Published by the Middlesex Canal Association
Billerica, Massachusetts

Vol. 7, No. 3             September 1969


Meet in Billerica Center at 1pm at Town Common, in front of Town Hall. After visiting Canal museum, the group will proceed by convoy to the starting point of the walk near the Talbot Mills in North Billerica. The walk will cover prepared trails along well-preserved sections of the Canal. At the end of the walk, a pot-luck supper will be served by the Mothers' Auxiliary of Troop 55, B.S.A., at the old Richardson School. Donation $1.25. As usual, co-sponsors of the walk are the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Boy Scouts of Troop 55. Make supper reservations by Thursday, Sept. 25 with Mrs. Edith J. Choate, 429 West Street, Reading. Telephone 944-0129 after 8:00pm.


Preliminary plans have been made for the previously announced English tour. It would take place during the last full week of August, 1970. We would meet in London (you make your own trans-Atlantic arrangements), travel by chartered bus, taking day trips on the canals and spending the night at country inns along the way. The itinerary will be worked out in detail if enough persons make preliminary reservations no later than November 1, 1969. The estimated cost for the week's tour (excluding overseas transportation) is $200 per person, including all expenses.

The lead article this month is the conclusion of the article by Alec Ingraham which appeared in the previous issue. It was prepared by the author as a course paper at Nasson College, and has been revised by the author for this publication.



It is unfortunate that none of the boats used on the canal are in existence. They were of a peculiar shape because of the requirements of river and canal navigation. Their method of propulsion was as odd as their construction.

They were about seventy-five feet long and nine feet wide in the middle, a little narrower at the ends, flat bottomed across their full width, but the bottom sloped or rounded up from near the midlength of the boat, both toward stem and stern, so that while the sides were level on top and about three feet deep at midlength, they were only a foot or less in depth at either end. A load of about twenty tons would make the boat draw two feet or more near the middle, while the bottom would be out of the water at each end. When the river was low in mid-summer, only about half a full load could be carried. (27)

The average boat was built of two inch pine with small oak cross-joists and heavy oak horizontal timbers at either end. The seams between planks were caulked with oakum and pitched. Across the top the boat had mast-boards. The masts were spars about twenty-five feet long and six inches in their largest diameter. They were steadied by the cross-planks as well as by footholds at the bottom of the boat. Crossyards, with a square sail attached could be hoisted or lowered by a rope. The sail was used only on the rivers and was stowed in the boat at other times. The rudder was a long steering oar with a blade about eighteen inches wide and ten feet long trailing in the water behind the boat. The handle or tiller extended about the same distance over the boat so as to afford a good leverage for guiding the unwieldy craft. Each boat had three large scull oars about sixteen feet long with six inch blades and three pike poles made of tough springy ash with pointed metal ends. These completed the outfit, with the crew consisting of a skipper and two bowmen. The equipment just described was used for river travel, the boats staying near the river banks when the current was strong and the bowmen pushing them along and directing them by use of the scull oars and the pike poles. It goes without saying that the trip against the current was far more difficult than the one one down stream. These boats were known as gondolas. (28)

On the canal itself horses were used to tow the boats. These horses were stabled at Middlesex Village. Although there was no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the captains were usually very considerate of their animals. Galling at the collar from hard pulling was their chief difficulty and horses sometimes had to be taken off duty for several weeks while sores healed. Some kindly crewmen were wont to hire a boy to walk along the tow path throwing apples ahead of the horses in order to hurry them along on lazy hot summer days. Usually one horse was sufficient to tow a boat, but for heavy loads two were used. Oxen were not unknown on the tow paths; however, although they were strong, they were not so popular because of their slow gait. (29)

A two way trade was set up by the canal administrators. By use of the Merrimack River to the north in conjunction with the canal, materials could be shipped from as far away as Concord, New Hampshire to Boston. This eighty mile trip was made faster than anyone had ever thought possible. The almost untapped granite and timber of New Hampshire were in great demand in rapidly growing Boston. Ashes, butter, cheese, beef, pork, cider, and grains were also carried on the canal boats to Boston. Back from Boston went English goods, groceries, codfish, mackerel, salt, lime, and plaster. (30) Had the canal been built several years later when the population and consequently the demand of both areas had increased, one wonders whether the final sad chapter in its history might have been delayed for a number of years.

It must be recorded that the Middlesex Canal in order to gain more revenue also conducted a passenger service. Beginning in 1802 one could leave Middlesex Village at 8:00 A. M. and arrive in Boston before nightfall. The Great Boat christened on its maiden voyage the George Washington by General Lee of Virginia, was considered extremely modern. An interesting but undated notice containing information concerning this trip is now in the special libraries department of the Boston Public Library. It follows in part:

The public are informed that a large Boat, called the Washington, conveying upwards of thirty tons, covered so as to secure goods and passengers from the rain and having two commodious rooms in her, will proceed from the head of the canal on every Thursday morning and arrive at Charlestown the same day before night . . . . The boat is drawn by two horses having a relief on the way . . . . The passage money is four cents a mile . . . The toll for Canalage is one-sixteenth of a dollar for each ton . . . .

Thus it can be seen that the fare in this then luxurious boat was one dollar and twelve cents between Middlesex Village and Charlestown. On the usual type of canal boat the fare was only seventy-five cents.

It should be of interest to the reader that one attempt to use a steamboat on the canal was made in 1814 by John L. Sullivan, an energetic and enterprising son of Governor Sullivan who succeeded Colonel Baldwin as superintendent of the canal. He had become interested in steam navigation following Robert Fulton's successful demonstrations on the Hudson River in 1809. Obtaining a charter to build boats on his own, Sullivan first tried a stern wheeler which was operated for a time on the Middlesex Canal. Unfortunately, the steamboat, called the Governor Sullivan, created such a wash that it injured the banks of the canal and had to be discontinued. By 1819 Sullivan was experimenting with towing freight carriers up the Merrimack. This too met with problems, since his steamboat could barely make her way against the rapids at the mouth of the Nashua River. (32)

The real heyday of the Middlesex Canal was between 1833 and 1835 when its toll receipts averaged well over forty thousand dollars for each year. Rather quickly thereafter came a decline until 1849 when the receipts of the canal were insufficient to keep it in repair. In 1851 the canal bore its last load. The proprietors asked permission to liquidate their assets at this time, but for some reason were refused. By the time the court and the legislature spoke again, the company had been practically disbanded, the bridges over the waterways had been removed and the filling up of the trough of the canal had long been in process. After a long delay, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decreed in 1859 that the proprietors had ceased to enjoy their rights and in 1860 the Legislature declared that the privileges of the corporation should be seized by the Commonwealth, forfeited, and annulled. Several months later it was ordered that all papers and records of the company be handed over the Clerk of Court of Middlesex County to be guarded indefinitely "for the use and benefit of all parties interested therein." By this act the history of the Middlesex Canal was completed. At the same time, however, it was preserved for the future. (33)

This brings the reader to the final chapter. Two questions come to his mind. What caused the short life span of this waterway which was built only by Herculean efforts over a period of ten years? Was the canal in truth as many have dubbed it the Middlesex Folly? There are actually two answers to the first question, since there existed two competitive types of transportation the teamsters and the railroad. With regard to the teamsters, whose competition was felt most during the 1820's, the reader can easily see that with the rapid growth of the country, the roads and the turnpikes had become increasingly more numerous and better. The "back" country further from the upper Merrimack River at this time had to be tapped for timber and granite, the supplies nearer by having been exhausted. Here the teamster was more often in demand since he could penetrate far into the country. Once a load had been placed on a wagon, the improved roads naturally lent themselves to the idea of carrying the load the whole distance rather than to the canal where it would have to be unloaded from the wagon, reloaded on the canal boat, unloaded again at Boston or its approximate destination, and reloaded on teams again for its final destination. Although the canal rates were cheap, the expense of getting goods to it and from it had to be considered. Also, many traders preferred the teamsters because less shifting of goods caused less damage. Under the canal system, if there was damage to goods, it was hard to pin the blame on truckman, boatman, or teamster. Added to this was the fact that the teamster could return home after completing his business, while the trader who used the canal often had to wait several days for the return trip of the canal boat. It must also be remembered that the winter snow and ice did not interfere with teaming to the extent that it did with the operation of the canal. The increase in the supply of wagons and live stock had created more teamsters. Thus there came about a growing competition among the teamsters which lowered the price of overland transportation. To sum up the facts, this type of transportation was slightly more expensive, but not enough more so to cause many traders to put up with the drawbacks of the canal mentioned in this paragraph. Naturally the canal was not without business, but it was of a different type than formerly. The factory town of Lowell, later called the Venice of America, came into being in 1826 and provided much shipping of cotton cloth for the canal during the late 1820's. (34)

It was the railroad, however, which caused the final death knell of the canal. Had the proprietors been able in 1830 to look into the future, they would have seen the smoke and heard the rumble of the first locomotives of the Boston and Lowell Railroad. Interestingly enough, James F. Baldwin, a son of Loammi, did the surveying for the railroad, which incidentally used as its bed an alternate route which had been laid out by the original surveyors of the canal in 1793. Since the two routes were very close in most places, it seems almost as if the old canal bed now serves as an ancient ghost accusing the railroad of taking its life so soon after its long struggle for existence. Another son, George Baldwin, also diverted his interests from the old Middlesex to the Boston and Lowell Railroad. Traveling throughout England, he went by foot over the lines of all the railroads being built near Liverpool and Manchester. He took measurements, made drawings, copied plans, studied iron bridges, and asked advice of experts in that country. He also aided a number of excellent mechanics to come to America to work on the Boston and Lowell Railroad. (35)

It is not to be wondered that the canal proprietors were bitter against the railroad officials. As early as 1831 Patrick Jackson, president of the railroad, wrote to them: "I am now laying out the route of the Rail Road from Boston to Lowell. We must cross your canal and in some places pass so near as to take some of your land." It is ironical that the company's first locomotive, The Patrick, was built in the Locks and Canals Machine Shop in Lowell. The proprietors were incensed over the fact that their boats had carried most of the materials for the railroad. Apparently they did not at first realize that the granite they carried for the railroad was actually their tombstone. The locomotive Stevenson built in England was even transported by canal boat at a speed of three miles an hour on the Old Middlesex. By 1835 the railroad was open for passenger service and by the following year was transporting cotton and coal. (36) Thus the teamsters in its earlier days and the locomotive in its later life proved to be competition too strong for the canal.

As for the second question: Was the canal truly a folly and a failure? As far as the money paid back to its investors was concerned, it was a dismal failure. Those stockholders who remained with it from the beginning to the end barely "broke even." As far as its construction went, it was also a failure. Compared to the B. and L. Railroad, which was patterned after the painstaking English method of building, the canal was poorly constructed. Because the proprietors had taken cheap short-cuts in construction, they were forever in a process of rebuilding, which sapped their financial strength. (37)

In another sense, however, the Old Middlesex was anything but a folly. According to one historian, "The story of the Middlesex Canal deserves a far greater place in the memory of Middlesex than it has ever received. It marked the beginning of the solving of the transportation problem in New England." (38) Daniel Webster stated that due to the canal, the accessible woodland in New Hampshire had increased in value by five million dollars. It provided a cheap method of transportation between the beginnings of industrialism and the advent of the railway. The mistakes made by the canal company served as guides in the construction of the railroad. In all fairness, the proprietors could not foresee the future and know that such great competition would arise in the vicinity of their canal. Had it been located elsewhere, the canal might have been a tremendous success. In short, the Middlesex Canal in its role of increasing the population and the demand of this area set the stage for the railroad which with its superior methods and speed took over where the canal left off. Without it the Boston and Lowell Railroad could never have been the immediate success that it was. (39)

For many years this writer crossed over one of the remaining recognizable parts of the canal almost daily on the school bus. He thought of it only as a means of water transportation predating the railroad. The passing years, especially the last several months, have greatly increased his knowledge of and his interest in the old waterway. His research has taken him through many dusty library stacks. His questions and his conversations have led him to the realization that truth is stranger than fiction and that primary sources are really the only ones to be trusted. His quest has led him down many bypaths which proved to contain complete stories of their own. His wanderings along its old tow paths have helped him to recapture the spirit of the old days. His discoveries of the scored rocks in Wilmington and the ancient, rusted rings to which the floating bridge in Billerica were attached were particularly interesting because they are known to so few of this generation. For these reasons it has been good to set down these facts in his own way for whatever posterity may choose to do with them.

(27) Benjamin Walker, "The Middlesex Canal," Contribution of the Old Residents' Historical Association, Vol. III, No. 3. Lowell: Morning Mail Print, 1886, p. 294.
(28) Ibid., pp. 293-295.
(29) Coburn, p. 117.
(30) Roberts, pp. 26-27.
(31) Coburn, pp. 117-119.
(32) Coburn, p. 116.
(33) Roberts, 176-187.
(34) Roberts, pp. 148-154.
(35) Ibid., pp. 154-156.
(36) Roberts, pp. 156-158.
(37) Ibid., p. 158.
(38) Edward Conklin, Middlesex County and Its People, p .258.
(39) Ibid., pp. 259-260.