Middlesex Canal Association    P.O. Box 333    Billerica, Massachusetts 01821
Volume 13, No. 1    January, 1975


The winter meeting of the Middlesex Canal Association will be held at the First Parish Church (Unitarian) in Billerica Center on Sunday, February 9, 1975, at 3:00 P.M.

The program will consist of a showing of slides brought in by members. There are already pledged slides of the October 19 Wilmington dedication, English canals and the C&O Canal. All are invited to bring in and show their own slides.

Refreshments will be served.


Since the last issue of Towpath Topics, the Association has received several gifts: from Ms. Cincotta of Malden, a copy of the Middlesex Hearthstone, for May 1896, containing an article on the Canal; from Mrs. John Carr of Laconia, New Hampshire, a platter and dish documented as having been used in the Middlesex Tavern in Middlesex Village; and from the heirs of the late Gilbert R. Merrill, a gift of the oar which had been lent to the Association by Professor Merrill and had been hanging in the former museum on Concord Road in Billerica. To all of these, the Association extends its grateful thanks.


The annual meeting of the Association will take place on Saturday afternoon, April 26, 1975. Program and location will be announced later, but reserve the date now!.....A reminder that the Middlesex Canal Archives are stored in the Library at Lowell Technological Institute (soon to become the University of Lowell). The collection has been moved to a more suitable location in the Library and cataloguing is well under way. Visitors are always welcome during library hours: 8:30 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. on week days (except holidays).....Dr. Theodore Anton Sande, author of the address printed in this issue is an architect and Lecturer in Art at Williams College. He was the founder and first president of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, and is now a trustee of the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont.

October 19, 1974

On a beautiful, warm, autumn day, the long-awaited dedication of the Wilmington restoration took place. Lt. Col. Wilbar M. Hoxie, President of the Middlesex Canal Association, presided at the meeting after the guests of honor had been escorted to the site by the Clan MacPherson Bagpipe Band.

Barry Garden, Chairman of the Wilmington Bicentennial Commission, presented the greetings of the Town of Wilmington. Senator Ronald C. MacKenzie, representing the Commonwealth, and Bruce Campbell, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, both spoke of the place of the Middlesex Canal in history -- and of its future. After the formal presentation of the work by the contractor, Wales Corporation, it was accepted on behalf of the public by Dr. Theodore A. Sande for the Society for Industrial Archaeology and Dr. Tom Liu for the Boston Society of Civil Engineers. A portion of Professor Sande's address appears elsewhere in this issue.

Following a resounding cannon salute by the Lexington Minute Men, the first barge in over a century to navigate the waters was launched. Manned by Dr. L. Forbes Getchell, the barge was towed by Sabra and her owner, Paula Young, to the accompaniment of the MacPherson pipers.

Following the ceremony, everyone adjourned to the Ramada Inn, on Middlesex Canal Drive, Woburn, for a reception in honor of the publication of Mary Stetson Clarke's book "The Old Middlesex Canal". Autographed copies of the book were available for sale. Those who did not have the opportunity of buying a copy may do so by using the order blank accompanying this issue or simply by sending to Hillside Press, 333 West Emerson Street, Melrose, Mass. 02176, a check for $5.00 (plus 3% tax for Massachusetts residents).

Several tape and slide programs made by the Medford High School history class were shown by the Director of the program, Joseph Valeniani.

After a splendid banquet, Colonel Hoxie, as toastmaster, introduced Ross Holland, of the new North Atlantic Region of the National Parks Service and Hon. Charles H. W. Foster, Secretary of Environmental Affairs of the Commonwealth, both of whom expressed enthusiasm about the day's events and hope for greater things to come.

Harry J. Lasher - Dorothy I. Lasher

Outstanding among individuals who shared with others their knowledge of the Middlesex Canal was Harry J. Lasher (1896-1973), artist, designer, and engineer. Born in Bennington, Vt., and brought up in Hinsdale, N.H., he was a graduate of Union College, Schenectady, N.Y., and a veteran of World War I. He was employed in turn by White's Machine Designers, Jackson and Moreland, Raytheon, and the Lowell Technological Research Foundation. In 1951 he married Dorothy I. Hall, with whom he made his home in Tewksbury, Mass.

While commuting to Boston, Mr. Lasher noticed remnants of the Middlesex Canal, appreciated its engineering significance, and began his extensive research. One of his projects was a map of the canal, to which he devoted more than one hundred hours, and which is now in the possession of the Middlesex Canal Association.

A well-informed and enthusiastic speaker, Mr. Lasher gave illustrated lectures to historical societies and civic groups on Indian life and artifacts as well as the Middlesex Canal. In 1962 he concluded a talk to the Billerica Historical Society with a rousing call to action to save what remained of the Middlesex Canal before it should be destroyed completely. That evening some of his listeners took the first step in the formation of the Middlesex Canal Association. (MSC)

This founding father of the Association passed away on January 9, 1973. His widow, Dorothy I. Lasher, retained his interest and attended the dedication of the Wilmington Restoration on October 19, 1974. Less than two weeks later, on October 31, 1974, she rejoined her beloved husband. The Association mourns the passing of two good friends and rejoices that Mrs. Lasher was able to see a practical result of her husband's dreams.

Among the many items which the Association acquired from Mr. Lasher is his beautiful map. It is now on display in the Archives of the Association at the Lowell Technological Institute Library.

A general view of the October 19, 1974 dedication scene through the new arch. Note the towpath on the right side.


The Middlesex Canal - gleaming silver thread of great hopes and dreams for sixty years lay quietly waiting, unused until our time, when writers repeatedly put in their articles "Today no trace of it remains". This was not so, due to the affectionate attention given by a few visionaries who wrote of its life or men like Moses Whicher Mann whose patient photography recorded for all time much of what remained from its great days. Development in all our Canal towns during the 20th Century filled the lock chambers, raised embankments for new roads, built houses and shops on the very center line of the Canal. Both steam and electric railroads built tracks beside its channel. But through all this busy work of destroying the nation's first regional Canal - our first training ground and laboratory for American civil engineers - there have been Friends of the Canal who walked its towpath, who remembered stories told by those who have gone before, who have brought forth from attics and scrap books treasured pieces of paper firmly fixing facts. Your Association was formed to bring such people together for sharing of their interests, for preserving memory of the Canal, and for encouraging such restoration as becomes possible. Appreciation for its activities has been shown by similar groups who have shared in our events and then acted upon our ex-ample by establishing Societies to safeguard Canals in their areas.

Official recognition of the Association was marked by its acquisition of the Corporate Papers so long saved by the Commissioners of Middlesex County, and by relocating the Museum to Lowell Tech; by designation (1967) of the Canal as an Historic Landmark of Early Civil Engineering; by inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places of the Canal from Lowell to Boston, of the Chelmsford Glass Works site, and of the 1790 House in Woburn. In October the Association held a splendid exercise for reopening part of the old Canal at a stone masonry arch bridge built in Wilmington by the Massachusetts Department of Public Works. Colonel Baldwin would have been proud of the fine work done by the contractor, the Wales Construction Corporation. This contribution of the Association to preservation was recognized as a significant achievement by public officials, historical societies, U. S. Department of the Interior, Society of Industrial Archaeology and American Society of Civil Engineers. Not only by structures, but by the written word was 1974 a landmark for our Association. Mary Stetson Clarke's new book, THE OLD MIDDLESEX CANAL, was released by its publisher on Dedication Day, October 19, and was hailed as our definitive history to date.

In the present zeitgeist, the future is clear for the Association. We have aroused a growing public awareness of our Canal, with greater challenges ahead, as demands for space must grow. This historic strip of land must be preserved for the future. There is the cruel, senseless destruction of sites remaining, such as the Shawsheen Aqueduct. A restoration project here is urgent, for time is short against assaults too well known. In this Bicentennial period, the Association must spread the word of this heroic achievement by the founders of our nation through slide shows, speaking before organizations, publications furnished to as wide an audience as we can reach. There must be more walking tours, in small groups of friends as well as the traditional events. Every day, in every town, by Boy Scouts, school classes, and informal groups. If they know, they'll go. Every member is urged to enroll a new member; carry applications in your pocket or purse and sign up Friends of the Middlesex. In strength there is the power to attain our goals, a challenge worthy of our Founders.


The first boat to travel on the Canal in over a century, steered by Dr. L. Forbes Getchell and towed by Sabra, ridden by her owner, Paula Young.

by Theodore Anton Sande
Department of Art, Williams College
Copyright 1974 by Theodore Anton Sande; Reprinted by permission

As we approach the Nation's 200th anniversary, occasions such as the one we celebrate today offer the opportunity for us to look back and to re-examine the fundamental nature of our historical beginnings. It is, I believe, useful for us to do so, for in reminding ourselves of the roots from which we have grown, we are able to see more clearly the texture of American civilization, In the past, perception of what we are as a people has all too frequently been clouded by a view of the American Colonial and early Republican periods which has tended to stress, to the exclusion of all else, the agrarian society. In commemorating the Wilmington Restoration, it seems only fitting, then, to look at another side of our culture - its inclination toward technology - in order to gain a more complete grasp of our heritage.

* * *

The first years of the United States were, as you know, years of steady and vigorous debate between agrarian idealists, personified by Thomas Jefferson, on the one hand; and those who argued, as did Alexander Hamilton on the other, that industry should be encouraged in order to create a balanced self-sufficient internal economy, so that our nation would be less vulnerable to the threat of foreign nuisance than one based upon agriculture alone. Hamilton's view eventually prevailed, due in part to Jefferson's commercially disabling Embargo Act of 1807, and later the impetus provided by the War of 1812; both of which redirected mercantile capital into nascent industrial enterprise. Although Jefferson remained, throughout his life, cautious toward industry, his attitude shifted to the point where he could eventually find in it clear advantages for the country. In a letter to John Melish of January 13th, 1813, after writing enthusiastically about his own production of textiles (he had 35 spindles, a hand carding machine and looms equipped with flying shuttles; all of which were used in supplying the needs of his farmers), he went on to say: "I have not formerly been an advocate for great manufactories. I doubted whether our labor, employed in agriculture, and aided by the spontaneous energies of the earth, would not procure us more than we could make ourselves of other necessaries. But other considerations entering into the question have settled my doubts." (1)

Doubts about industry seem quite generally to have been settled by the late teens, so that in the early 1830's, Alexis de Tocqueville could say with full assurance that: "no people in the world have made such rapid progress in trade and manufactures as the Americans" (2) and further on, "In the United States the greatest undertakings and speculations are executed without difficulty because the whole population are engaged in productive industry, and because the poorest as well as the most opulent members of the commonwealth are ready to combine their efforts for these purposes." (3)

In this sense we can perhaps best understand the essence of the Middlesex Canal. It symbolizes that attitude of venturesome cooperation that transformed America technologically in the 19th century. From the turning of the first spadeful of earth of September 10, 1794 to the early morning hours of December 31, 1803, when the waters first flowed through its entire 27-mile length connecting the Merrimack River and the mill pond at Charlestown, the Middlesex Canal's story provides an unprecedented chapter in the history of American technology up to that time. Beginning with little more than the incentive to build an artificial waterway linking New Hampshire timber land more than 100 miles away to commercial outlets at Boston, these nine years were characterized by perseverance and innovation. As stated in the Advertisement at the Completion of the Canal: "The enterprise, which has been thus successfully executed, exceeded in magnitude any other project in the northern part of the United States. Those who first undertook it had no principles resulting from experience to recur to, by which they could calculate the practicability of the scheme, or the measure of the expense; but the application of natural principles, with assiduity and firmness by them, and those who soon after united with them, has crowned the hopes of all with success." (4)

It was indeed an impressive technical success. Beginning with what may well have been the first use of a perfected leveling instrument by William Weston in his survey of the summer of 1794, and continuing through a catalog of achievements and experiments, including the systematic organization of the labor force, attempts at water seepage control and the search for a satisfactory hydraulic cement mortar, to on-the-job training of civil engineers who would later go on to serve importantly elsewhere in public and industrial works, we see a set of events that provided significant inspiration for such subsequent technological feats as construction of the Erie Canal. Without doubt, the Middlesex Canal was the most impressive public works project of its day, and the largest single engineering achievement in the first two decades of the young country. When finally completed, it comprised, in addition to safety gates, culverts, sluiceways and water weirs, 20 locks, 8 aqueducts and 48 bridges.

If in the end the Canal failed to fulfill the financial dreams of those who created it, eventually being superseded by the Boston and Lowell Railroad, we may take some consolation in the realization that it fell victim to the same fundamental impulse toward technological creativity that inspired its building originally. Like Mr. Toad of Wind in the Willows, our impatient and ebullient society has always been ready to risk all for the thrill of new adventure, and especially so when a new machine stood waiting to be tested. With transfer of all documents of the Canal Company to the Clerk of Court of Middlesex County in June of 1860, some 8 years after the last boat had traveled through the Billerica Locks, the canal's story closed; coinciding almost exactly with the first phase of our national development, its fresh enthusiasm and innocent optimism ending in the brutality of Civil War.

But the canal had made a far deeper impression in men's lives than any account book could accurately tally. Not only was it an important factor in the establishment of the utopian paternalist textile city of Lowell in the 1820's, but in a lighter vein, it also brought delight to the many who had a chance of a boat ride on it. Edward Everett Hale recalled it fondly in his memoirs, and Thoreau traveling on it in September, 1839, wrote prophetically: "Nature will recover and indemnify itself, and gradually plant fit shrubs and flowers along its borders. Already the kingfisher sat upon a pine over the water, and the bream and pickerel swam below. Thus all works pass directly out of the hands of the architect and into the hands of Nature, to be perfected." (5) Claimed by both man and nature in the intervening 135 years since he wrote, this portion we dedicate today has once again been shaped as our ancestors made it over 171 years ago. In this restoration, the Middlesex Canal serves then as a fitting monument to the technological accomplishments of those who have preceded us.

It is in this spirit that I now symbolically accept the Wilmington Restoration on behalf of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, and for all whose hearts and minds are devoted to the study and preservation of America's technological and industrial past. In closing, no words seem more suitable as an expression of our sentiments here today than those spoken by Loammi Baldwin on that day in September, 1794 when construction of the canal was first begun; "May the Eye of Wisdom and the Eternal Mind aid this work designed for the benefit of the present & all Future Generations." (6)


(1) Adrienne Koch and William Peden (eds.): The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, N.Y. 1944. p. 621.

(2) As quoted in Richard D. Heffner (ed.): Democracy in America, N.Y., 1956. p. 215

(3) Ibid. pp. 215-216.

(4) As quoted in Christopher Roberts: The Middlesex Canal 1793-1860, Cambridge (Mass.), 1938. p. 114.
(Unless otherwise noted, all facts about the canal have been drawn from Roberts)

(5) As quoted in Dirk J. Struik: Yankee Science in the Making, New York, 1968 (originally published in 1948, this is the 2nd printing of the 1962 revised edition). p. 163.

(6) As quoted in Roberts, op. cit., p. 65.