Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Billerica, Massachusetts
Volume 10, No. 2    December, 1972

Winter Meeting

The winter meeting of the Middlesex Canal Association will take place on Sunday, January 28, 1972, at 8:00 P.M., at the Unitarian Church in Billerica Center.

The program will consist of the showing of Canal slides. Bring your own. Projectors will be available.

In addition, Professor Adams and Col. Hoxie will show pictures, maps and an explanation of the recent excavation of the old dam at Charlestown. (See President's Message).

New Officers and Directors

At the postponed annual election of officers held on September 10, 1972, the following slate was elected:


President Douglas P. Adams, Charlestown
Vice President Wilbar M. Hoxie, Plaistow, N.H.
Treasurer John D. Mason, Billerica
Recording Secretary Harley P. Holden, Shirley
Secretary Georgia B. St. Onge, Westford
Edwin L. Clarke, Melrose Fred L. Lawson, Jr., Billerica
Mary Stetson Clarke, Melrose Roland E. Shaine, Lexington
Arthur L. Eno, Jr., Carlisle John D. Snelling, Lincoln
Joseph V. Kopycinski, Chelmsford       Frances VerPlanck, Winchester

A Message From The President

Perhaps in his opening message a President may indulge in a melange of history, speculation, exhortation, exultation and plain rambling.

Love of the Middlesex Canal in persons' minds and hearts stemmed doubly from the wondrous greening it bequeathed to every countryside mile and from the casual grace with which it bore enormous burdens between the productive hinterland and the insatiable metropolis. Its quiet softness appealed to the ladies, its massive achievements to men, its unending surprises to children --- seemingly beckoning everyone to join with it in a higher order and enjoyment of life. Its demise was accepted as a defeat; it was abandoned for a century to ignominy and repudiation until, its unmerited penance over, nostalgia for its beauty and a deep appreciation of its contributions began to haunt the minds of those who still knew its story.

Unfortunately the pall of change hung more deeply over the southern portions. People often think of the upper Canal as primarily gifted with sylvan charm and economic contribution. This will ever continue, I suspect, to be the prevalent view because the greater portions remaining intact stand in that region. It is not by chance that our Society is apparently proving successful in encouraging. the Massachusetts Department of Public Works to establish an authentic, enjoy-able, practical and handsome "run" of Canal water up here. Most of our members come from here (including our esteemed founder and past president); by far the greater number of Canal locations specifically protected by recent inclusion of our Canal in the National Register of Historic Places lie up here.

I would like to enter a mild plea that the lower portion (below Horn Pond) be not forgotten with the passing years. In a Boston meeting several years ago, Board Member Roland Shaine disclosed a great deal of material about the remarkable passage through Boston, its course, construction, economic history and premature abandonment; he guided a tour along this route. The noteworthy Yankee towing procedure for wheedling barges to and fro across the mouth of the Charles River has been elucidated by the Association, the extraordinary two-way hicks location at the Charlestown Millpond Dam (lately re-exposed) and the clever Branch Canal at Medford are all worthy of attention and retention. In the recent celebration at the historic Shawsheen Aqueduct Pier (of its acceptance as an American Civil Engineering National Site), water both from the Merrimack and from the Charles mouth were appropriately poured simultaneously into the stream the pier surmounts.

My suggestion primarily is that the thought of one end or the other be favored less than that of a unified Canal whose overriding success lay in solving a wide diversity of problems throughout its economic domain from the White Mountains to deepwater docking. Nearly 30 miles long, this tiny thread scarcely 30 feet wide was hewn from the land to create the granddaddy of all American traction canals. May we not always regard it as a single unit to be worked for and cherished mile by mile in history, in our minds and hearts and those of our newly acquired members?

Would it not be appropriate to erect practical, attractive markers along this city route delineated by Mr. Shaine? Should we not appropriately support explorations of the possibility of a canal park trail virtually its entire length, a modern Olmstead "Emerald Necklace" with appeal for summer bicyclists and winter snowmobilers, as our vice-president Wilbar Hoxie has already envisaged? When we think back to our founding days and the progress since those times, should we not set our goals high for the next decade?

During such time as I remain President, you may rest assured of my confidence in your friendly, energetic support, my intention of looking forward to and listening to your suggestions, and surely my interest in your tales of the Canal.


The Charlestown Mill pond Dam was hoary with a century of achievement when the American Revolution commenced. The dam was fabricated (across the lovely salt-water estuary between the Charlestown peninsula and present-day East Cambridge) out of wooden cribbing, possibly with supplementary wicker work, filled in with stones and earth. Apparently high enough only to breast the fiercest tides, it was tough enough to hold without recorded incident for two centuries.

When the tide was high, salt water dropped into the low pond raising it to high levels; at low tide, the water dropped out of the pond into the ocean, lowering the pond level. There was enough Rube Goldberg in every Yankee of these days to seize upon such a contraption and cleverly develop it to a high degree of efficiency.

This particular dam yearned for a richer, fuller life--and got it. Its presence during the Battle of Bunker Hill prevented the British man-of-war Falcon and several floating batteries from approaching closer to rake Charlestown Neck more heavily. On the evening of January 10, 1776, General George Washington ordered a foray across it into Charlestown to alarm the British, which it did splendidly (as recounted at length in the Colonial press). Had this been made in force, it might well have wrested Charlestown from the British.

When the Middlesex Canal was first conceived, a gradual countryward rise had intuitively planned to employ the Mystic Lakes and the Aberjona River system up to the Horn Pond Level, and to draw upon that body for a goodly flow. It would thus end in salt water at Medford, where much timber could be used in ship-building; overland transportation to Boston would, however, be necessary. As skill and self-confidence in canal-building increased, however, the notion of the Charlestown Millpond Dam took over irresistibly. It would be substantially nearer to Boston, in a more sheltered position, barges could be locked down to sea-level and eventually could be brought directly to deep water docking in Boston. This tougher but more promising prospect was immediately welcomed.

Since closed locks must point toward higher water in order to jam tight, a double set of lock gates had to be used pointing in opposite directions alternately one set idle, the other in use. Such locks are shown in detail on maps of those times. They required a major construction through the existing dam comparable in its day to the original construction of the dam. It was the side-wall construction of the locks that was recently found.

For a century, the thought of uncovering these locks has titivated the cockles of every local canal buff's heart, but the stout pavement of Charlestown's Rutherford Avenue, a major thoroughfare, has been and will ever remain a forbidding barrier. Whenever in recent years municipal authorities and property owners were approached on their interest in exploring or even marking this historic spot, the conventional questions have always been posed, "How do we know there is anything down there? Wasn't it all removed before the filling began? How do we know it hasn't entirely rotted away? If there's anything down there, how closely do you know where it is? Who wants to go digging for nothing?" Numerous actual cuts through the area were unheralded and either passed unnoticed or lacked knowledgeable or enthusiastic observation.

On Sunday, November 26, Richard Creaser, an Association member and contributor well known in Charlestown for antiquarian interests, informed me that digging for a storm-drain was going on in the upper end of Rutherford Avenue. He and I had hunted for the dam before, so I appreciated his suggestion. Having a rare Sunday afternoon free, I hurried there, got through the mud to the southern roadside, AND THERE IT WAS just where it should have been. The timbering, running back-and-forth, up-and-down, in-and-out, was unmistakable. The part seen here was later than 1670, of course, because this spot had been built in the early 1800's.

Next morning I prevailed upon our Vice-President, Col. Wilbar Hoxie of the Army Corps of Engineers, to join me that morning; also, a good friend of historian-diggers, Clifford Kaye, Chief Geologist of the City of Boston to con-firm these facts.

The full implications of this find cannot be briefly delineated. Clearly, however, it substantiates the current existence of the structure underground. It pinpoints its location for other investigations. It establishes a definite site for local markers or for a park. It encourages application to the National Society for Historic Preservation. It thoroughly recommends that the factories themselves be disinterred, as the Iron Works at Saugus were, and as the Saugus Spice Mill has remained.

The site lies on land of the new Bunker Hill Community College, whose property it transforms from a former prison and mud-flat site to an area of major historic and archeological significance.

Douglas P. Adams


With this issue, the former president of the Association assumes as his only major job for the Association the editing of Towpath Topics. He hopes that the quality will improve and expects to include in each future issue some of the material (previously unpublished) from the Middlesex Canal Corporation papers from the County Courthouse, now reposing in our archives.

Correspondence concerning Towpath Topics should be addressed to: Arthur L. Eno, Jr., Editor, 22 Shattuck Street, Lowell, Mass. 01852.

A new organization has been formed by some Canal Association members to promote interest in the preservation of old mills. Dues are $5.00 per year, which include a quarterly newsletter.

Address: P. O. Box 435 - Wiscasset, Maine 04578

Middlesex Canal
Listed on National Register of Historic Places

On September 1, 1972, the Middlesex Canal was officially listed by the National Parks Service on the National Register of Historic Places. Notification of this designation was conveyed to the Association by letter of John F. X. Davoren, Secretary of the Commonwealth and Chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Appropriately, this letter was received the day before the Association's last meeting on September 10, and made a fitting climax to the tenth anniversary program. Dr. Richard W. Hale, State Archivist and Acting Chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, was present at the meeting and read the letter of notification and spoke about the significance of the designation of the Canal on the National Register of Historic Places.

Not all the Canal has been so listed. Through the courtesy of Polly Ann Motherly, Historian for the Massachusetts Historical Commission, we here ex-tract the actual descriptions of the designated portions of the Canal, taken from the official nomination form.

For the purposes of clarity, the description of the canal and its locations has been separated into six sections; also, the boundaries (the area on either side of the canal which is necessary to maintain the integrity of the canal setting) are delineated in each of the following sections:

Section 1 - Merrimack River (Lowell) to Route 110 (Chelmsford); 2.1 miles
The boundaries of this section include a fifteen rod strip on each side of the canal, measured from the embankments. These measurements apply, how-ever, only to that section south of Westford Street to the junction of Routes 3 and 110.

Section 2- Route 110 to the Chelmsford-Billerica Town Line at Brick Kiln Road; 1.9 miles
Canal Street forms the western boundary of the canal along the extant section (approximately 1000 feet). The eastern boundary is set fifteen rods from the east embankment of the canal.

Section 3 - Chelmsford-Billerica Town Line to Pond Street; 2.7 miles
Lowell Street forms the southwestern boundary for this part of the section, while the northeastern boundary includes fifteen rods of woodland measuring from the embankment and paralleling the embankment from Route 3A to the North Billerica Fire Station.

On the east shore of the Concord River: This section, from the Concord River to Pond Street, approximately two miles, is woodland and marsh and its boundaries include a fifteen rod strip on each side of the canal.

Section 4 - Pond Street to the junction of Routes 129 and 38; 4.3 miles
From Pond Street to Brown Street, the northeast boundary of this section of the canal is fifteen rods wide and includes woods and marshland. Exceptions occur where the canal is obliterated in the area of Charme Street and Keyes Road. Between Dignon and Brown Streets, the boundaries are reduced to eight rods. At the Shawsheen Aqueduct, the boundary is eight rods wide. From Nichols Street to the junction of Routes 129 and 38, the northeast boundary is the Boston and Maine Railroad tracks.

The southwest boundary is set fifteen rods from the canal between Pond Street and Gray Street; between Gray Street and Andover Road, the canal is bounded on the southwest by Canal Street; between Andover Road and Nichols Street, it is bounded by Route 129; and beyond Nichols Street, the boundary is fifteen rods from the canal, including marsh areas and woodland.

Section 5 -Junction of Routes 129 and 38 to the junction of Routes 128 and 38; 3.9 miles
Measured from each embankment of the canal, the north/eastern and south/western boundaries of the extant canal in this section include the following; a ten rod wide strip between the junction of Routes 129 and 38 and Route 62; a fifteen rod wide strip between Route 62 and Butters Row; a fifteen rod wide strip between Butters Row and the point (just south of Eames Street) where the canal crosses Route 38; and a five rod strip along that part between School Street and Alfred Street.

Section 6 - Route 128 to Kilby Street in Woburn; .85 mile
The boundaries for this section include the width of the railroad bed on the east, and on the west a thirty-five yard wide strip running from Route 128 to Kilby Street.
For the benefit of our non-engineer members, a rod is 16 feet; so that ten rods equal 165 feet; and fifteen rods equal 247 feet.

To please the engineers, we append hereto the official designation of the latitude and longitude coordinates defining a rectangle locating the sections above-described. With these coordinates, the exact location can be pin-pointed by anyone with technical competence and proper equipment.

Section 1 - Merrimack River to junction Routes 110 and 3

latitude longitude
NW 42 38' 09"
NE 42 38 22
SE 42 36 51
SW 42 36 38
71 21' 22"
71 20 54
71 19 40
71 20 10

Section 2 - Route 110 to Chelmsford/Billerica Town Line (Brick Kiln Road)

NW 42 36' 46"
NE 42 36 51
SE 42 35 37
SW 42 35 25
71 19' 53"
71 19 40
71 18 17
71 18 28

Section 3 - Chelmsford/Billerica Town Line to Pond Street, Billerica

NW 42 35' 25"
NE 42 35 41
SE 42 35 14
SW 42 34 58
71 15' 27"
71 15 11
71 15 19
71 15 21

Section 4 - Pond Street to junction Routes 129 and 38

NW 42 35' 00"
NE 42 35 23
SE 42 33 21
SW 42 33 01
71 15' 26"
71 15 12
71 10 39
71 10 54

Section 5 - Junction Routes 129 and 3 to junction Routes 128 and 38

NW 42 35' 07"
NE 42 35 16
SE 42 30 05
SW 42 29 55
71 10' 52"
71 10 08
71 08 45
71 09 38

Section 6. Route 128 to Kilby Street

NW 42 29' 57"
NE 42 29 58
SE 42 29 12
SW 42 29 12
71 09' 35"
71 09 16
71 09 20
71 09 36

The Bellows Falls Canal
by Malcolm N. Tottingham

Working in Bellows Falls, Vermont for the past five summers, and being historically minded, the writer became quite interested in the story of the Bellows Canal. A tablet on the bridge that crosses the Connecticut River between North Walpole, New Hampshire and Bellows Falls, has the following inscription: "Here the first canal in the United States was built in 1802. The British owned company which was chartered to render the Connecticut River navigable here in 1791 was ten years in building the nine locks and dam around the great falls, 52 feet high. After the railroad came in 1849, the river traffic declined and the canal was used for water power only."

The claim of its being the first canal rather interested me and resulted in my doing a little checking and I found out that the statement was supported by the fact that the United States did not come into being until the Constitution was passed in 1787. The charter was granted in Windsor, Vermont in the year 1791 and it is interesting to note that it was the first Vermont legislature after the admission of the state into the Union. Its corporate name was "Company for Rendering the Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls."

There were many canals on the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers that were built merely to by pass huge outcroppings of rock formations and such was the situation at Bellows Falls; and the Pawtucket Falls, in Lowell, were about the same, not taking into account the land elevations. Our own Middlesex Canal, however, was built for a different purpose, the moving of freight from the upper regions of New Hampshire to Boston. In fact, I believe that the Middlesex Canal was of a type that could be compared with the Erie and Delaware Canals, al-though much shorter in length.

Returning to my topic, the Bellows Falls Canal also suffered high financial losses and damage caused by yearly spring freshets, and the repairing of locks, nine of them, seemed to be a never ending project. For a detailed account of river activity in the 1800's, one should read L. S. Hayes, History of Rockingham. One interesting item in it concerns the steamboat "Vermont" that came up from Hartford, Connecticut in August 1829, successfully passing the Bellows Falls locks and proceeded as far as "Water Queecy" in Hartland, Vermont.

In this book, you will find that there were many small business enterprises located around the canal area from time to time, one of them being the well-known Adams Grist Mill which was in operation until 1961. The railroads also took over here and parts of the lower canal were filled in; only a bit of it now shows from the "head" to the New England Power Company which gobbles up the water the canal still carries.

From the Rutland Railroad Bridge to their plant at the dam, water has flowed for 167 years through the original canal. There is a vivid picture taken around 1848 of "locking boats through the canal" on page 297 of Mr. Hayes' book. The locks consisted of: Guard gate (site of Bridge Street bridge today); Stone hole below this held two locks, lower gate opened by a windlass, others by strong levers. The canal then opened into a large mill pond extending to Adams Grist Mill, then a succession of 6 locks along the 1907 sulphite and coating mills to the lower opening into the eddy where the raceway of the coating mill was in 1907. Around 1848 the canal company had a saw mill and when the locks were being used by boats it took all the water so the mill could not work. Four men were needed to open and close the locks below the grist mill, and three men at the "Stone Hole." A large freight business was done between Bellows Falls and Hartford, Connecticut. Power came by floating down with the current and back by tug to Springfield, Massachusetts, then sailing if the wind was favorable, other-wise they poled or snubbed the boat.

As with our Middlesex Canal, the railroad took over most of the river traffic and 1856 found the locks "out of repair and going to decay," thus dangerous and unsafe to all. The name had been changed to the Bellows Falls Canal Co. and in 1866 it was sold to Governor Hale and. a Mr. Lane who sold it in 1871 to Honorable William A. Russell. The canal became a valuable source of water power and around 1869 there were as many as six industries located in the area. It is now owned by the New England Power Company.

In 1875 the canal was widened from an average of 22 feet to 75 feet at its narrowest, and deepened from 4 feet to a minimum of 17 feet. Substantial and expensive head gates, operated by steam, a higher and new dam was built and mill powers became horsepowers to old and new mills.

In bringing this article to a close, I must give credit to Mrs. Alice Hawkes, a well known historian of Bellows Falls and a very close friend of the writer. Most of the information that I have written was taken from her articles in the Bellows Falls News Review.