was not an engineer he corresponded with the most distinguished engineers of this country and of Europe to solve all doubts before making a decision. This took more time (about four years) but a more satisfactory result was obtained. Grades were reduced to a level of ten feet to the mile and only large radius curves were used. He also insisted on a terminus in Boston, not across the river from Boston. The excavations for the railroad near Boston were used for fill for the flats (which were inexpensive to buy) thereby gaining about ten acres of land which was adequate at that time. Iron "fish belly" rails from England were used originally having 15 and 18 foot lengths. These were laid on granite sleepers which rested on stone walls set three feet deep to avoid frost heaves. The sleepers were set as nearly level as possible exactly three feet apart. The top was cut flat where a chair holding the rail was located. This was spiked into a wooden plug in a hole in the sleeper. The rails were held in the chairs by iron wedges driven in on the side of the rail. The rails were laid to four feet eight and one half inches on centers - standard gauge today. The roadbed was built for double track and the entire right of way was graded and bridges built before any track was laid. Only one track was laid the entire distance. This was a slow and expensive way to build, further the track was too unyielding which resulted in rough riding and was hard on the rolling stock, especially the locomotives. The second track was completed in 1848 and laid with "T" rails on wooden ties set in rubble. As soon as this was ready for service the old track was relaid with the "T" rails. This also permitted the use of heavier locomotives.
The first locomotive, the "Stephenson," was built by Robert Stephenson Company in England and was shipped to Lowell over the Middlesex Canal in a knocked-down condition with no blueprints or instructions for assembling it at the Locks and Canals Company Shop (The Lowell Machine Shop) where two skilled mechanics assembled it. It developed 30 horsepower and had four 48-inch wheels and no cab. Major George Washington Whistler was brought to Lowell in 1834 as the superintendent of the Shop to design and build steam locomotives, the first in New England to do this. (The Mason Machine Works in Taunton, Mass., and the Amoskeag Shop in Manchester, N. H., followed Lowell in the building of locomotives. All of these shops built textile machinery.) Actually two engines were built in 1831 and purchased from the Stephenson Company. The second locomotive, named the "Whistler," was considered to be too light and was renamed "Massachusetts" and sold to the Boston and Providence Railroad.
The first run was made on May 27, 1835 with the locomotive from England hauling three passengers from Lowell to Boston. Those passengers were Patrick T. Jackson, the agent during construction; George W. Whistler, Chief Engineer at the Lowell Shop, and James F. Baldwin, the civil engineer who surveyed the road. The run to Boston (26 miles) took 1 hour and 17 minutes. The return trip with 24 passengers took 1 hour and 20 minutes without stops.
Passenger service started June 24, 1835 with two trains from Lowell in the morning and two from Boston in the afternoon. The fare was $1.00 for first class and 75¢ for second class since the charter called for the lower fare. The second class car had no sides and had wooden benches and was nick-named "Belvidere." (Later the fares were reduced to 65¢ for first class and 45¢ for second class). An engineer was imported from England to run the "Stephenson" who made quite an act of his position to gain personal recognition and was very independent of schedules and of the conductor; after rigging breakdowns of the Lowell-built engines, he was replaced by a skilled mechanic from the Lowell Machine Shop.
The first locomotive built in Lowell was outshopped on June 30, 1835 and was named "The Patrick" after P. T. Jackson. The second engine, the "Lowell" was completed July 1st. These had brass driving wheels and burned wood and were used for passenger service.
The first passenger cars were like large three-compartment stage coach bodies on flanged wheels. Each car had six cross-seats. The conductor rode on a seat up front on top and signaled the engineer with a whistle. The brakeman rode up on the seat on the rear end of the car. The brake was similar to that on a regular stage coach. The cars were linked together by three loose iron links which was hard on those riding the cars, especially their necks.
Freight service started on July 5th with the "Stephenson" doing the honors. This consisted of 14 cars carrying about 3½ tons each – less than 50 tons for the entire train. The cars were simply a platform on 4 wheels. The merchandise was covered with canvas tied at the corners and sides of the cars. The freight rates were:
"Merchandise generally to Boston ......$1.25 per 2,000 pounds
Merchandise by cargoes.....................$1.10 per 2,000 pounds
Pig iron, lime, cement, plaster, slate, dyewood in the stick, flour and grain, oil and coarse salt in lots of 3 tons at cargo prices."
(The rates over the road at this time was $2.50 to $4.00 per ton.)
The Boston and Lowell station at the Lowell end was at Merrimack Street and Dutton Street where the present Y.M.C.A. is located. This was also used for the Nashua and Lowell trains until the Middlesex Street (Northern Depot) station was built and the Pawtucket Canal bridged for them.
As a result of the large number of requests for stops along the line a fourth locomotive was purchased and a purely local train was run which immediately did a good business.
Shortly after the rails were changed to the "T" rail three 14-ton locomotives were purchased from the Lowell Machine Shop named "Samson," "Hercules" and "Goliath" and these were followed in 1850 by the two larger and more powerful locomotives, the "Baldwin" and the "Whistler" from the Lowell Shop. On March 27, 1850 the "Whistler" with twelve cars made the run from Lowell to Boston in 28 minutes. (It is interesting to note that in this day of modern diesel locomotives and the Budd RDC’s the time table indicates a 30-minute minimum running time between Lowell and Boston whereas the old atlantic-type steam locomotives had a scheduled time of 28 minutes and frequently made it in less time.)
For the first 40 years the B. & L. concentrated on improving equipment and service then realized the impracticability of isolationism. The Nashua and Lowell was leased in 1880 and the following year it agreed with the Concord (N. H.) Railroad on a plan for joint operation which was dissolved within two years. The two roads had bought control of the Manchester & Keene Railroad which continued to be a part of the B. & L. after separation with the Concord R.R. in 1883. In 1884 the Lowell road leased the Northern Railroad (Concord, N. H. to White River Junction, Vt.) and the Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad (Concord, N. H. to Wells River, Vt.) The Lowell also bought control of and leased the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad. It also leased the Connecticut ad Passumpsic River Railroad (White River junction to Newport, Vt.). In 1887 the Boston and Lowell was leased to the Boston and Maine Railroad which now owns and operates it.
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