Middlesex Canal Association    P.O. Box 333    Billerica, Massachusetts 01821
Volume 26, No. 2    March, 1988

Sunday, April 10 at 2:00 P.M.

Speaker: Daniel L. Schodek, Professor of Architectural Technology at Harvard University

Topic: Early history and development of civil engineering in the United States, with particular reference to canal design and construction.

Place: St. Thomas Catholic Church function hall, 126 Middlesex Ave., Wilmington. (Middlesex Ave. is off Rte 38, one block north of the Rte 38 and Rte 62 junction, by the railroad tracks).

Prof. Schodek is the author of an exciting and impressive new book entitled "Landmarks in American Civil Engineering," which has been published by the MIT Press. The book includes a section on the Middlesex Canal. The Wilmington MCA members are delighted to be able to host this meeting in their town.

Please put this event on your calendar! For more information, call David Fitch at 663-7848.

Saturday, April 30 at 2:00 P.M.
(rain date: Sunday, May 1)

Meet at the Wilmington Town Forest (across from Brewsters on Rte 38). Upon arrival at the new granite marker off Butters Row, a short tribute will be observed. Please dress appropriately for trail hiking.

Please put this date on your calendar, and plan to join us for this walk through the Wilmington section of the old Middlesex Canal. A map from a previous walk is on the next page. For more information, call Betty Bigwood at 657-7870.

Middlesex Canal Walk - Wilmington



Did you know that in 1980, two regional agencies prepared a comprehensive inventory of the Middlesex Canal, with recommendations for future reuse and restoration of certain sections of the Canal?

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, and the Northern Middlesex Area Commission, prepared the Middlesex Canal Heritage Park Feasibility Study for the Middlesex Canal Commission. This 132 page report included maps of the entire canal route, cataloguing its present condition, environmental features, and related historical sites. Most important, the study recommended certain steps to preserve the canal, and develop it as a historic, cultural, and recreational resource.

The Middlesex Canal Commission has taken a significant first step by placing historic markers in the towns along the canal route. (See report in September 1987 Towpath Topics.) The study recommended putting additional identifying signs wherever the canal route crosses public streets, and interpretive signs at other points of interest. These markers will draw local attention to the existence of the canal, and may help protect the canal from unwitting obliteration.

During our 1987 annual fall walk, red flags and surveyor's stakes along the towpath made us uncomfortably aware of the fact that most of the annual walk route is in private hands, with no guarantee of preservation. (See related article in this issue.) The Heritage Park Study gives us an opportunity to preserve this portion of the Canal route. Among other things, the study pro-posed creation of a multi-purpose park in the area of the Mill Pond and the Talbot and Faulkner Mills on the Concord River in North Billerica. Museum facilities and an interpretive center (for both canal and mill history) could be set up in existing, underutilized buildings at this site. The stretches of canal originating here could be included in the park, protected from alterations inconsistent with historic preservation, and eventually restored to recreational use. As an adjunct to a Mill Pond Park, the lovely wooded sections between the rail yard, Pond Street, and Gray Street (where our fall walk ends) could be preserved.

To make this idea a reality will take a lot of work on the part of this association and other historical and civic groups. But there will never be a better time. Space in the mills for a museum and interpretive exhibits may be available, if we can take the time and give the effort to convince the necessary parties that the Middlesex Canal is worth doing something about.

The next issue of the Towpath Topics will reprint several pages from the study which deal with the proposed Mill Pond Park. I urge you to read these pages with an imaginative eye. Envision what you would like the next generation to see, when they come to look for the route of the old Middlesex Canal.

The Canal's bicentennial is not far off; the Middlesex Canal Company was chartered in 1793. How we chose to observe this event will determine whether the Canal becomes a lost memory, or a living one.

I propose that the Middlesex Canal Association set bicentennial goals for itself: a list of things that can be done between now and 1993. Chief among these goals should be the development of a focal point, or several focal points, for Middlesex Canal history. Our annual fall walk is one; the spring walk and events are another. How about a permanent park, relating the history of the canal to the development of New England's mills and mill towns, as another?

At a future meeting we hope to have a speaker from the Massachusetts Heritage Park program, to describe the formation of the Lowell Heritage State Park, and efforts to establish a Black-stone Canal Heritage Park. These speakers, and the information already assembled in the Heritage Park Study, should give us some idea of how to go about establishing an interpretive center and park for the Middlesex Canal.

Let your officers and directors know what you think. Watch this space.

David Allan Fitch, President
Middlesex Canal Association


Among other items discussed by the Directors and Officers is the possibility of a joint meeting with the American Canal Society, probably covering a full weekend (or even three days) in 1989. Lowell would be a good "home port" location, with a day of talks and seminars and a day of side-trips to such eastern New England Canals as the Cape Cod, the Blackstone, etc. Any Middlesex Canal Association member who is involved in A.C.S., or who would enjoy helping with arrangements for such a program, please contact Vice President David Dettinger (729-0570).


The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor Commission is planning a National Conference on Canals, September 12 - 15, 1988, in Morris, Illinois. Agenda topics include maintenance planning, budgeting and techniques; selling your project to the public; restoration philosophies; funding; tourism; sign-age; and interpretation. For more information contact David Fitch.

contributed by Howard Winkler

Our annual Canal Walk in Billerica took place on Saturday, October 17, which proved to be a magnificent autumn day. The group of 52 walk participants assembled in the Hajjar School parking lot. Our President, David Fitch, greeted the participants and then organized a caravan of cars to follow his car to the end of the walk, where a few cars were left off. After the drivers returned to the School, there was a brief talk about the history of the canal and its place in the evolving transportation system of the early 19th century.

We left the School and walked to the Talbot Mills, located near the falls on the Concord River; there we saw two of the cast iron rings used to secure the Floating Towpath when it was in place. Across the street from the site of the rings, and behind the gate surrounding the Talbot Mills, we saw the remains of a canal guard lock. From the Mills we walked to the far side of the river and saw where the other end of the Floating Towpath would have touched the shore. On the way, we passed the Toothaker Tavern, site of a 17th century Indian attack and kidnapping. We then plunged into light woods, where on the right could be seen a remnant of the Canal.

We soon came to the Deep Cut, the site of the greatest excavation in the construction of the Canal. This cut was necessary to allow water to flow from the Concord River into the Canal. We then came upon the Boston & Maine Railroad tracks; it was this railroad that succeeded the Canal and became the favored mode of transportation until it, too, was displaced. Thanks to the members of Troop 55 of the Boy Scouts of America who laid out and marked our path for this part of the trip, we did not have to walk along the main line of the railroad, but took a course more nearly along the path of the Canal.

On an embankment we came upon a tombstone that marks a mass grave in memory of early 19th century smallpox victims. From this point we entered the desolate yard of the Boston & Maine Railroad. When we reached the far end of the yard, a member of the Association who had taken this walk many times had no difficulty in locating the ongoing path along the Canal. Once again, experience proved its value.

As we left the yard, the pace of the walk slowed down due to a very wet trail through the swamp, and "bridges" that could only be crossed in single file. After this wet section we then followed some of the best preserved sections of the Canal, where the banks are heavily wooded and the Canal filled with water. Along the way, while crossing Pond Street, some of us stopped to put out a brush fire that had been started by smoking materials carelessly discarded by a passing motorist.

All too soon we found ourselves at Gray Street, some two and a quarter miles distant from where we started and at the end of the walk. Through an efficient process which required a little communication, all the walkers were ferried back to the School parking lot. And so the cycle of fall Canal walks was continued for another year.


During our annual fall walk, on October 17, 1987, we were surprised to observe wooden stakes and red strips of fabric along the stretch of towpath between Pond and Gray Streets. Surveyor's markers like this usually are a sign of plans afoot. Concerned there might be plans to fill or otherwise alter the Canal, I made some inquiries.

This stretch of the canal is apparently owned by Gray Pond Realty, operators of the adjacent "Schaefer landfill." Under an agreement with the Town of Billerica, the operators filled about 70 acres of wetland with refuse. The "hillside" that looms over us on this stretch of the walk is actually a mountain of refuse.

The landfill has been declared a hazardous waste Site under both State and Federal environmental laws, and it was closed in 1985. Under Federal EPA programs it is part of the Iron Horse Park Site.

The governments are requiring the landfill owners to do various things to "contain" the hazardous wastes, including putting in a clay dike to prevent seepage, installing special run-off pipes on sides of landfill, and replanting with ground covers, all measures intended to reduce the rate at which wastes leach out of the landfill into the environment. As part of this process surveying was done, which accounts for the stakes and flags we saw.

On the bright side, the State Archaeologist and the Massachusetts Historical Commission reportedly were brought into the process, to make sure that the remnants of the canal were not affected by the work being done.

Although in this case the surveyor's flags appear to have been part of a state-supervised clean-up effort, they might just as easily have been markers for the private filling or destruction of another portion of the vanishing Middlesex Canal.

In February, we learned quite accidentally that the town of Billerica has done construction work on two sections of the canal this winter, at Rodgers and High Streets. The construction crews apparently thought they were simply improving old culverts running under the road ways. Odds are that no one involved in these projects had any idea that the "trench" was historically significant.


We note with regret the passing of Mr. Frank T. Dignon of Billerica on January 29. Mr. Dignon deeded a stretch of the canal route in Billerica to the Middlesex Canal Association. Frank is survived by his brother, George, of Methuen, and a nephew, Raymond Hopkinson, of Tewksbury.


The fall meeting of the Middlesex Canal Association, hosted by our new president Dave Fitch, was held November 8, 1987, at the First Congregational Church in Billerica. Two Charter Members (1964) of the Association were our knowledgeable lecturers: Louis Eno, our first president, and Fred Lawson, our first historian. Both had early glass lantern slides to show, Louis Eno's from the M.C.A. collection at the University of Lowell Lydon Library, and Fred Lawson's from his own remarkable slide collection. We were greatly indebted to Fred Lawson for providing his old glass lantern slide projector for this showing. Both men, during their fine lectures, helped unravel to us newer members the unfamiliar details of the old Charlestown terminus and the pulling of boats along the shore, and of a branch canal to the Boston Harbor docks, which were then at the Haymarket (now Haymarket Square) in Boston. Refreshments and a social hour followed the meeting.

The winter meeting of the Middlesex Canal Association was held February 7, 1988, at the Unitarian/Universalist Church in Chelmsford Center. We were treated to a most absorbing illustrated lecture by Jeremy Frankel, a canal specialist from England. Mr. Frankel is an active member of the Waterways Recovery Group of Britain, a society of some 2,000 subscribers that aids local canal associations to revive and refurbish derelict canals throughout Britain. Many of the members work as volunteers on weekends and holidays, and Mr. Frankel showed us a group of slides of work now being done by this group on the Basingstoke Canal. Also included in Mr. Frankel's slides were many interesting photos of details of existing canals and many pictures of canals being filled in or left to disintegrate. The great activity in Britain in restoring old canals for use in both commerce and holiday excursions should serve as an inspiring example to us here in the United States. After the formal talk, members and quests had a chance to discuss Mr. Frankel's work with him individually, over refreshments.


Do you know of someone who'd make an interesting speaker for a meeting of this Middlesex Canal Association? Is there some special author or scholar you've always wanted an excuse to call and introduce yourself to? Why not invite him or her to be a quest speaker at one of our meetings? For further information, or just to pass along your ideas, please contact any of our association's Officers and Directors.


by Thomas C. Proctor

[Editor's note: The following is a summary of a talk that Mr. Proctor presented at the Seventh Annual Canal History and Technology Symposium in Easton, Pa. on March 26. Proceedings of the Symposium will be published by the Canal Museum, P.O. Box 877, Easton, PA 18044.]

In the years between the American Revolution and 1790, some thirty canal companies were incorporated in eight states, with the majority of the construction costs of their canals being raised by public subscription. These early canals were crudely constructed and generally under three miles in length.

The first major canal built in the United States was the Middlesex Canal. It was constructed between 1793 and 1803 at a cost of about $320,000. The canal's twenty-seven mile length spanned the distance from the Merrimack River in Lowell to the Charles River in Boston. The impact of this canal went far beyond its use as a conveyor of goods and passengers. The importance of the Middlesex Canal was that it proved that the exuberant visions of Americans, such as those held by Middlesex Canal President James Sullivan and Chief Engineer Loammi Baldwin, could be made realities.

Professor George Rogers Taylor represents a certain school of historical thought when he states that the Middlesex Canal was a "relatively unimportant waterway." Yet it is clear that the building of the Middlesex Canal trained America's first generation of civil engineers. Additionally, the Middlesex Canal served as a model for American canal builders to emulate. For, in 1816, when a committee of the New York legislature was gathering evidence in support of the technological feasibility of building the 363-mile-long Erie Canal, it sent a delegation to Massachusetts to examine the Middlesex Canal.

In 1795, the Englishman, J. Phillips, remarked of his country, "so great has been the effect which these canals, and the trade to which they have given birth, have had on our industry, population, and resources, that in many instances they have entirely changed the appearance of the counties through which they pass." No less an astounding transformation resulted from the decade-long construction of the Middlesex Canal.

The building of the Middlesex Canal pioneered methods for cutting and transporting massive pieces of stones. This technological experience aided in building Boston with granite and creating the "Boston Style" of granite architecture, which from 1810 on served as an architectural model for the nation. In building the giant piers of the canal's highest aqueduct, Baldwin developed an especially strong Gin Pole for lifting the massive granite blocks up to the height of thirty-five feet above the level of the Shawsheen River.

Another major technological innovation in the construction of the canal was the use of hydraulic cement in the stone lock chambers. This use antedated the cement industry in the United States by twenty years. The Directors had heard about hydraulic cement, manufactured from trass, on November 3, 1795, This information convinced them of the utility of this cement, so they sent a sailing sloop to bring back forty tons of trass from St. Eustatius in the Dutch West Indies.

In using this trass, Baldwin learned that careful preliminary grinding of the material saved extensive mixing of the trass with the lime and sand. In fact, it is clear that a year before Smeaton's book, Narrative of the Edystone Lighthouse (first edition), was available, in 1798, with information on improved methods for mixing hydraulic cement, Baldwin had already perfected this technology. As he reported to the Directors, "I have made mortar for one of the courses of brick round the Culverts in proportion of 2 bush, 1 Terras, 1 bush, 1 Lime, 3 bush, 1 Sand, which seems to answer the best of any yet tried some like this I made last fall which is now very hard." (May 26, 1797)

Baldwin practiced the art of emulation. He followed the English model in canal construction, whether in hydraulic cement or puddling, and then worked to surpass his model. In puddling to secure the canal's banks against leakage, English engineer Weston advised, "the whole interior Dart exposed to the action of the water must be covered with a stratum of clay about six inches in thickness, and then the same must be well rammed . . . and then another of the same thickness; and so on, until the whole has received a coat of [at] least two feet in thickness." In practice, Baldwin and the Directors wisely recognized that to follow this prescription would require more time, labor, and materials than they could afford. So Baldwin secured the canal's banks by first ramming the interior walls and then letting the water in and out of the canal "to season the banks." The advantage of this method of puddling, like the Directors' 1799 decision that lock chambers were henceforth to be constructed of wood, was that it served the purpose and also saved money, preventing the Middlesex Canal from sharing the fate of those Pennsylvania companies' canals that ran short of cash and lay unused for twenty-five years.

The Middlesex Canal was a waterway inspired out of the English canal mania and the local desire to engage in projects to promote the Republic. Republican ideology had provided that vision of the public good which enabled the technologically difficult project, the Middlesex Canal, to be finished. Of course, while any technological system, in this case a canal, "may be sustained by an act of faith," it must, nonetheless "be fashioned by acts of the intelligence" (Elting E. Morison, From Know-How to Nowhere, p. 14). Intelligence was gained through the emulation of American and British examples in canal building. And such faith and intelligence, manifested in the construction of the Middlesex Canal, offered the model to which the Erie Canal promoters looked twelve years later.

contributed by Tom Smith

Some 260 miles north of Boston, nestled along the rocky, rugged shoreline of Moosehead Lake, Maine, lie two vast tracts of timberland and ponds. Uninhabited, undeveloped, and mostly undisturbed, they are much the same as in 1809 when they became forever linked to the story of the Middlesex Canal. In that year, abandoning a standing policy that forbade financial assistance to private enterprise, the General Court of Massachusetts granted two townships in the District of Maine to the Proprietors of the Middlesex Canal.

At that time, the precarious fiscal state of the Canal Corporation, worsened by the Embargo of 1808, would not allow them to proceed with construction of a canal system on the Merrimack River. Such a system was considered critical to the success of their entire inland waterway scheme. Thus, the General Court was induced to grant these northern lands to the Canal Corporation. Funds from the anticipated sales of the Moosehead plots, each nearly 36 square miles in size, were to be used to help finance the Merrimack River canals. The anticipated value of the plots was some $17,000.

The East and West Middlesex Canal Townships, while supplying a much-needed boost to sagging morale, were far too remote to be of any real value to the company financially. The Directors wisely sought other methods to finance their canal system, although they gratefully accepted the two well intended parcels. It comes as no surprise that the hiring of a survey team to lay out the proper bounds of the townships did not occur until early in 1816.

Try as they might, the Middlesex Canal Company was many years in disposing of their Moosehead townships. Finally, in 1831, the wilderness holdings were sold to a Samuel Bradley for a mere $9,000. The bulk of this sum was paid in notes of credit to the corporation. They were likely never paid in full.

Recently, I was able to strike out in search of the lost townships, both now part of the vast Maine real estate holdings of the Great Northern Paper Company. Soaring above the two ancient grants in a small pontoon airplane was an awesome experience. The canal townships sit at opposite bands of Moosehead's North Bay. The seemingly endless vista of mountains, ponds, streams and bogs remains as rugged as it must have been in 1816, when that first survey team had to conquer them.

Moosehead Lake, an immense body of water, headwater of the Kennebec River, is 20 miles wide and almost 30 miles in length. Most of the shoreline is owned by the paper company. Many of the large, uninhabited islands belong to the Penobscot Indian Nation.

An aerial overview, however, was not the way in which I wanted to search for tangible reminders of the brief association of this vast wilderness with our remarkable ditch. Like any dedicated "canawler," I took to the ground. Following a narrow, muddy logging road, virtually the only modern intrusion, through the West Middlesex Canal Township, I made good use of a topographical map and some dead-reckoning. I made my way past Tomhegan Pond and crossed Socatean Stream in the hopes of locating one of the boundary posts of our "lost" townships. The undergrowth, or "pucker-brush" was tough and the insects tougher. This was something that only a Middlesex Canal "nut" would undertake.

Then, quite unexpectedly, I came across that for which I had been hoping. There, rising out of the deep, close forest, was the tangible link I had sought between the canal and the woods - the boundary marker.

It was a moment for reflection. The Canal Corporation had come and gone. Yet the old canal itself endures, and so, too, do the "lost" Middlesex Canal Townships.

Tom Smith at boundary marker

In this photograph, Tom Smith stands beside the boundary marker for the 1809 grant, which he located deep in the bogs and woods of northern Maine.


The following article is from the Lowell Daily Journal and Courier for Friday, October 5, 1849.

IRON BRIDGE. We mentioned several days ago, that the Nashua and Lowell Railroad Co. were having an iron bridge put up over the canal at Middlesex Village. The bridge was erected at the suggestion, and under the direction of George Stark, Esq., engineer of the Nashua and Lowell Road. Mr. Stark has also been, since 1847, constructing engineer of the Boston, Concord and Mont-real Railroad.

The iron in the bridge weighs a trifle over twenty-four thousand pounds - it is fifty feet in length and cost $37.50 per foot in length - or $1875. It was manufactured and put up by the New York Iron Bridge Co, M. M. White, Esq., Agent, 74 Broadway. This form of the bridge was patented by N. Rider in 1845. The invention is claimed by Major Long of the United States Topographical Engineers. The first one erected was over the canal in the city of Washington sometime in 1845. Many since that time, have been put up in various States. There is no other bridge of the kind, however, in New England, we learn, although there are several of those known as Howe's patent on the Providence and Worcester, and the Willimantic Road in Conn.

The bridge at Middlesex is warranted to bear fifty tons and on trial with forty upon it, sprung less than five eights [sic] of an inch, which it immediately regained after the load was removed. The bridge has a light airy and handsome appearance - and must from the nature of the material of which it is constructed, last as long almost, as time itself. A heavy train under the sharpest speed makes but little more impression upon it than if it were stone. Those qualified to judge, express themselves very favorably toward this bridge, and we should not be surprised if three fourths of the railroad bridges required to be reconstructed in this vicinity for ten years to come, were built after this, or a similar pattern.

The Nashua and Lowell Railroad propose to rebuild several other bridges the coming season - and should the one recently placed over the Middlesex canal answer all that is expected of it - those of a like character would probably be used.

The above article was brought to our attention by Donald Pearsall, who notes that the Lowell Nashua Railroad was opened in 1838, with a second track being laid in 1856-46.


Jane Drury has provided us with the following news items from the Massachusetts Mercury, owned at that time by a Chelmsford resident, Mrs. Marion Hohmann.

From Tuesday, June 11, 1799:


THE proprietors of the Middlesex Canal intend to raise about three hundred perch of rough dry stone wall to support an Aqueduct bridge over a low piece of land on the Banks of the Shawsheen River, in Billerica, eighteen miles from Boston. The stones are near by and handy. Any person inclined to undertake the business on a contract, will offer his proposals to LOAMMI BALDWIN, Esq. who is on the Canal, to Dr. AARON DEXTER, WILLIAM SMITH, JOSEPH COOLIDGE, Eqrs., Mr. WILLIAM PAYNE, Dr. JOHN JOY, or the subscriber. It will be necessary for any person who shall intend to offer proposals, to take a previous view of the ground where the wall is to be placed, in which he will be attended by Col. BALDWIN. on application made to him for that purpose.


Boston, June 4, 1799.


From Friday, September 13, 1799:


THE Directors of the Middlesex Canal, having given orders to their Superintendant to have the same completed through the town of Woburn as soon as possible, and there being in the southerly part of that town a considerable extent, which is neither cut nor contracted for, LOAMMI BALDWIN, the Superintendant, is ready to receive proposals at his house in Wobourn, from any Person or Persons who may be inclined to contract for any part of the work, not exceeding one hundred rods in length, on a single contract. As the funds of the Proprietors are good, the pay upon all contracts will, as it always has been, be prompt and punctual.

Wobourn, September 10, 1799.


Middlesex Canal Brochure
An ample supply of our brochure, with its map, pictures, and information on the Middlesex Canal is again available. Our association funded this reprinting with support from the Middlesex Canal Commission. The brochure is intended briefly to acquaint the public with the Canal, including its history and route, and to promote preservation of its remains. As in the past, the brochures will be offered to interested persons free of charge. Copies are being distributed to libraries and school systems in the cities and towns on and in the vicinity of the Canal. Copies will also be available at other places, such as the National Park headquarters in Lowell and the Baldwin Landing Restaurant in Woburn. If anyone has suggestions as to other locations for brochures, please let us know.

"The Old Middlesex Canal"
The new edition of Mary Stetson Clarke's book arrived from the publisher just in time for Christmas. Sales have been going very well. The price is $9.95 plus $1.25 for postage and handling. Copies may be obtained from W. K. VerPlanck, 37 Calumet Road, Winchester, MA 01890. Checks should be made payable to the Middlesex Canal Association.

"Landmarks in American Civil Engineering"
Many of our members may be interested to know of this new book, which includes a chapter on early canals, including the Middlesex. This thoroughly researched and well written volume is by Daniel L. Schodek, Professor of Architectural Technology at Harvard, and is published by the MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.



David A. Fitch
15 Andover Road
Billerica, MA 01821

Vice President

David Dettinger
3 Penn Road
Winchester, MA 01890

Recording Secretary

Jane B. Drury
24 Buckman Drive
Chelmsford, MA 01824

Corresponding Secretary

Marion Potter
189 High Street
No. Billerica, MA 01862


Malcolm Choate
429 West Street
Reading, MA 01867

Editor, Towpath Topics

Martha L. Hazen
15 Chilton Street
Belmont, MA 02178


Betty M. Bigwood
300 Chestnut Street
Wilmington, MA 01887

Thomas C. Proctor
R.F.D. 2, Box 1120
Thorndike, ME 04986

Wilbar M. Hoxie
31 Green Street
Reading, MA 01867

Daniel Silverman
336 South Road
Bedford, MA 01730

Paul P. Pearsall
106 Sayles Street
Lowell, MA 01851

Howard B. Winkler
10 Sleepy Hollow Road
Arlington, MA 02174

Editor's note: contributions to this issue were also made by Betty Bigwood, David Fitch, Burt and Frances VerPlanck, and the editor.