The Middlesex Canal 1793-1853

The 27 mile long Middlesex Canal connected Boston to the Merrimack River at Lowell. Freight and passengers were carried up and down the canal from 1803 to 1853 when it was superseded by the Boston & Lowell Railroad. The canal played an important role in the development of the region north of Boston as far as Concord, New Hampshire.
Statistics and Interesting Facts
Length: 27 1/4 miles
30 1/2 ft. wide at the water line, 20 ft. wide at the bottom, and 3 1/2 ft. deep
20 locks, 8 aqueducts, 48 bridges
Source of water: Concord River (auxiliary source: Horn Pond)
Route followed generally pre-glacial course of Merrimack River
Speed limit: passenger boats 4 mph, freight barges 2 1/2 mph, and rafts 1 1/2 mph
Surveyors: Samuel Thompson of Woburn; William Weston of England
Middlesex Canal Map (ref.: The Old Middlesex Canal by Mary Stetson Clarke)
Middlesex Canal Location Map (color; 162 kB) (ref.: Middlesex Canal Guide and Maps by Warburton VerPlanck)
Middlesex Canal Map for Winchester (color; 186 kB) (ref.: Middlesex Canal Guide and Maps by Warburton VerPlanck)
Aerial views of the canal path through Winchester (ref: The Incredible Ditch, by Carl & Alan Seaburg)
Boston Globe article (7/3/99)
On June 22, 1793 John Hancock, then Governor of Massachusetts, approved and signed a handwritten parchment document measuring nearly two by three feet, "incorporating James Sullivan, Esquire & others by the name and stile of 'The Proprietors of the Middlesex Canal' . . . for the purpose of cutting a Canal from the waters of Merrimack River into the waters of Medford River."

On that same date Samuel Phillips for the Senate, and William Tudor for the House of Representatives, noted on the bill that it had been "passed to be Enacted" by those legislative bodies comprising the General Court of Massachusetts.

Such was the official beginning of the Middlesex Canal, which for fifty years provided safe, economical water transportation between Charlestown and Middlesex Village in what is now Lowell, and linked Boston Harbor with the Merrimack River. With that stream and its canals, continuous water passage was possible from Boston, the capital of Massachusetts, to Concord, the capital of New Hampshire.

Twenty-seven and one-quarter miles in length, with twenty locks and eight aqueducts, the Middlesex Canal was hailed as a triumph of engineering for its day. Albert Gallatin in 1808 called it "the greatest work of the kind which has been completed in the United States."

Writers of the nineteenth century extolled the beauty, comfort, and cleanliness of travel on the canal; businessmen, farmers, and lumbermen praised the low cost and efficiency of its transport; land owners rejoiced that neighboring land and timber increased in value; and a new and growing group of men known as civil engineers looked to the Middlesex for practical answers to the problems involved in constructing public works.

In the early nineteenth century the Middlesex served as the prototype for many inland waterways constructed in other parts of the United States. In 1816 the Commissioners of the Erie Canal sent a committee to Massachusetts to study the Middlesex Canal in order that they might incorporate some of its elements and avoid some of its drawbacks in the lengthy waterway to be cut across New York State.

Once completed, the Middlesex Canal became a busy, lively thoroughfare. Freight boats laden with fresh produce, coal, salt, slates, pearlash, potash, raw cotton, stone, wood, manufactured and imported goods, moved smoothly along. Each boat was drawn by one horse, the towing line being attached to a short mast placed a little ahead of the center. The crew consisted of one man to drive and one to steer, except in the case of boats running up the Merrimack River which had one man to steer and two to pole.

Rafts of lumber and ships timber floated along linked together in bands or shots of four or more, with a rude shelter set up on the last section for the raftsmen.Rafts were generally drawn by a single yoke of oxen, which in some rare instances had a horse leader.

A horse could draw on the canal 25 tons of coal as easily as one ton on the roads. A yoke ot oxen could draw as much as 100 tons, a load which would have required eighty teams on land. With tolls of 6 1/4 cents per mile for every ton of goods carried in the boats, and the same or less for every ton of timber floating in rafts, the canal became the cheapest and most popular method of transit in Massachusetts in the early 1800's.

From the breakup of ice in the spring until the freezing of the channel in the winter, there was a steady flow over the inland waterway of both freight and passenger traffic.

The gaudily painted passenger boats had a style all their own. Their drivers whipped the horses to a smart pace, although keeping within the four-mile-an-hour limit. The steersman blew his horn with a flourish of high notes, and the people lining the deck called out and waved their handkerchiefs as they passed taverns and houses.

People wishing to travel by packet from Boston to Middlesex Village (Chelmsford to 1826, Lowell thereafter) or any of the towns along the route, must first cross the Charles River to the passenger terminal in Charlestown, which was located at the corner of the present Rutherford Avenue and Essex Street. Stages ran regularly from Boston to Charlestown to connect with the canal boats.

Passenger boats left each morning for the trip to the Merrimack River, and it a traveler were early, and perhaps a bit hungry as might be the case had he come a considerable distance from his home, he could stop for a second breakfast at the Bunker Hill Tavern, then at the intersection of Essex and Main Streets.

After going aboard, the passenger could settle back and enjoy the view as the packet was towed away from Beachum's Landing and started on the journey.

Swinging around the base of Mt. Benedict, or Ploughed Hill as it was called in post-Revolutionary days, the canal turned toward the Mystic River at a location now marked by a stone slab in Foss Park, Somerville, then wound between the Mystic marshes and the ten hills of the former Governor Winthrop estate toward Medford Square. Just below the Cradock Bridge the canal was connected by the Medford Branch Canal with the Mystic River, where the Medford shipyards were situated.

A mile beyond the branch canal was an aqueduct 135 feet long over the Mystic River, supported by two stone abutments and three stone piers. The present Boston Avenue bridge is located on the site of the aqueduct. The abutments of the bridge are said to contain stone previously used in the aqueduct piers.

Just beyond the aqueduct was Gilson's Lock, where the canal boat was raised to a higher level. Here also was situated a tavern, later divided and moved in two sections to Canal Street.

A short distance farther on, the canal passed through the estate of Peter C. Brooks, one of the original shareholders.

Here a well-proportioned and attractive elliptical stone arch bridge designed by Loammi Baldwin's son George Rumford Baldwin, was built in 1821 and razed in 1911. (Note: Loammi Baldwin (1740-1807) was the first superintendent of the Canal)

Running along the shore of the Mystic Lakes, Winchester, where the route is presently marked by a bronze plaque set into the flat side of a huge granite boulder, the canal next crossed the Symmes or Aberjona River by means of an aqueduct with abutments 127 feet apart and three intervening stone piers. On the northern side of the aqueduct was a set of double locks called Gardner's Locks, nearby was the Gardner Tavern.

After passing between Wedge Pond and Winter Pond, the canal proceeded to Horn Pond Brook, near the southern end of Horn Pond, where boats were raised a distance of nine feet in a stone lock. Here, at the crossing of Horn Pond Brook, on the present Middlesex Avenue, water was taken from the brook to supplement the main supply from the Concord River.

At Horn Pond in Woburn canal boats had to effect a rise of fifty feet through the three double locks, often called the Stoddard Locks for the man who superintended the locks and two nearby taverns. Arlington Street now covers the locks.

A short distance farther on, behind the Woburn Public Library, the route led across the Town Meadows by means of embankments, and continued on to Newbridge (North Woburn) where it passed by the mansion of Loammi Baldwin. The mansion stands today beside the canal to the north of Route 128 at the junction of Route 38.

A few miles beyond North Woburn, just past the Woburn Wilmington town line, the canal came to the abrupt bend known as the Ox-Bow in the present Wilmington Town Forest Park, where boulders still bear the grooves cut by towlines of barges and boats rounding the curve. The Maple Meadow Aqueduct gave passage over Maple Meadow Brook, and then the canal flowed between long and often high embankments across the meadow.

The canal waters took another step upward at Gillis' Lock, where there was a small aqueduct and nearby a tavern and lock tender's house which stands today on the same site.

After about a mile, a small aqueduct carried the canal over Lubber's Brook, and a short distance farther on, Nichols' lock provided the last rise to the summiit level, an elevation of 107 feet.

A half mile more, and the traveler came to one of the most imposing sights on the canal, the aqueduct over the Shawsheen River. The approach was by means of high embankments, and the aqueduct itself was orginally 188 feet long. It was shortened to 40 feet, and two of thc three piers removed or buried when it was rebuilt for the second time in 1841-42. It must have been quite a thrill to sail along between the lofty banks' and to cross the river at a dizzying height of 30 to 35 feet, peering down at the water below.

Still standing beside Route 129 in Billerica are the massive granite blocks of the central pier and abutments, designated in 1967 a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

For the next few miles the canal proceeded with no change in level, passing through a half mile of deeply cut ledge into the waters of the Concord River millpond, where another amazing accomplishment, a floating towpath built of wood, provided passage for horses or oxen across the water to the opposite shore. An opening could be made in the floating towpath when required to allow rafts of timber to pass through and to the mills downriver.

On the western side of the millpond, the descent to the Merrimack River started by passing through a stone guard lock which still exists under a platform of the present Talbot Mill yard. Except for possible delays in traversing the aqueducts at River Meadow Brook and Black Brook, the last lap of the journey, nearly six miles, could now be accomplished without impediment, since this portion of the canal made no ascents or descents until it reached the Merrimack River at Middlesex Village. There, by means of three stone locks, boats were lowered thirty feet into the river. The locks, now covered by railroad tracks, were situated near the corner of the present Baldwin and Middlesex Streets in Lowell. The old Middlesex Tavern was located near the locks.

The Middlesex Canal packets went no farther than Middlesex Village. There the boats remained for the night, and the next morning started the return trip to Charlestown.

Soon after its opening the Middlesex Canal became a popular means of transportation, and was used for pleasure as well as business.

To escape summer's heat, families often left their homes in the city and journeyed by packet to one of the taverns in the cool countryside where they might spend a few days resting, fishing, or strolling along the canal banks.

Limited in operation by the severity of New England winters, subject to cessation of traffic and loss of revenue during major repairs, and by its nature unable to adhere to strict timetables, the canal struggled along beside the railroad for a few years. Gradually those who had utilized the canal's boats for transportation, transferred their business to the railroad, which operated with speed and dependability throughout all the months of the year.

As prophesied, the infant railroad had grown to giant form, and was rapidly swallowing the canal.

In 1843 Caleb Eddy, agent of the corporation, wrote:

"From the year 1819 to the time the Lowell Railroad went into operation, the receipts regularly increased, and no doubt in a few years, without competition, they would have given a handsome interest on the original cost. The year that road went into full operation, the receipts of the canal were reduced one-third; when the Nashua and Lowell went into operation they were reduced another third. Those of the last year and the present will not be sufficient to cover the expenditures for repairs and current expenses. The future has but a gloomy prospect . . .

The inventions and ingenuity of man are ever onward, and a new cheap and more expeditious mode of transportation by steam power has been devised which seems destined to destroy that which was once considered invulnerable. What is to be done?"

Eddy went on to propose a plan to use the canal to augment Boston's diminishing supply of water. ". . . If the canal cannot put out the fire of the locomotive, it may be made to stop the ravages of that element in the city of Boston should the proprietors deem it for their interest so to devote it as a water supply for Boston."

Boston's wells were going dry, and the water in them becoming contaminated, Eddy wrote. "One specimen which gave 3% animal and vegetable putrescent matter, was publicly sold as a mineral water; it was believed that water having such a remarkable fetid odor and nauseous taste could be no other than that of a sulfur spring; but its medicinal powers vanished with the discovery that the spring arose from a neighboring drain."

He went on to say that the Concord River water had been analyzed by "four of the most distinguished and able chemists in the country, all of whom agree that it is in every respect of the requisite purity for drinking and for culinary and for all other purposes."

On January 16, 1844 the proprietors voted that the treasurer be authorized to present a petition to the legislature for an alteration in the charter for a new act authorizing the use of the water of the canal for the supply of the inhabitants of Boston and the surrounding towns.

Despite the efforts of its proponents, the aqueduct proposition failed, and the canal faced failure.

Revenues continued to decrease with disheartening finality. After 1851 there was no recorded data on toll receipts. Evidently they were so negligible as to be not worthy of record.

The text and figures above were taken from the book:

The Old Middlesex Canal
by Mary Stetson Clarke
and published by the
The Center for Canal History and Technology
Canal Museum
P.O. Box 877
Easton, PA 18044-0877.
Permission to use the material was granted by the Middlesex Canal Association, P.O. Box 333, Billerica, MA 01821.

Additional Reading

Middlesex Canal Guide and Maps
by Warburton VerPlanck
and published by the Middlesex Canal Association, 1996.

The Great Spirit of Horn Pond
by Thomas P. Sileo
and printed by Concepts Unlimited, Inc. of Acton, Massachusetts, 1996.

The Incredible Ditch
by Carl and Alan Seaburg and Thomis Dahill
Medford Historical Society
Medford, MA

These books are available at Book Ends (781-721-5933) in Winchester.

Publications of the Middlesex Canal Association

Web Links
Middlesex Canal Association
National Canal Museum
American Canal Society
Railroads & Waterways (Digital Library)
The Middlesex Canal

Return to previous page