Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Vol. 4, No. 2
May 22, 1966 – Lecture at Unitarian Church Hall, Billerica Center, 8:00 P.M. Speaker will be Miss Rosemary Harris of Reading, England, and she is an enthusiastic canalist (canawler). She has spent several long holidays on canals in England - including one in Wales, and one in the Oxfordshire district. She was present at the Festival of Boats at Stratford-on-Avon when a restored canal was opened - an occasion attended by the Queen Mother. Her brother, David Harris, is an officer of the Kennett and Avon Canal Association and a member of the Inland Waterways Association. He has written articles for canal magazines, and spends as many vacations as possible on canals. Canaling is popular in England and Miss Harris can describe many interesting aspects of canal boat living.
June 4, 1966 – Canal walk – Wilmington. Meet at Town Ball Park on Route 38, Wilmington at 2:00 P.M.
June 18, 1966 – Historical walk in North Billerica. Meet at parking lot opposite Talbot Mills on Elm Street, North Billerica (near Concord River) at 2:00 P.M.
A MODERN RAMBLE ALONG THE MIDDLESEX CANAL
The Middlesex Canal was a marvel of engineering skill. Built at a time when instruments of precision used in surveying were scarcely known; when high explosives had not been used; when the knowledge of the stability of earth fills and excavations was in its infancy, and when none or scarcely any cement was used in the stone work of the many aqueducts and locks, this canal was the pioneer in its class and well deserves a high place in the archives of engineering history. The story of the canal has been so well told by able writers that it is the purpose this evening to speak of its present physical conditions, rather than to tell of its romantic past.
The first survey was made in 1793, the canal was opened to travel in 1804, the last boat passed through in 1852 and in 1859 the charter was forfeited by an order of the Supreme Court. All the water of the canal, except a small amount from Horn Pond Brook, came from the mill pond of the Concord River at North Billerica, and flowed north to the Merrimac River at Middlesex Village and South to Boston Harbor, and with the exception of the stretch from Horn Pond to the Mystic River, water is found today in various levels. At each side of the mill pond, guard locks were maintained to regulate the flow of water into the canal, as at certain times in the Spring, the water might have been of sufficient height to overflow the banks of the canal if not restrained. The terminus of the canal at Middlesex Village has entirely disappeared with the coming of the Boston and Maine Yard. The last stones in the locks were taken by the railroad for its own new construction, but the small toll house still remains in the long deserted tow path. From Middlesex Street to Westford Street nearly all evidence of the canal is gone except for a short distance near the upper end of Baldwin Street where the tow path can be imagined. Through the Mt. Pleasant Golf Links to Chelmsford Street the canal is very much in evidence with water enough to support fish life. It might be well to state here that wherever traces of the canal are found the tow path is in excellent condition, and in many cases is still used as a public walk. The only obstacle found in its whole length is at Hale's Brook where the aqueduct and abutments have long been destroyed, and although the brook is not wide, a long detour is required to reach the other side. So near and yet so far is well exemplified here. It is but a short distance from the brook to the mad leading from Gorham Street to Chelmsford Center, and from this road to Sprague's Bridge at Gorham Street the tow path has been converted into a highway and is still in operation.
The trolley line from Gorham Street to North Billerica is probably along the tow path as the bed of the canal at the left is easily discernible. The mill pond or fountain head of the canal was crossed by a floating tow path which, of course, does not exist today, thereby requiring passage to be made across the river on the bridge near the dam. The southern exit of the Canal from the pond is still very evident and a canoe would easily be floated in the rear of the Talbot Mills. The Billerica Car Shops of the B. & M. have again obliterated all trace of the canal but just beyond them it appears in navigable form for nearly a mile, almost to the road leading from the East Billerica depot, but from here to the famous aqueduct of the Shawsheen River, it is almost wholly a dry ditch. This aqueduct carried the water of the canal about thirty feet above the river on abutments, and a pier with stones laid dry, and today is recognized by engineers as a splendid piece of work. In the basin of the canal at the north side of the aqueduct is a unique cabin built of rough hewed birch sticks. A quarter of a mile from the aqueduct is Nichol's Lock, the first one toward Boston Harbor. It is very obscure, but with a play of imagination it can be identified. Water still remains in the canal from this Lock to the aqueduct at Lubber Brook, a short distance below Silver Lake Depot. The abutments of this small aqueduct are still visible from the railroad. To Gillis' Lock the bed of the canal is dry, and in many places, has disappeared. A house has been built of the lock here, and the garden is the former basin. Across the road the old tavern still exists and is occupied by two tenants, one of them a descendant of the tavern keeper. A trolley line was built along the tow path from here to Wilmington, and is really in a worse state of decay than is the old canal. In the rear of the former Wilmington Poor Farm real obstacles in the way of construction were met. Maple Meadow, the source of the Ipswich River, had to be crossed at quite an elevation, and an innumerable number of loads of earth were dumped here before a firm foundation was formed. Here also is found the Ox Bow, a sharp curve which skirts the Poor Farm Hill and also keeps out of this treacherous meadow. The tow path is within 50 feet of the road at the Ox Bow and can be seen by careful observation. The next identification is at the Blue Hog Breeding Co., about a quarter of a mile along the state highway, and at the beginning of the "S" curve in the highway. At the South end of the curve the canal crossed the road and entered the Italian Village with its picturesque grape trellises, and after touching the road again at the next curve to the left, it reached the Woburn Branch of the B. & M. and is merged with the road bed through North Woburn, Central Square, and as far as the Woburn Library grounds. In the Woburn section the canal is in its best state of preservation. At North Woburn is the homestead of Loammi Baldwin, one of the moving spirits in the construction of the canal, and nearby stands a bronze statue to his memory. In Woburn the canal really first loses its identity as streets and dwellings now occupy its location. Emerging from Wade Place, which was a tow path, the canal crossed Main Street at North Russell Street, and entered the basin at the head of the Horn Pond Locks, which consisted of six in number and lowered the level of the water about 50 feet. This was the most extensive feat of engineering in the whole course of the canal.
A short distance from these locks at the crossing of the Horn Pond Brook was the Stone Lock dropping the level about 9 feet. In the bed of the canal at this new level, now in the town of Winchester, have been built about a dozen factory houses and the tow path is Middlesex Avenue. The canal very quickly turns to the right in what is now Palmer Street between Wedge Pond and Wildwood Cemetery, and follows nearly in a straight line through a few back yards and comes out in Sheffield Road at the Gardner Locks at Everett Avenue, near Mystic Pond which at that time did not exist but was the Abijenah River. The abutments for the aqueduct cross this river are still visible. About a quarter of a mile below the Wedgemere Station the canal comes out into the Mystic Parkway, and besides being well defined, there is a splendid bronze tablet with an historical inscription of the canal. From this tablet to Sullivan Square all evidence of the canal has disappeared and further navigation must be made by dead reckoning. The route of the canal leaves the Mystic Parkway near the end of Mystic Pond, passes along a new street laid out in the Brooks' Estate and follows down Boston Avenue to Mystic River, Medford, where was located the last lock before reaching the old mill pond near tide water. The aqueduct across the Mystic River has been replaced by a one-arch stone bridge just west of the Railroad bridge and is easily seen from the train.
Beyond this aqueduct the route turned sharply to the east and passed through what is now the Riverina Mills of the American Woolen Co., passed under the railroad tracks and became part of West Street. Leaving West Street, it turned to the south and was parallel to or in Summer Street, crossing Main Street, and then began a tortuous route avoiding the Mystic Marshes on the east and the hills on the west. The last imaginative trace of the canal is near Hancock Avenue, in the rear of a brick building which was originally a hat factory at the time the canal was in operation. The route kept along the westerly part of the Old Mystic Trotting Park, coming out at the coal pocket on the Mystic River near the Somerville Town Line, and again going inland to the westerly end of Broadway Park where the last tablet of recognition is placed. From Broadway Park to Dorrance Street in Charlestown, where a physical barrier in the form of a high brick wall around the Sullivan Square terminal of the Boston Elevated stops further travel, the route passes through congested areas, crosses Mystic Avenue, and the tracks of the Eastern and Western Division of the Boston & Main Railroad, and finally passes up the spur track of a lumber company and comes to its end. No doubt the exact location could be found after passing Sullivan Square, but it would require a vast amount of research and surveying, and even then would be of small value as the mill pond is now dry land and covered with streets and buildings.
The information contained in this paper was obtained by the kindness of Mr. A. B. Corthell, Chief Engineer, and Mr. Frank B. Rowell, Research Engineer of the Boston and Maine Railroad; Mr. Frank H. Kendall, Engineer of Middlesex County; Mr. Arthur G. Loring of Woburn and a host of men, women and children along the route of the canal, who seemed interested in the revival of the memory of this former water way.
N.B. - This manuscript was found in the Association's collection without any indication of who the author was. It is printed here because of its general interest. - Editor).
Although Bright Promise by Jan Nickerson was primarily written for an audience of teen-age girls, it is of more than passing interest to Middlesex Canal buffs. The dignity and simplicity of some New England farm folk who become involved in industrial life in Lowell is well portrayed in Miss Nickerson's story of an eighteen year old girl who comes to Lowell to work in the cotton mills in order to earn money for her brother's college tuition. The unusual life of such mill girls is described accurately and feelingly from their long hours at the loom, to their enthusiasm at the opportunity of furthering their education by attending lectures and concerts and reading widely. Of special interest is Rhoda's trip down the Middlesex Canal at the heights of its prosperity on the packet boat the Governor Sullivan, with a description of "locking through" at the Medford locks. Miss Nickerson has given us a colorful and somewhat unusual story of a girl who finds new freedom and meaning in the independent world of the mills in 1835.
Catherine L. Lawson
Middlesex Canal Association
P. 0. Box 333
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