Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Vol. 9, No. 1 January 1971
WINTER MEETING – FEBRUARY 21, 1971
The winter meeting of the Association will take place on Sunday evening, February 21, 1971, at 8:00pm, at the newly rebuilt First Parish Church (Unitarian) in Billerica Center. We have had many fine meetings there in the past prior to the tragic fire on December 26, 1967. The church has now been completely rebuilt, identically to its appearance before the fire and we are happy to be able to hold our meetings there once again.
Fred Lawson will show some of the Association's collection of glass slides and all are invited to bring along with them their own slides, pictures and what have you.
Guests are welcome and refreshments will be served.
C & O CANAL: NATIONAL PARK?
In the December, 1970 newsletter of the Conservation Foundation, it is reported that a bill creating the C & O Canal Historical Park in Maryland was awaiting the signature of President Nixon. This sounds like an excellent precedent for us.
ANNUAL DUES PAYABLE
Through an unfortunate administrative mixup, the bills for 1970-1971 dues did not go out when they should have with the last issue of TOWPATH TOPICS. These dues are now payable and a bill should be included with your copy of this issue. Those who have previously paid their dues without being billed should ignore the present bill. Those who have not already sent in their dues are requested to do so immediately.
PRESIDENT'S REPORT - 1970
It has not been customary for the Association to have an annual written report. In part, this has been due to the disaffection with the monotonous repetition of the first few years that "no real estate has yet been acquired, but there are several parcels in prospect". The quoted report can be repeated again this year, at least so far as real estate is concerned.
This report, however, is more concerned with activity of a different sort, in the long run more advantageous to the Association than the slow process of attempting to acquire the canal inch by inch.
By the time this report is printed, the Association and the Trustees of Lowell Technological Institute will have entered into an agreement providing for the deposit of the Association's archives, books, pamphlets, documents, and maps with Lowell Tech on permanent loan. The material will be classified, catalogued and stored in air-conditioned surroundings. Besides making our budding collection available and accessible to scholars at all reasonable times, the classification will permit us to have important and irreplaceable material preserved forever by microfilm. We also hope that having a safe place to deposit the collection will induce other donors to make gifts to us.
With the addition of the Middlesex Canal collection to the already acquired collection from the Proprietors of Locks and Canals on Merrimack River, Lowell Tech will be an important depository of source material for local and regional history. This position will be further enhanced by the deposit of the fabulous collection of Lowell Historical Society, which has been accumulated during its hundred years of existence. This collection is now being sorted for transfer to Lowell Tech on the same basis as our own collection.
During the preliminary sorting of the Lowell Historical Collection, there came to light the collection of Canal memorabilia of Edward B. Carney, for which we have been searching for many years. Mr. Carney was one of the acknowledged sources for Christopher Roberts' The Middlesex Canal. From another drawer there came to light four volumes of the agent's record books, showing the names, destination, owners and contents of all the boats locked through Middlesex Village during most of the years from 1822 to 1851. All these treasures will now be available for viewing and studying.
On the physical side also, the plans and projects for the future are exciting. Starting at the Northerly end of the Canal, they are:
1. The Greater Lowell Area Planning Commission, in a preliminary report on Recreation and Open Space (February, 1969) strongly recommended the preservation of the Canal in the Lowell–Chelmsford–Billerica area. In September, 1970, in its final report, the Commission (now known as the Northern Middlesex Area Commission) proposes as one of its first projects a recreation corridor, running from the Merrimack River in Lowell to the Manning State Forest in Billerica. The proposed route (see plan) is along the right of way of the Middlesex Canal. The laying out of this corridor by a consultant is to be the Commission's project for this year.
2. In Wilmington, a report on Open Spaces prepared for the Planning Board, proposes the restoration of a stretch of Canal approximately one mile in length and extending from near Route 38, South of the Town Forest, to Taylor's Pond, a former turning basin. This area would include Maple Meadow Brook aqueduct. Another section of canal, between Shawsheen Avenue and Lake Street, is proposed for preservation as an historic site.
3. Metropolitan Area Planning Council, whose jurisdiction extends from Wilmington to Boston, has done many studies involving the route of the Canal. No specific plans have been proposed, but it is believed that there is considerable sympathy in the Commission for a green strip from Boston to Wilmington along the Canal.
4. Metropolitan District Commission, the practical arm of MAPCO, which actually administers the Metropolitan Park System, already controls and has for many years been caring for a section of the Canal in Winchester, between the Mystic Lakes.
5. In Charlestown, a plan is before the Boston Redevelopment Authority to develop a park system in preparation for the nation's bicentennial. Although now limited to the Navy Yard, this park could extend all the way to Sullivan Square and the site of the Mill dam, taking in several other historic sites along the way.
It should be obvious from the foregoing that many separate and independent agencies have proposed preserving or restoring sections of the Canal. But recently there has come from the Lowell Model City Education Program the most comprehensive and ambitious plan of all – combining the Charlestown Navy Yard with a restored Mill-city "Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution", with the Lowell-Dracut State Forest (and even, perhaps, with the already existing Minute Man Historical Park in Lexington and Concord) into one grand URBAN NATIONAL PARK connected by the Concord River and the Middlesex Canal.
This plan is being prepared for presentation to the Interior Department, whose former Secretary Walter J. Hickel proposed the concept of an urban national park shortly before his political demise. The plan is most comprehensive and would solve the problem of cooperation between co-ordinate authorities; it would permit the restoration, not only of the Middlesex, but of a corridor from the Merrimack to the Charles, accessible from both Routes 495 and 128. If this concept can be sold to the Federal Government, this Association would be able to devote all of its energies to cooperating with the Park Service in some small area and to doing this well, instead of diluting its activities along 27½ miles of frustrating dreams.
A. L. ENO, JR.
THE OLD MIDDLESEX CANAL
by Mal Wood
(In the Carney collection of Middlesex Canal material stored in the Lowell Historical Society rooms, there came to light a typewritten manuscript written in June of 1931 by Mal Wood, entitled "The Old Middlesex Canal": It is a very interesting paper and will be published in full here in various installments. For this issue, the concluding section is particularly appropriate since it attacks the same problem as the president's report also printed in this issue.)
It may seem a late day to propose any active disposition of the old canal, but a few Lowell visionaries talk of rehabilitation as a first step in rebuilding the greater city of the future. Cheap coal is no longer so vital an issue, however, with the present development of electric power transmission. It would be less expensive to burn the coal at Lynn or Salem, and convert it into electric power, than to attempt to reconstruct the canal through the metropolitan area, with the very high valuations of the land and property overlying the former right of way.
Yet there remains a moderate proposition to be made. Resumption of operation is not the issue, but the possibility of using the remains of the old canal as nuclei for parks and recreation centers. This is a still open measure, here and there begun, and offers a means of preserving the most interesting portions as monuments to the enterprise and customs of the past. The traditions of America are still formative, and its legends in a state of flux; today we are deciding what shall enter into the delicate pattern of cultural background in the future America, recognised at last as possessing a mass of curious lore as attractive to tourism as the antiquities of the old world.
The surviving remains may be considered as divided into three sectors: first, the Lowell region; second the barren stretch from the Concord to North Woburn; and last, the Metropolitan sector from Horn Pond to Charlestown.
Lowell is sadly lacking in an adequately developed park system. Only one or two of its splendid scenic possibilities have been made use of, as in Fort Hill Park and the Merrimack Boulevard. Across the Mount Pleasant Golf Course, the canal is a distinctive feature of the landscape. The entire canal from the Princeton Boulevard to the "Ec" might well be declared a Public Monument, and property owners forbidden to destroy it further. Liens could be secured, and when funds were available, the land purchased or taken if not donated, and developed. The Mount Pleasant Club shows what can be done in the way of preserving interesting remains and at the same time developing the property for modern use and recreation. A bridle path along the towpath, and provision for skating and canoeing in the Long Swamp might not be amiss. In all preliminaries and projects, too much formality would be lamentable, the natural scenery and flora deserving enhancement along the lines of their native genius. The Rivermeadows would be a particularly desirable bird sanctuary. Wild flowers could be encouraged, protected, and planted where now exterminated by uprooting and vandals. Skating and promenading along the causeway, and swimming in summer, already make it a fairly popular locality.
To preserve it more or less in its present state, encouraging and supplementing the native plants and shrubbery, would be a wise step. To go through the woods burning and uprooting is not the best procedure, though it is too often followed by park commissioners ignorant of American plants and mindful only of conventional gardening. Conservation rather than exploitation should be the keynote of any scheme of the sort.
I should seriously and earnestly urge the people of Lowell to consider the idea – there may well be someone interested in the old canal in a position to sponsor the project and secure aid in realizing it. The recreational value of the Rivermeadows may not be as obvious as that of playgrounds and tennis courts, nor as pressing a need in the paved and crowded city, but it is both very real and very great, especially since the growth of the city and suburbs encroaching on the fields and meadows and woods roundabout, has led to the posting against trespass of fields and woodlands once freely accessible to the public. The boys of the city deserve a nearby bit of wood, meadow, and stream, where they can come to know the out-of-doors first hand: the most precious privilege of youth is to know intimately the earth and the open sky. The Fens and the Fells in Boston suggest, each in different measure and treatment, what can he done in the way of ultimate development of native landscapes.
The locks in the Talbot Mill Yard at North Billerica should be preserved if possible, as they are the sole survivors. Industry, in one instance at least might continue, as in the past, to find a way to use and maintain a monument of the old days.
Across the Barrens, the proposed Bay Circuit State Park might possibly include stretches of the old canal. Here and there, if not for its entire length from the Concord to North Woburn, the old towpath might be brushed out as a trail, and as the ancient sport of hiking is ever popular, would offer a fresh objective in this crowded region to Audubon bird clubs and the local strolls of the Appalachian club, as well as to occasional ramblers. The old Croton Aqueduct, from Van Cortlandt Park through Yonkers, Hastings, Tarrytown, and northward along the Hudson in New York's Westchester County, is a popular artery for Manhattan hikers, and suggests what the Old Middlesex Canal might be in Middlesex County.
The ruins of the Shawsheen Acqueduct merit to be set aside as a monument, the old wooden trolley bridge cleared away, and the graceful arch of the old stone highway bridge preserved by widening the road upstream so as not to injure the piers of the old acqueduct. The midstream pier and abutments might be protected against ravage. So far safeguarded by the craftsmanship of the builders and respected by the townspeople, it is worthy of maintenance as a monument to the engineering skill of a century ago. Considering the methods and tools used by the builders, modern engineers have a profound respect for the skill and patience with which this, and other construction projects of the old canal were executed.
The Ox Bow is another portion, including the Maple Meadow causeway, that would be of permanent interest, and could readily be incorporated in the park system of the town of Wilmington.
In Woburn, the Horn Pond Brook Basin is still extant, but otherwise the Woburn Loop of the railroad and the roadway along Horn Pond have effaced the canal bed. At Mystic Lakes, in Winchester, the Sandy Beach Causeway is in good condition, and it is to be hoped, is destined to be preserved by the Metropolitan District Commission. Below here, only Rumford Baldwin's bridge in the Brooks Estates can be cited as still existing and worth keeping intact.
Other than this, only an occasional tablet or marker can be suggested as desirable works. One loves to dream of rehabilitation from the Concord in Billerica to below the Ox Bow in Wilmington, with water flowing in the old canal, and canoists and skaters enjoying a ten-mile stretch of waters (each in their several seasons), but it would be folly, perhaps, to sink more money in Middlesex County's million dollar ditch, with no possibility of financial remuneration. Too elaborate a plan for the old canal could only expect to meet with opposition and discredit as visionary and impractical.
Someone at least has discovered the almost ideal use for the old canal. In one of the elevated fills, high above the surrounding plains, and on the edge of a stream, a charming rustic cabin has been constructed of birch logs, with a fieldstone fireplace. The canal bed serves as a lawn, and the embankments, pine-grown, screen the site from sun and travelers alike. This camp is the apotheosis of the dreams of canal faddists, and so cleverly secluded, that I have foreborne mention of it in sequence along the canal, in order not to destroy its charm by advertising it too widely.
The days when oxen hauled timber slowly down the old canal, are gone forever, and the towpath serves as lovers' lane in but rare stretches in its present state of disrepair. No longer does the wife of the packet captain come out to greet him as he pilots his safe and horsedrawn craft past the lower end of his own home lawn; a whole host of other picturesque customs have disappeared. But lupine grows luxuriantly in the reservoir basin near the Rivermeadows, a planting of blue blossoms and feathery leaves that spreads an indigo and green undercover beneath the oaks and pines, rivalling in beauty the fairest cultivated flowers. The odor of June, compounded of the intoxicating breath of honey locust blossoms, white and pale in the dusk, of the smell of the lush growing fields, of the perfumed night, and of a thousand unknown and subtle fragrances, drifts along the seldom-trodden towpath. Watercress in the long swamp, and field sorrel on the banks, offer a piquant salad tid-bit to the tramper acquainted with the tang of wild herbs, varied in the barrens with wintergreen and sassafras. Under arching elms and across scrubby pastures, still can be discerned the old canal, here and there a thread of silvery water, and for miles a ribbon of crumbling towpath across the sunny swamps and swales.