Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Billerica, Massachusetts

Vol. 4, No. 1
January, 1966


Brooks Bridge, Middlesex Canal

This bridge was built in 1821 for Peter Brooks as an "accommodation bridge" across the canal which divided his farm in West Medford. The bridge spanned what is now Sagamore Street, near the location of the Sagamore John monument. Widely regarded as an architectural gem, it is said to have been designed by George R. Baldwin. It was unfortunately torn down around the turn of the century. Photo courtesy of Miss Marian Taylor of West Medford.


The winter meeting of the Middlesex Canal Association will take place at 8:00 P. M. on Sunday, January 23rd, 1966, at the Unitarian Church in Billerica Center. We have obtained a documentary (sound) film on canals, and will also show the old magic lantern slides donated to the Association by Mrs. Wendell W. Dykeman, as well as some present day slides of the Indiana canals. Refreshments will be served. Members and guests are welcome.


are now due and payable. Please save the Association expense and worry by mailing a check for $2.00 for members or $10.00 (if you wish to be a Proprietor) to P.O. Box 593, Billerica, Mass.


Starting with this issue of Towpath Topics, the co-editors will be Roland E. Shaine, of 37 Tower Road, Lexington and Arthur L. Eno, Jr., of 16 Salem Road, North Billerica. They will be happy to receive articles, illustrations and suggestions for the magazine, as well as interesting items for republication.

by Harley P. Holden

(The author of this excellent resumé of the Canal’s history is Assistant Archivist of Harvard University and a Director of the Association. This paper was prepared in partial fulfilment of the requirements for a Master’s degree. Ed.)

During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, as the new American nation began to flourish, there arose great need for improved transportation. Since the country was large and the population clustered around a few largely isolated cities along the Atlantic sea-board, it was evident that, if the new nation was to be economically as well as socially and politically successful, better transportation of both people and goods must be developed through the construction of turnpikes, bridges and canals.

During this period, canal construction caught the interest of many prominent people. George Washington proposed a canal in the vicinity of the Potomac River and both Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin urged the construction of a system of canals. It was hoped that artificial waterways might serve profitably to extend the limit of internal and coastwise trade which then suffered severe physical restrictions.1

The building of canals was not a new idea. As a method of transportation, it was as old as Rameses of Egypt and Xerxes of Persia.2 In more modern times, in Europe in particular, Holland had developed an extensive system of water transportation and communication, while France, Germany, and Russia, to a lesser degree, had experimented with inland navigation.3 The United States, however, was most influenced in canal construction by English accomplishments in this field, particularly by the construction of the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal in 1761.4

The early canal builders in the United States faced great technical and financial difficulties. Neither the terrain nor the economy of the new nation was as suitable to the construction and financing of canals as that of Holland and England. The British canal system, to a great degree confined to an area of less than one hundred eighty square miles, was surrounded at its four extremities by the great commercial cities of Liverpool, Hull, London and Bristol.5 In this relatively small area, the population was dense, production was concentrated, and markets and lines of trade were already established.6 Furthermore, there were no Berkshire or Appalachian Mountains to present formidable and frequently insurmountable natural barriers. Another problem faced by American canal builders was the organizing and maintaining of work forces in wilderness areas or in areas where the population was thinly distributed.7 Still another obstacle to canal construction was the difficulty of raising capital. In England, it was the custom to form private corporations but in the United States the risk was so great and the return, if forthcoming, was projected so far into the future that individuals willing to invest in the building of canals were hard to find. "Complete or even major reliance on private enterprise therefore appeared impossible, and appeals for public support were reinforced by consideration of defense and national unity and sometimes by the conviction that enterprises of such great importance not be left in the hands of private monopolists."8

Despite all the obstacles confronting the building of canals in the United States, canals were built. By 1793, a total of thirty canal companies had been incorporated in eight of the original thirteen states9 and most often financed by private capital. One such project, the Middlesex Canal, had its genesis in May, 1793, when "a certain group of gentlemen associated for opening a canal from the waters of the Merrimac, by Concord River or in some other way, through the waters of the Mystic River to the town of Boston."10 Of all the early attempts to build canals, the Middlesex Canal was one of the first on such an ambitious scale.11 This project was not backed by local merchants or contractors seeking to circumvent a troublesome waterfall or series of rapids in a river but rather by the financial aristocrats of Boston, men who conceived the idea of a twenty-seven mile ditch on a European scale with elaborate locks and aqueducts.12 They had in mind a canal which would join the Merrimac River with the tide-water Charles and, in so doing, open southern New Hampshire to Boston rnarkets.13

Among those aristocratic Bostonians, the man who is credited with conceiving the idea for a canal between the Merrimac and the Charles was James Sullivan,14 brother of the hero of Brandywine and Trenton,15 and in his own right a prominent figure in Massachusetts political affairs as governor of the Commonwealth.16 Other prominent figures connected with the canal project were Christopher Gore of Waltham and James Winthrop, son of the notable Harvard mathematician and scientist, Yin Winthrop.17 Later, in 1806, prominent shareholders were John Adams, Josiah Quincy and Ebenezer Storer.18 By 1846, the largest share-holders were Abbot Lawrence, Harvard College and John Quincy Adams.19

With the financial backing of the canal partially settled, the technical aspects of the canal survey and construction came into focus. Until his death in 1808, the leading projector and chief engineer for the canal was Loammi Baldwin,20 who had received his early scientific training under the tutelage of Professor John Winthrop of Harvard. After the war, Baldwin, traveling around the then existing states, not only observed other canal projects but also gained additional and valuable technical knowledge. By 1793, he had become a prominent citizen of North Woburn. Fascinated by the proposed Middlesex Canal, which was to pass by his very door-step, he superintended the early technological aspects of the canal and, in this way, became one of the early promoters of American civil engineering.21

The proprietors of the canal company soon found that surveying the twenty-seven mile course of the proposed canal was no simple task. They hired for the survey a local builder, Samuel Thompson, the best the area had to offer but no engineer.22 Since his calculations were found to be grossly inaccurate, Loammi Baldwin was sent to Philadelphia to engage an English engineer, preferably William Weston, who already bore a distinguished name as a civil engineer. Mr. Weston agreed to Baldwin’s proposal that he survey the proposed course of the canal and arrived in Boston in the summer of 1794 for that purpose.23 Weston, accompanied by Baldwin, surveyed the course of the canal through the pre-glacial path of the Merrimac down to the Mystic Lakes. For his survey, Weston received twenty-two hundred dollars,24 which was little enough considering the valuable training Baldwin received in working with him.25 After returning to Philadelphia, Weston still retained his interest in the project and kept up a correspondence with Baldwin concerning such relevant subjects as canal and cross lock sections, watertight masonry walls and gate-opening mechanism of the locks.26

With Weston’s survey of the canal route completed, the actual construction began in 1795. The first section ran from the Billerica Mills on the Concord River to North Chelmsford (later Lowell) on the Merrimac. The second section started at the Concord River and extended through Wilmington, Woburn and to the Charles River in Charlestown. Upon completion of the project, in 1803, a lively entertainment and celebration was held at Loammi Baldwin’s home.27

Baldwin’s celebration of the completion of the canal in 1803 came only after ten years of hard work and much discouragement. The actual digging and construction was undertaken largely by small contractors under various types of agreements in which they contracted to build specific lengths.28 These contractors and their hired workers were, for the most part, local farmers and land-owners who had had considerable experience in digging ditches, draining meadows, and removing stumps, roots, and stones from their rocky farms.29 Most of them, however, had other occupations to which they had to devote varying amounts of time. Thus, competing vocations interfered with the pace of construction.30 Lack of experience, shortage of labor and the varying quality of the contractors further hampered any regular schedule of progress.

Another factor hindering the progress of construction on the canal was the lack of proper machinery. Since civil engineering was in its infancy in the United States, both the methods of construction and tools for construction tended to be rather primitive in nature. The actual digging was done with such age-old tools as the horse-drawn plow, the pick, the shovel, the wheelbarrow and, occasionally, the horse-drawn wagon.31 When ledge was encountered, primitive blasting methods were used with the result that there were many casualties. In this vein, an engineer gave the following account of the disappearance of two blasters: "One run off, the other blown up We therefore was obliged to have two new hands to blowing and there was much attention gave to them lest axedents should happen."32

When completed, the Middlesex Canal was twenty-seven and one fourth miles in length, thirty feet wide at its upper dimension, twenty feet wide at its lower dimension and could accommodate boats drawing three feet of water. The locks, nineteen or twenty in number, were built of wood and stone. The ample construction of these locks and the provision for the accommodation of a three-foot draw allowed individual boats to carry ten to twenty-five tons of cargo.33

The financing of the canal was largely done through the issuance of stock. In 1794 this stock sold for twenty-five dollars per share but by 1803, when full navigation was accomplished, the value of the stock reached four hundred seventy-three dollars and, by the following year, it was selling at five hundred dollars per share.34 During the building period, it developed that stock-selling, alone, yielded insufficient funds, since cost calculations for the construction of the canal were grossly underestimated. Even at a time when laborers were being paid eight dollars per month and carpenters ten to fifteen dollars, expenses mounted rapidly. Consequently, new ways of raising money, including lotteries, were tried.35 When the canal was completed, in 1803, it had cost $528,000, a very large sum of money considering that Boston, at the time, had only twenty-two thousand inhabitants and an assessed valuation of only $15,000,000.36 Struik tells us that:

The canal was laid through swamps and across brooks, with the primitive tools of the day, "by main strength and awk’ardness," it had twenty locks, eight aqueducts, forty-eight bridges, safety gates, culverts, sluiceways, water weirs and was all in all an impressive piece of engineering, the greatest construction work completed in the country up to that time. The experience gained in constructing and operation the canal was later put to good use in the building of other canals, especially the Erie Canal.37

In the several decades following the completion of the Middlesex Canal in 1803, costs of upkeep and payments of outstanding debts were greater than the revenue from its operation.38 Construction and maintenance absorbed the money pledged by the proprietors until 1817. Not until 1819 was the first dividend to stock-holders declared, and, during the following twenty-four years until 1843, the dividend per annum averaged only one and thirty-nine hundredths per cent.

The primary motive behind the building of such an intra-regional canal as the Middlesex, was a desire to enlarge the scope of local trade.39 This the Middlesex Canal accomplished by connecting Boston with New Hampshire by means of the Merrimac and through facilitating the transportation to Boston of such goods as stone, iron ore, staves, timber, boards, planks, wood, and shingles, which could not come by land,as well as ashes, butter, cheese, beef, pork, cider, and grains."40 In return, Boston sent back up the canal such commodities as English goods, groceries, codfish, mackerel, salt, lime, plaster and many other articles." In later decades the canal also served the new textile industries of Lowell and Manchester, New Hampshire. Over a long period of years, the transport of timber was important. Not only did the canal provide the raw materials to carpenters, it also provided the wooden pegs much in demand in the shoe factories in the 1830’s and 1840’s.42

The uses of the Middlesex Canal, however, were not exclusively mercantile. It served as a means of transportation for travelers and tourists of the early and middle nineteenth century on forays into the country or on mountain climbing expeditions or on hiking trips in New Hampshire .43 Around the middle of the century, visitors to the new industrial town of Lowell, such as Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau and Davy Crockett, may well have traveled on the canal or walked along its tow paths.

One traveler on the canal was the writer Edward Everett Hale, who recounts the following passage from his childhood memories:

In the summer of 1835 it was announced one day that we were going by the canal. I have no recollection of the method by which we struck the Middlesex Canal; I suppose that we had to drive to East Cambridge and take the "General Sullivan" there. The "General Sullivan" was what was known, I think, as a packet boat, which carried passengers daily from Boston to the Merrimac River, where the name "Lowell" had been given to a part of the township of Chelmsford. By way of escape from the heat, father had arranged that the whole family should go down to the tavern at Chelmsford and spend a few days.

The present generation does not know it, but traveling on a canal is one of the most charming ways of traveling. To sit on the deck of a boat and see the country slide by you, without the slightest jar, without a cinder or a speck of dust, is one of the exquisite luxuries. The difficulty about speed is much reduced if you will remember, with Red Jacket, that "you have all the time there is." Fullum, the dog, would spring from the deck of the "General Sullivan" upon the tow path, and walk along collecting wild flowers, or perhaps even more active game. I have never forgotten my terror lest Fullum should be left by the boat and should never return. When he did return from one of these forays he brought with him for us little children a very little toad, the first I had ever seen.44

A few years after Hale had made his pleasant journey from Cambridge to Chelmsford, another and even more famous traveler paddled through a part of the Middlesex Canal. This was Henry David Thoreau who in September 1839 spent a week with his brother on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers.45 In order to pass from one river to the other, he took the canal from Billerica to Chelmsford and gives the following account in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers:

We left its channel (the Concord River), just above the Billerica Falls and entered the canal, which runs, or rather is conducted, six miles through the woods to the Merrimack at Middlesex, and as we did not care to loiter in this part of our voyage, while one ran along the towpath drawing the boat by a cord, the other kept it off the shore with a pole, so that we accomplished the whole distance in little more than an hour. This canal, which is the oldest in the country, and has even an antique look beside the more modem railroads, is fed by the Concord, so that we were still floating on its familiar waters. It is so much water which the river lets for the advantage of commerce. There appeared some want of harmony in its scenery, since it was not of equal date with woods and meadows through which it is led, and we missed the conciliatory influence of time on land and water; but in the lapse of ages, Nature will recover and indemnify herself, and gradually plant fit shrubs and flowers along its borders. Already the kingfisher sat upon the water, and the bream and pickerel swam below. Thus all works pass directly out of the hands of the architect into the hands of Nature, to be perfected.46

Sooner, perhaps, than even Thoreau had hoped, the canal fell even more directly into the hands of Nature.47 Its death knell was sounded by the Boston and Lowell Railroad which, unlike some of the early railroads which served as branch lines to the canals, instead provided an alternate route for the traffic of commerce.48 As goods were carried more and more by the railroads, the Middlesex Canal became a burden and a liability to the stockholders. With the idea in mind of salvaging some of their investment, the proprietors made an attempt, in the 1840’s, to transform the canal into an aqueduct for the Boston water supply but this effort was unsuccessful.49 The last boat traveled the canal for its entire length in 1851.50 Soon thereafter, the canal property was sold for $130,000. The abandoned rights of way were eventually absorbed by the towns along its course. "Thus, the corporation was forever extinguished. Thenceforth the canal was used for pleasure, only, skating in winter and boating in summer, as well as supplying the families living along its banks with water for washing when the wells were dry. It gradually fell into decay until only a few vestiges remain, as relics of one of the most important enterprises of the earlier days of the republic."51

One can still trace the remains of the Middlesex Canal through the woods of Middlesex County. Some of the sections near Boston have long ago disappeared beneath the encroachments of modern progress. There are, however, short sections in Wilmington and Billerica which give to the observer some idea of what the Middlesex Canal must have been like during its brief history of prosperity.


1. Christopher Roberts, The Middlesex Canal, 1793-1860, Cambridge, 1938, 3.
2. Dirk J. Struik, Yankee Science in the Making, New York, 1962, 157.
3. Roberts, op. cit., 4.
4. Struik, op. cit., 157.
5. Carter Goodrich (edited by), Canals and American Economic Development, New York, 1961, 4.
6. Ibid, 4.
7. Ibid, 4.
8. Ibid, 5.
9. Roberts, op., cit., 3.
10. Caleb Eddy, Historical Sketch of the Middlesex Canal with Remarks for the Consideration of the Proprietors, Boston, 1843, 3.
11. Struik, op. cit., 157-8.
12. Ibid, 159.
13. Balthasar Henry Meyer, History of Transportation in the United States before 1860, Cambridge, 1948, 148.
14. Alvin F. Harlow, Old Towpaths, New York, 1926, 18.
15. Struik, op. cit., 160.
16. Roberts, op. cit., 32.
17. Ibid, 32.
18. Ibid, 200.
19. Ibid, 227.
20. Dictionary of American Biography, I, 539-40.
21. Struik, op. cit., 166
22. Madeline Sadler Waggoner, The Long Haul West, The Great Canal Era, 1817-1850, New York, 1958, 20. 23. Struik. op. cit., 161.
24. Ibid, 161.
25. Daniel Hovey Calhoun, The American Civil Engineer, Origin and Conflict, Cambridge, 1960, 15.
26. Struik, op cit., 161.
27. Ibid, 161.
28. Roberts, op. cit., 71.
29. Ibid, 71.
30. Ibid, 71.
31. Waggoner, op. cit., 20.
32. Ibid, 21.
33. Harlow, op. cit., 20.
34. Ibid, 20.
35. Ibid, 19.
36. Ibid. 20.
37. Struik, op. cit., 161-62.
38. Meyer, op. cit., 150-51.
39. Struik. op. cit., 162.
40. Goodrich, op. cit., 177.
41. Roberts, op. cit., 26.
42. Ibid, 26, 27.
43. Struik, op. cit., 162.
44. Ibid. 162.
45. Ibid, 162, 163.
46. Henry D. Thoreau, Journal (edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen), Cambridge, 1949, I, 90.
47. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Boston, 1921, 42.
48. Struik, op. cit., 163.
49. George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution. 1815-1860, New York, 1951, 80.
50. Struik, op., cit., 163.
51. Lewis M. Lawrence, The Middlesex Canal, Boston, 1942, 74.

Middlesex Canal Association
P. 0. Box 593
Billerica, Massachusetts

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