Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Billerica, Massachusetts

Vol. IV, No. 3        September 1966

The First Inn at Horn Pond Lock - from a pencil sketch by Marshall Tidd
[reproduced from the New England Magazine, Jan., 1898]

The feature article this month is a Historical Sketch of the Middlesex Canal, written by Herbert Pierce Yeaton in September, 1902. It is here presented through the graciousness, and by permission of his niece, Miss Marian Taylor of West Medford. Because of its length, it is being published in two parts.

by Herbert Pierce Yeaton

The canals of the Merrimac River had their day and active existence in the 1st half of the last century. They have been referred to as the earliest steps towards a solution of the problem of cheap transportation between Boston and the northern country; but perhaps they may be more properly classed as the second step in that direction, the turnpikes having been in the field.

James Sullivan and his associates, the original projectors of the canal system, undoubtedly had in mind, not only to connect Boston with the Merrimac River country, but also to extend their canals from the Merrimac to the Connecticut River, and from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain, and through its outlet to the St. Lawrence, thus bringing Boston into inland water communication with Montreal and the Lower Canada.

The project was too vast and the physical obstacles too formidable to admit of full consummation and their labors resulted only in uniting by navigable water, the capitals of Massachusetts and New Hampshire covering a distance of about 85 miles.

The Middlesex Canal, 27 miles long, from Boston to the Merrimac River at what is now known as Middlesex Village about two miles above Lowell, was the first constructed. The work on this was commenced in 1794 and completed and opened for public use in 1803. Following the construction of the Middlesex Canal came the requisite works to render the Merrimac River navigable; from the head of the canal to Concord, N.H. being a series of dams, locks and short canals to overcome the natural rapids and falls of the river.

The first of these works was a lock and short canal at Wiscassee Falls, three miles above the head of the Middlesex Canal and what is now known as Tyngs Island. No fall is now perceptible at that point, the Lowell dam having flowed it out. The second work 15 miles further up at Cromwell's Falls consisted of a dam and single lock. Then came dams and single locks at Moor's, Coos, Goff's, Griffins and Merrills Falls. About a mile above Merrills Falls were the lower locks of the Amoskeag, a canal next in importance to the Middlesex Canal. It was only about a mile in length but surmounted by works of very considerable magnitude, the great fall of between 50 and 60 feet that now furnishes the water power for the mills at Manchester. The contract was first undertaken by Samuel Blodgett in 1794 and not completed until 1807.

Eight miles above Amoskeag the locks and short canal at Hooksett overcame a fall of some 17½ feet, further up on the Bow locks and canal, afforded the final lift of 27 feet to the level of the navigable water of the Merrimac at Concord.

Short side canals with locks were subsequently built at the junction of the Nashua and Piscataquog Rivers with the Merrimac, to facilitate the passage of boats from the Merrimac to the storehouse in Nashua and Piscataquog villages.

For 40 years this line of canals formed the principal channel of heavy transportation between the two capitals, and except that the canals did not effectually compete with the stages for carrying passengers, they held the same position to transportation as is now held by their successor and destroyer - the railroad.

During the entire season of open river, from the time that the spring break up of ice permitted navigation to commence, until the frosts of fall again closed it, this 85 miles of water was thronged with boats taking the products of the country to a market and the New England metropolis, and returning loaded with salt, lime, cement, plaster, hardware, leather, liquors, iron, glass, grindstones, cordage, paints, oils and all the infinite variety of merchandise required by country merchants formerly classed under the general terms of "Dry and West India goods."

The construction of these canals was a great undertaking in that day. Boston was a town of only about 20,000. Neither Lowell nor Manchester had been commenced and Nashua was a small place without manufacturing and Concord was a country village.

The Merrimac Canals were blotted out by the railroad. The opening of the Lowell road in 1835 to Nashua in 1838 and to Concord in 1842 were successive steps of destruction to the whole system of river navigation and culminated in a total abandonment of the canal soon after the Concord railroad was put in operation. ,

A hardy race of boatmen, pilots and raftsmen, men of uncommon strength and endurance, skilled in their calling, but unfamiliar with their labors - were suddenly thrown out of employment. The wooden dams and locks went to decay, the embankments were cut and plowed down and successive spring freshets have hurled their icy batteries against the stone abutments and lock walls until they are nearly obliterated, and the next generation will not know of them.

The Middlesex Canal
[Note: This article is derived from the Jan 1898 edition of New England Magazine]

The observant traveler on the Boston & Lowell railroad, now the Southern Division of the Boston & Maine, between Woburn and Billerica, may see a broad ditch filled with a sluggish stream of water. He is told perhaps that this was once a portion of the Old Middlesex Canal. With the words come a swift vision of a silvery ribbon of water lying between cultivated meadows and bordered by velvety lawns and shaded woodland. On its bosom he sees the canal-boat, moving forward with easy, quiet dignity, appropriate to the time when leisure was still allowable. The vision is quickly dispelled by, the rush and roar of the train sweeping on to its destination, as the canal itself was obliterated by the growth of steam power. It may perhaps help to an appreciation of the vast changes which accompanied this transition if we will remember that, roughly speaking, the Middlesex Canal belongs to the first half of the nineteenth century, while the railroad belongs to the latter half of that period.

In the month of May 1793, a certain number of gentlemen assembled for the purpose of "opening a canal from the waters of the Merrimac by Concord River or in some other way, through the waters of Mystic River to the town of Boston." There were present at this meeting the Hon. James Sullivan, who was at this time attorney general, and later governor of Massachusetts and in whose fertile mind the idea originated; Benjamin Hall, Willis Hall, Ebenezer Hall, Jonathan Porter, Loammi Baldwin, a leader in the enterprise and superintendent of construction; Ebenezer Hall, Jr., Andrew Hall and Samuel Swan, Esq. After organizing by the choice of Benjamin Hall as chairman, and Samuel Swan, Esq. as clerk, the Hon. James Sullivan, Loammi Baldwin and Captain Ebenezer Hall were chosen a committee to attend the General Court, in order to obtain an Act of Incorporation with suitable powers relating to the premises. In conformity with this vote, a petition was presented to the General Court, and a charter obtained incorporating James Sullivan, Esq. and others, by the name of the Proprietors of the Middlesex Canal, bearing date June 22, 1793 and on the same day was signed by His Excellency, John Hancock, Governor of the Commonwealth.

By this charter the proprietors were authorized to lay assessments from time to time as might be required for the construction of said canal. It was further provided that the proprietors might hold real estate to the value of 30,000 over the value of the canal; also to render Concord river boatable as far as Sudbury Causeway, through Billerica, Carlisle, Bedford, Concord to Sudbury, a distance of 23 miles. This formed a portion of Governor Sullivan's far reaching plan for inland water-ways, extending well into the interior of Massachusetts, and by way of the Merrimac river to Concord, New Hampshire, through Lake Sunapee to the Connecticut river, at Windsor, and thence to the St. Lawrence river. This seemed a good and practical plan, and if the railroad had been delayed ten years would undoubtedly have been realized; and further to extend the canal from Medford to Boston, the original intention to have the eastern limit at Medford. By an act of June 25th, 1798, the proprietors were allowed to hold Mill property.

At the first meeting of the proprietors, after the choice of James Sullivan as moderator and Samuel Swan as clerk, the following votes were passed, viz:

The Hon. James Sullivan, Hon. James Winthrop and Christopher Gore, Esq. be a committee to arrange the business of the meeting which they reported in the following order.

Voted: - That the business of the corporation be transacted by a committee annually elected, consisting of thirteen directors,' who shall choose their President and Vice-President out of their own number.

Voted: - That the Hon. James Sullivan, Loammi Baldwin, Esq., the Hon. Thomas Russell, Hon. James Winthrop, Christopher Gore, Esq., Joseph Barrell, Esq., Andrew Craigie, Esq., Hon. John Brooks, Captain Ebenezer Hall, Jonathan Porter, Esq., Ebenezer Storer, Esq., Caleb Swan and Samuel Jaques be directors for pursuing the business of the canal for the present year. At the meeting of the directors on October 11th the following vote was passed:

Voted: - That the Hon. James Sullivan be president, Loammi Baldwin, Esq. first vice-president and Hon. John Brooks, second vice-president.

The Board of Directors being duly organized, the next duty was to commence the necessary surveys of the most eligible route between Medford River and Chelmsford, to the Concord river. Here the committee were met by an almost insurmountable difficulty: the science of Civil Engineering was almost unknown to anyone in this part of the country. They were however determined to persevere and appointed Mr. Samuel Thompson of Woburn; who began his work, and proceeded from Medford river, following up the river to Mystic pond, through the pond and Symme's river to Horn pond in Woburn and through said pond to the head thereof.

Meeting here bars they could neither let down nor remove, they went back to Richardson's Mill on Symme's river and passed up the valley through the east part of Woburn to Wilmington, and found an easy and very regular ascent until they reached the Concord river, a distance traveled as the surveyor says, "From Medford Bridge to the Billerica Bridge, about 23 miles, and the ascent he found to be, from Medford river to the Concord river 68½ feet." The actual elevation when afterwards surveyed by a practical engineer, was found to be 104 feet. By the original survey from Billerica to Chelmsford, the surveyor says, "The water we estimate in the Merrimac river at 16½ feet above that at Billerica bridge and the distance 6 miles," when in fact the water at Billerica bridge is about 25 feet above the Merrimac at Chelmsford. This report shows one of the many difficulties the directors had to contend with for the want of requisite scientific knowledge. It will be seen at the Concord river was thus at the summit of the canal and able to supply water in both directions. It will be seen later how this fact was further utilized in the attempt to form an aqueduct of the canal.

On the first day of March 1794, the directors passed a vote appointing Loammi Baldwin, Esq., to repair to Philadelphia and endeavor to obtain the services of Mr. Samuel Weston, a distinguished English engineer then in this country working on the Potomac canals. If he cannot come then that he endeavor to obtain some other person who shall be recommended by Mr. Weston and that said agent be authorized to write to Europe for some suitable person for the undertaking, if none can be found elsewhere.

Col. Baldwin made a lengthy and able report on the 12th day of May 1794. Among other things he says, he has engaged Mr. Weston to make the survey of the route in the month of June, and closes his report as follows, "I consider the prospects before us in this undertaking much more flattering in respect to the execution of the work in proportion to the extent than any I have seen in the Southern states, the Washington canal excepted."

About the 15th of July,. Mr. Weston arrived and a committee, consisting of Loammi Baldwin and Samuel Jaques was appointed, "to attend him during his survey and observations relating to the canal." The survey was completed and a full report made by Mr. Weston on the 2nd day of August 1794. The survey made by Samuel Thompson was the one selected forty years later for the Boston & Lowell railroad.

Agents were then immediately appointed to carry on the work to commence Billerica mills on the Concord river and first complete the level to the Merrimac at North Chelmsford. Col. Baldwin who superintended the construction of the canal removed the first turf on the 10th of September 1794. The season having so far advanced, but little could be done until the next spring except to purchase material and make contracts for future operations. The purchase of land from more than 100 proprietors demanded skillful diplomacy. Most of the lands acquired were by voluntary sale and conveyed in fee-simple to the corporation, sixteen lots were taken by authority of the Court of Sessions while for thirteen others neither deed nor record could be found when the corporation came to an end. Some of the land was never paid for as the owners refused to accept the sum awarded. The compensation for the land taken ranged from $150. per acre in Medford to $25. per acre in Billerica. The progress was slow and attended with many embarrassments and was prosecuted with great caution from the commencement to the year 1803, at which time the canal was so far completed as to be navigable on the Merrimac to the Charles river, the first boat, however being actually run over a portion of the canal on April 22nd 1802.

Delays and great expense were incurred for many years owing to imperfections in the banks and other parts of the work; and about the whole income was expended in additions, alterations and repairs and no dividend could be or was declared until February 1st 1819. From the year 1819 to the time the Boston & Lowell road went into operation, the receipts regularly increased, so that the dividends arose from $10 to $30 per share; and no doubt in a few years without competition they would have given a handsome interest on the original cost. These were palmy days. In 1832 the canal people declared a dividend of $22 and from 1834 to 1837 inclusive, a yearly dividend of $30. The year the road went into operation in 1835, the receipts of the canal were reduced one-third, and when the Nashua and Lowell road went into operation in 1838, they were reduced another third and up to the year 1843, they were not sufficient to cover the expenditures for repairs and current expenses. The future had a gloomy prospect.

As the enterprise had the confidence of the business community, money for prosecuting the work had been procured with comparative ease. The stock was divided into 800 shares, and among the original holders appear the names of Ebenezer and Dudley Hall, Oliver Wendell, John Adams of Quincy, Peter Brooks of Medford and Andrew Craigie of Cambridge. The stock had steadily advanced from $25 per share in the fall of 1794 to $473 per share in 1803, the year after the canal was opened and touching $500 in 1804. Then a decline set in, a few dollars at a time till 1816 when its market value was $300 per share with few takers, although the canal was in successful operation and in 1814, the obstructions in the Merrimac river had been remedied so that canal boats locking into the river at Chelmsford had been poled up the stream as far as Concord, New Hampshire.

Fire-wood and lumber always formed a very considerable item in the business of the canal. The Navy Yard at Charlestown and the ship yards on the Mystic river for many years relied on the canal for the greater part of the timber used in ship-building and work was sometimes seriously retarded by low water in the Merrimac which interfered with transportation. The supply of oak and pine about Lake Winnepesaukee and along the Merrimac river and its tributaries was thought to be practically inexhaustible. In the opinion of Daniel Webster the value of this timber had been increased $5,000,000 by the canal. Granite from Tyngsboro and agricultural products from a great extent of fertile country found their way along this channel to Boston while the return boats supplied taverns and country stores with their annual stock of goods.

Yet, valuable, useful and productive as the canal had proved itself, it had lost the confidence of the public and with a few exceptions, of the proprietors themselves. The reason of this is easily shown. The general depression of business on account of the Embargo and War of 1812, had its effect on the canal. In the deaths of Gov. Sullivan and Col. Baldwin in 1808, the enterprise was deprived of the wise and energetic counsellors to whom it owed its existence. Lotteries were deemed necessary as means to raise money and in 1816 the canal was voted financial aid. Constant expense was being incurred in the repairing of damages from breaks and the settling of the bed. Four directors were in charge, no one of them in full authority; tolls were uncollected; and canal boats were detained, for weeks sometimes, till the owners were ready to unload them. After the death of Gov. Sullivan, his son John Langdon Sullivan, a stock holder in the company and an engineer and business-man, was appointed agent. He compelled the payment of tolls in cash before goods were delivered, charged demurrage on goods not promptly removed, caused repairs to be promptly and thoroughly made, and so improved the business that in 1810 receipts rose to $15,000 and kept on increasing until in 1816 they were $32,000.

The aqueducts and most of the locks being built of wood required large sums for annual repairs, the expenses arising from imperfections in the banks and the erection of toll houses and public houses for the accommodation of the boatmen were considerable, but the heaviest expenses were incurred in opening the Merrimac river for navigation.

From Concord, New Hampshire to the head of the canal at Middlesex village, the river has a fall of 125 feet necessitating various locks and canals. The Middlesex Canal contributed to the building of the Wiscassee locks and canals at Tyngs Island $12,000, Union locks and canal $49,932, Hooksett canal $6,750, Bow canal and locks $14,115 making a total of $82,797 to be paid from the income of the canal.

The canal as built was 27Ό miles long, 30 feet wide at the surface, 16 feet wide at the bottom, and 4 feet deep; with 7 aqueducts over rivers and streams, 20 locks and crossed by 50 bridges. Four of the levels were 5 miles each in extent, the rest of from one to three miles each. The total cost, to 1803, was $528,000 of which one-third was for land damages. Much of the work was done by contract. Laborers received about $8 per month wages, and carpenters from $10 to $15 per month. The locks were 11 feet wide and 75 feet long with an average lift of about 7 feet, some being built of wood and others of stone. In the wooden locks the outside walls were of stone, the space between the inner and outer walls being packed with earth. In this way expensive masonry was avoided, though the cost of maintenance in after years was increased.



As part of a new housing subdivision along the Canal in East Billerica (off Route 129 - between Pickowicz Road and Brown Street), Mr. Arthur C. Fillmore of Billerica, the builder, has constructed a bridge leading over the Canal to his subdivision known as Glen Arden Park. Instead of the usual culverting and filling of the bed of the Canal, Mr. Fillmore has built an attractive granite-faced bridge which adds to the beauty and the nostalgia of the area. He is to be complimented and we thank him in behalf of the Association. Members will be seeing the bridge on the annual meeting bus tour. Those who cannot make the trip will be interested in inspecting the bridge on their own.


Professor Russell E. Miller, Archivist of Tufts University, advises us of the existence of some interesting material on the Canal in the Archives, in Wessell Library at Tufts.

There are, in all, five loose-leaf notebooks prepared by Melville Munro, late Professor of Electrical Engineering, (d. 1945) and an expert photographer.

The notebooks are in two sets (two one-volume and one three-volume.) The first consists of a brief typescript history of the Canal illustrated by over 90 photographs. The second, a typed running commentary of 123 pages interspersed with pictures, also includes a 17 page "Touring Description of the Route of the Old Middlesex Canal from Lowell to Boston." The notebooks were assembled between 1932 and 1937.

Unfortunately, University policy prevents these obviously valuable items from leaving Wessell Library, where the Archives are housed. However, any interested individuals are welcome to inspect them (and reproduce them, if desired). There are commodious facilities in the library that would accommodate many persons at one time if they cared to inspect the contents of the volumes.

Members wishing to inspect this material should speak to Professor Komidar, the University Librarian.

Middlesex Canal Association
P. O. Box 333
Billerica, Mass.

Please reserve places for me on the bus tour of the Canal Saturday, October 1, 1966.
I enclose $ ($1.00 for each reservation)
Reservations must be returned no later than September 24, 1966.


Oct. 1, 1966 - ANNUAL MEETING. The annual meeting this year will take the form of a bus tour of as much of the route of the canal as can be conveniently inspected. Although there will be a few stops to visit particularly interesting sites off the road, the trip should be of value even to those who do not wish to leave the bus.

The meeting will convene at 1:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Church at Billerica Centre, where there will be a brief business meeting. The bus trip will depart promptly at 2:00 p.m. Refreshments will be served.


Non-members and guests are welcome.

Oct. 8, 1966 - The annual historical walk of the Appalachian Mountain Club along a section of the Canal in Billerica will start at the common in Billerica at 1:00 p.m. Transportation will be provided to North Billerica and the walk will start at the Millpond of the Concord River and end at the East Billerica Community Centre, where a buffet supper will be served at a reasonable price.

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

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