Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Billerica, Massachusetts

VOL. V, No. 1 March 1967


- from the New England Magazine


The next meeting of the Association will take place on Sunday evening, March 12, 1967 at 8:00 P.M., at the Unitarian Church hall, Billerica Centre. One of our Proprietors, Mr. Brenton H. Dickson of Weston, Massachusetts, will give an illustrated talk on his trip along the English canals this past year. Guests are welcome and refreshments will be served.


Dues for the year beginning October 1, 1966 are now due and payable. In order to save mailing expenses (due to the new postal regulations for 3rd class mail), a bill for dues - or a membership card for those who have already paid - is included with this issue. Please help the Association by remitting promptly. A new system has been instituted which we hope will result in prompt depositing of checks.

Historical Sketch of the Old Middlesex Canal - II

The canal began at Middlesex village, on the Merrimac river in the town of Chelmsford, and was lifted through a connected flight of three locks, passing under the main street over an aqueduct across the brook - near which are some quaint old houses erected by the proprietors for the use of their employees - and through the long swamp to River Meadow brook, also crossed by aqueduct. Thence it was continued to Billerica where it entered the Concord river by a stone guard lock, with a floating tow-path and passed out on the southern side through another stone guard lock. The canal is still used by the Talbot Mills at North Billerica for the supply of water for power, and in this connection they have retained one of the lock gates, thus saving for us one of the best preserved and most interesting features of the old canal. On the south bank of the Concord river an extensive cutting through rocks was necessary. The Shawsheen river flows through a deep and narrow valley, and the stone work for the aqueduct constituted perhaps the most imposing structure on the canal. Two end abutments and a central pier, all stone, supported a wooden truck or box about 180 feet long, elevated 30 feet above the river, and of sufficient width and depth. The abutments and pier remained undisturbed to this day, with some decaying fragments of the oaken trunk still clinging to the pier. The highway and electric car line pass within a few feet of this monument.

Half a mile further south was Nichols' lock, a portion of which still remains as part of a cellar wall. Mr. Nichols had charge of this lock for a great many years. He was a successful farmer, and in addition kept an excellent inn for the accommodation of travelers on the canal. There were many of these, and Nichols' was a favorite place for dinner or for a night's lodging. In Wilmington the canal passed through wide boggy meadows, where the bed sank some 60 feet: crossed the Maple Meadow brook near the Poor Farm by another aqueduct, of which the remains are very picturesque; and then made an abrupt bend around the foot of a hill. This bend was called the Oxbow. A mile further south the canal entered the town of Woburn, passing within a short distance of the house of Loammi Baldwin. Just to the north of Woburn station a picturesque view of the canal may be had from the railroad. The canal has here been transformed into a duck-pond, the width being preserved, but each end of the pond being formed by a dam and the railroad embankment. The canal crossed the swampy meadows where great quantities of earth were sunk in forming the bed and side banks, and passed to the rear of the present public library building and under the road near Wilson's Tavern. This Tavern has since been the homestead of the late Ruel Carter and was destroyed by fire about 1886. The canal passed through Horn pond where there was a very important engineering feature known as Horn pond or Stoddard locks. At this point there was a descent from 50 feet by three sets of double stone locks, the middle set being separated from that above and below by a basin-like expansion or widening of the canal by which the draft of water by locking was equalized. Two of these locks were of hammered granite. These locks were so near Boston, the journey thither in the packet boat "General Sullivan" was such a pleasant one, the view of the canal and lake was so picturesque and interesting, that the place speedily became a popular resort. Pleasure boats plied the lake, Kendall's Boston brass band and the Brigade band of Boston rendered sweet harmony, and the crowds wandered from the groves to the lake and back to the canal, where shots of lumber-rafts and canal-boats laden with cargoes were continually passing through the locks. So popular did the place become that in 1838 the Horn Pond House was leased for $700 for that year.

After passing out of the Horn Pond locks the canal continued on down to the Horn Pond brook, crossing it at grade by means of waste weirs, which remained to this day in a fair state of preservation. In Winchester the canal passed through Gardner locks located at the West side of the village and on through to Mystic pond crossing the narrow upper arm of the pond over a stone aqueduct. The bed of the canal is plainly visible here and it is hoped the bed will remain untouched while the March of Progress is still moving in converting the shores of Mystic pond into a beautiful boulevard. Although a portion of the bed has already been transformed into the boulevard. For something over a mile the canal lay within the grounds of the Brooks estate. Here stands a beautiful monument that of the handsome elliptical stone arch, built by George Rumford Baldwin, son of Loammi Baldwin, to convey a farm road over the canal, and considered by engineers to be one of the most graceful structures of the sort in New England. It is plainly visible as one is journeying along by the Brooks farm in the electric cars.

The line of the old canal is where Boston Ave. is now situated, passing through Gibson's lock and the aqueduct over the Mystic river at a point where the new stone bridge now is, then turning to the east the canal passed under the bridge of the Lowell road, - the wing walls of this bridge are yet plainly visible, - and on past the Royal House, where the canal passed under Main street and sent off a branch to the river, for the benefit of the ship-yards of Medford and Charlestown; and so on through the Mystic trotting park to the base of Winter Hill. From this point the canal followed the line of the high land around to the short bend in the Mystic river, where Dunning's Coal Wharf is at present located; then to the south, through nearly the center of the Broadway park; around the base of Mount Benedict, - now nearly dug away - across the foot of Austin Street, where the state-house may still be seen; then nearly parallel to Main Street, to the Neck, where it passed under Main Street, through a lock and into the Mill-pond. Most of, the cargoes were loaded here, but for those wishing carriage to Boston there was a lock with double gates working either way, according to the state of the tide, for admission into the Charles river. Once in, the river it was an easy matter to reach any of the city wharves; but there was also an extension of the canal through what is now Haymarket square - Canal street being directly along side - following nearly the line of Blackstone street to the Harbor, near what is now North Market street. Nearly all of the stone for Quincy Market was brought over this route. On the map of 1812, in the Old State House in Boston, the canal can be traced under Cross, Hanover and Ann - now North street - along Canal street.

It is difficult to ascertain the whole number of boats employed at any one time. Many were owned and run by the proprietors of the canal and many were constructed and run by private parties who paid the regular tolls for whatever merchandise they carried. Tile original toll was placed at two pence per ton, per mile; it was afterward, by Act of Legislature, placed at one sixteenth of a dollar per ton per mile for goods carried in the boats and the same for every ton of timber floated in rafts. The actual rates ranged from one to two dollars per gross ton for the 27 miles from Boston to Lowell.

Boats belonging to the same parties were conspicuously numbered and lettered, and private boats, of which there were many were painted with such designs as to be easily recognized as in the case of freight cars of today. The luggage or merchandise boats, of which there are probably none in existence were peculiarly constructed to meet the requirements of canal navigation, and the mode of propulsion was as peculiar as their model. There were about 75 feet long, 9 feet wide in the middle and a little narrowed at the ends; flat-bottomed across the full width, but the bottom sloped or rounded up from near the mid-length of the boat, both towards the stem and stern so that while the sides were level on top and about 3 feet deep at mid-length they were only a foot or less in depth at either end. A load of 20 ton would make the boats draw 2 feet or more near the middle while the bottom would be out of water at each end. They were built of two inch pine planks spiked on to small oak cross-joints and side knees and had heavy oak horizontal timbers at each end. The sides were vertical and without cross-thwarts, except what was called the mast board, a thick oak plank securely fastened across on top from side to side a little forward of the center of the boat. The seams between the planks were talked with oakum and pitched.

The rudder was a long steering oar pivoted on the center of the cross frame of the stem, so as to afford a good leverage for guiding the unwieldy craft. The blade was about 18 inches wide and 10 feet long and trailed in the water behind the boat. Three large scull oars about 16 feet long with 6 inch blades and three setting poles or pike poles, as they are sometimes called, stout, straight round poles, wrought out of tough and spongy ash about 18 feet long, nearly 2 inches in diameter and shod at one end with a long iron point completed the propelling outfit.

The crew consisted of a skipper and two bowmen. In going down the Merrimac river the scull oars were used and when there was a fair wind a sail was hoisted. In going down the river the bowmen took positions close to either side of the boat facing the bow and about 6 feet from it, and each worked his oar against a hole-pin placed in the opposite gunwale, the oar handles crossing so that they were necessarily worked simultaneously. The skipper also had his oar which he worked in similar fashion when his attention was not wholly taken up in steering. When the boats arrived at Middlesex village they were then towed to Charlestown by horses, frequently without a driver, in which case the man at the rudder kept a small pile of stones or green apples ready for the encouragement of the horse.

In mid-summer when the river was low only about half a full load could be carried. Three boats each way a week were run. The fare from Boston to Middlesex was $.75 and from Middlesex to Lowell $.06. A stage met the boats at Middlesex to carry the passengers to Lowell. The pay for a boatman in 1830 was $15 per month.

Luggage or merchandise boats made 2 miles per hour while passage boats made 4 miles. The time required to go from Boston to Lowell was about 12 hours and to Concord, New Hampshire from 7 to 10 days. Between Boston and Lowell the usual time for freight boats was 18 hours up and 12 hours down.

Of the passage boats there were at first two, one running up and one down daily. Later, when the amount of travel proved insufficient to warrant two boats, one was removed, and the "Governor Sullivan" ran alone. This was a boat on the style of the Erie canal-boats, though somewhat lighter, with a covered cabin over the whole length, except for the standing room at each end. The cabin was provided with seats and was upholstered much as the horse-cars of a decade ago. In its day the "Governor Sullivan" was considered a model of comfort and elegance. When the feverish haste born of the locomotives and telegraph had not yet infested society, a trip over the canal in the passenger packet "Governor Sullivan" must have been an enjoyable experience. Protected by iron rules from the dangers of collision, undaunted by squalls of wind, realizing should the craft be capsized, that he had nothing to do but walk ashore, the traveler speeding along the leisurely pace of four miles per hour had ample time for observation and reflection. Seated in summer under a capacious awning he traversed the valley of the Mystic, skirting the picturesque shores of Mystic pond. Instead of a foreground of blurred landscapes, vanishing ghostlike, ere its features could be fairly distinguished, soft bits of characteristic New England scenery, cut clear as cameos lingered caressingly on his vision.

A large amount of lumber was being used during this period by the ship-yards on the Mystic river, and nearly all of it being rafted down the canal. By the regulations, these rafts could not be larger than 75 feet by 9 feet; but a number of rafts could be banded together by slabs pinned between them.

A band of 7 to 10 rafts required five men, including the driver; four rafts required four men and three rafts three men. These rafts were unpinned and sent through the locks separately, and then again united. The rafts were drawn by a yoked oxen, a single yoke drawing no less than 100 tons of timber, a load requiring 80 teams on the common road.

According to the rules of the corporation boats of the same class going in the same direction were not allowed to pass each other. Repair-boats had the precedence over everything, then came passage boats, luggage or merchandise boats and lastly rafts.

Landing and loading places were established at the Mill-pond in Charlestown, in Medford, Woburn, Wilmington, Billerica and Chelmsford. No goods were allowed to be loaded or unloaded at any other place without a special permit from the agent, this being a precaution against damage to the banks. Racing was prohibited. Whenever a boat approached a lock a horn was sounded to attract the lock-tender's attention. No horns were sounded on Sunday although traveling was permitted. Navigation ceased at night, on account of the danger of damaging the canal; so at every series of locks there was a Tavern. Two of the most important taverns of the time were the Horn Pond House in Woburn and the Bunker Hill Tavern in Charlestown.

To the people who lived near the banks, the canal was a source of pleasure and was made serviceable in many ways. Its clear waters like a silver thread through the landscape added to the natural charm to the beauty of the delightful scenery. The wide tow-path was skirted with generous growth of shrubbery and dotted with wild flowers which made it the boulevard of the town. Sunday afternoons "fellers with their best girls" promenaded along the tow-path. Many were those who left the heat of the city for country air just as now-a-days Franklin Park affords recreation for many. Picnic parties came and camped on its shore. The Horn Pond House in Woburn was the most important house on the route of the canal. The proprietor was the famous Robert McGill and had a reputation throughout New England. It was the summer resort of Boston and the surrounding country and was thronged and on a summer's day the business done was enormous, people coming by boat and carriages and as many as 100 vehicles have been counted there in a single Sunday.

In the early spring the water would be drawn off from the canal to allow the men to find breaks in the banks caused by the beaver and muskrat who were continually making holes thus letting the water out frequently doing great damage to the surrounding country. The boys would take advantage of this time and search for lost articles lost overboard and it was common to find valuables. When the water was let in every boy and girl would be on hand to watch it and try to keep up with the head of the stream. As an avenue for skating it was unsurpassed, a spin to Woburn and beyond was of frequent occurrence.

The method of receiving, transporting and delivering freight were very similar to those of the present day, a way-bill or pass-port accompanied the goods. Freight charges were paid on removal of the property, and in case of delayed removal, a wharfage or demurrage charge was added.

Meanwhile under the direction of Caleb Eddy who assumed the agency of the corporation in 1825 rebuilt the wooden locks and dams of stone. With the accession of business brought by the corporation at Lowell, the prospect for increased dividends in the future was extremely encouraging. The "Golden Age" of the canal appeared close at hand, but the fond hopes of the proprietors were once more destined to disappointment. Even the genius of James Sullivan had not foreseen the locomotive. In 1829, a petition was presented to the Legislature for the survey of a road from Boston to Lowell. It was at the house of Patrick T. Jackson Esq. at #22 Winter street, Boston, where the first step was taken for the organization of a company to build the Boston & Lowell railroad. A committee of the canal was then quickly chosen to draw up for representation to the General Court, a remonstrance of the proprietors of the Middlesex canal against the grant of a charter to build a road from Boston to Lowell. Not withstanding the pathetic remonstrances of the canal proprietors, the legislature incorporated the road and refused compensation to the canal.

Even while the road was being built the Canal Directors did not seem to realize the full gravity of the situation. They continued the policy of replacing wood with stone and made every effort to perfect the service in all its details and as late as 1836, the agent recommended improvements. The amount of tonnage continued to increase and the very ties used in the construction of the railroad were boated, it is said, to points most convenient for the workmen.

The disastrous competition of the road was beginning to be felt. The Board of Directors waged a plucky warfare with the railroad, reducing tariff on all articles and almost abolishing it on some, till the expenditures of the canal outran its income; but steam came out triumphant. Even sanguine Caleb Eddy became satisfied that larger competition was vain and sat himself to the difficult task of saving fragments of the inevitable wreck. Business grew rapidly less with the canal after the Nashua and Lowell railroad opened. The country merchants fully appreciated the speed and certainty of the railroad in spite of the somewhat higher freight rates. Caleb Eddy proposed to abandon the canal for transportation and convert it into a canal for supplying Boston with water. Boston had a population at this time, 1843, of about 100,000 and was still dependent on wells for its water supply. Most of the wells were badly contaminated, some being little short of open sewers. Mr. Eddy's plan consisted abolishing in the levels between Billerica and Middlesex village and Woburn and Charlestown; conducting the water of the canal from Woburn by 30 inch iron pipes to a reservoir on Mount Benedict in Somerville, thence to be distributed over Boston and possibly Charlestown and Cambridge. The water from the Concord river was analyzed by Dr. Charles T. Jackson, Professor John W. Webster of Harvard University, S. L. Dana of Lowell, and A. A. Hayes of Roxbury, and by all declared to be pure, soft and eminently suitable for the purpose. The scheme was however not successful and in 1845 Caleb Eddy resigned his position. Stock fell to $150 and in 1846 the canal was abandoned and the property was sold for $130,000 and the amount divided among the stock holders. On April 14th, 1852, the last canal-boat was run on the canal by Joel Dix of Billerica.

By conveyances made in 1852 the company reserved the right to use the land for canalling purposes, perhaps they thought the railroad would not be successful but they soon gave up such thoughts if they entertained them; and on October 3rd, 1859, the Supreme Court issued a decree declaring that the proprietors had "forfeited all their franchises and privileges by reason of non-feasance, non user, misfeasance and neglect." Thus the corporation was forever extinguished and went out like a spark.

The canal was not a great financial success owing to the large sums of money spent in its construction and the continual expense in keeping its bridges, locks, boats and banks in repair.

To the student interested in noting the actual foot-prints of progress, old Middlesex village, adjoining Lowell, and which flourished before the latter was thought of furnishes subjects for contemplation. In the now quiet hamlet, where trade was once active and manufacturing kept many busy, still stands the office of the Collector of the old Middlesex canal. It is a very small structure and in very good repair, and is surrounded by traces of the enterprise that called it into being. A few rods away to the north runs the Merrimac river, skirted by the Lowell and Nashua railroad - now a part of the Boston & Maine. The latter stands like a sentry, as it were, forbidding the corpse of the old canal, it has slain, to rise again, yet, even in death, the old Middlesex canal is remembered by its ancient friend, the Merrimac, whose waters ebb and flow in a narrow culvert connecting the river with the shrub grown gulley which marks the bed of the almost forgotten canal.

The door of this office is unlocked by a huge key, suggestive of other days. The interior is divided into two apartments, one which was reserved for the collector and the other for the boatmen and these requiring pass-ports. The little window through which the pass-ports were handed is still there and not a pane of it disturbed.

South of the Collector's office stands a tall Lombardly poplar, another valuable relic, for it calls to mind the banks studded with these odd-looking trees, whose roots once gave stability to the shores of the canal. Several other buildings of interest still stand in historic Middlesex.

The canal is now well defined through the country as one is traveling on the road to Lowell. At Medford the Woburn sewer runs along one portion of its bed, the Spot Pond water-pipes another. At Mystic Lake the new Boulevard has taken possession of the old bed. At points, the old tow-path is now a part of the highway, at another it survives as a cow-path of woodland road. At one point it marks the course of the defunct Mystic Valley railroad. At Wilmington the stone sides of a Lock have become the walls of a dwelling house cellar, and where once the merry shout of the boatmen was heard bringing the up country supplies to the city, the rumble and whistle of its successor, the railroad train thunders past on its hurried journey.

Steam at last drove the canal-boat from the field and about 50 years ago the canal gave up business and disappeared into the darkness of the past to be forever forgotten except in name.

Herbert Pierce Yeaton.
Chillicothe, Ohio.
September 16, 1902


The Association has been fortunate in obtaining sets of illustrated note paper. There are four old canal scenes (taken from the old New England Magazine) similar to the illustration used in this issue. They are for sale in packs of twenty cards with envelopes and sell for $1.50 or 40 cards for $2.50 (plus sales tax of 3% in the case of Massachusetts residents). Special prices for greater quantities available on request. Orders should be mailed to Box 333, Billerica, Massachusetts.


The most exciting news this month is that the Canal Society of New York State has accepted our invitation to hold a joint meeting with us here in Massachusetts. A delegation from the newly-formed Pennsylvania Canal Society is also expected.

You will receive a special issue of Towpath Topics early in July, but preliminary announcement of the program is made now so that you can make plans to attend.

The headquarters for the meeting will be the Holiday Inn in Tewksbury, Mass. (Route 495 at Route 38), where rooms will be available for those who wish to stay overnight. Registration will start Friday evening, August 4. On Saturday, there will be a bus tour from Lowell to Medford, along the route of the Canal. On Saturday evening, there will be a banquet, followed by interesting talks with slides and informal discussion. Many other activities, including special exhibits, a tour of the Locks and Canals on Merrimack River in Lowell, and optional tours to other nearby places of interest are being planned.

We expect a large delegation from New York and Pennsylvania. We hope that we will have an equally large number representing the host society.

Middlesex Canal Association
P. 0. Box 333
Billerica, Massachusetts

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