Historical Sketch of the old Middlesex canal.

By Herbert Pierce Yeaton.

the canal began at Middlesex Village, on the Merrimac river in the town of Chelmsford, and was lifted through a connected flight of three locks, passing under the main street over an aqueduct across the brook-near which are some quaint old houses erected by the proprietors for the use of their employes —and through the long swamp to River Meadow brook, also crossed by aqueduct. Thence it was continued to Billerica, where it entered the Concord river by a stone guard lock, with a floating tow path, and passed out on the southern side through another stone guard lock. The canal is still used by the Talbot mills at North Billerica for the supply of water for power, and in this connection they have retained one of the lock gates, thus saving for us one of the best preserved and most interesting features of the old canal. On the south bank of the Concord river an extensive cutting through rocks was necessary. The Shawsheen river flows through a deep and narrow valley, and the stone work for the aqueduct constituted perhaps the most imposing structure on the canal. Two end abutments and a central pier, all stone, supported a wooden truck or box about 180 feet long, elevated thirty feet above the river, and of sufficient width and depth. The abutments and pier remain undisturbed to this day, with some decaying fragments of the oaken truck still clinging to the pier. The highway and electric car line pass within a few feet of this monument. [2]

Half a mile further south was Nichols' lock, a portion of which still remains as a part of a cellar wall. Mr. Nichols had charge of this lock for a great many years. He was a successful farmer, and, in addition, kept an excellent inn for the accommodation of travelers on the canal. There were many of these, and Nichols' was a favorite place for dinner or a night's lodging. In Wilmington the canal passed through wide, boggy meadows, where the bed sank some sixty feet; crossed the Maple Meadow brook near the poor farm by another aqueduct, of which the remains are very picturesque; and then made an abrupt bend around the foot of a hill. This bend was called the Oxbow. A mile further south the canal entered the town of Woburn, passing within a short distance of the house of Loammi Baldwin. Just to the north of Woburn station a picturesque view of the canal may be had from the railroad. The canal has here been transformed into a duckpond, the width being preserved, but each end of the pond being formed by a dam and the railroad embankment. The canal crossed the swamp, where great quantities of earth were sunk in forming the bed and side banks, and passed to the rear of the present public library building and under the road near Wilson's Tavern. This tavern has since been the homestead of the late Ruel Carter, and was destroyed by fire about 1886. The canal passed through Horn pond, where there was a very important engineering feature, and known as Horn pond, or Stoddard locks. At this point there was a descent of fifty feet by three sets of double stone locks, the middle set being separated from that above and below by a basin-line expansion or widening of the canal, by which the draft of water by locking was equalized. Two of these locks were of hammered granite. These locks were so near Boston, the journey thither in the packet boat, ‘General Sullivan,’ was such a pleasant one, the view of the canal and lake was so picturesque and interesting, that the place speedily became a popular resort. Pleasure boats plied the lake, Kendall's Boston brass band and the Brigade band of Boston rendered sweet harmony, and the crowds wandered from the groves to the lake and back to the canal, where shots of lumber-rafts and canal-boats laden with cargoes were [3] continually passing through the locks. So popular did the place become that in 1838 the Horn Pond House was leased for $700 for that year.

After passing out of the Horn Pond locks, the canal continued on down to the Horn Pond brook, crossing it at grade by means of waste weirs, which remain to this day in a fair state of preservation. In Winchester the canal passed through Gardner locks, located at the West side of the village, and on through to Mystic pond, crossing the narrow upper arm of the pond over a stone aqueduct. The bed of the canal is plainly visible here, and it is hoped the bed will remain untouched while the March of Progress is still moving on, converting the shores of Mystic pond into a beautiful boulevard. For something over a mile the canal lay within the grounds of the Brooks estate in West Medford. Here stands a beautiful monument, that of the handsome elliptical stone arch, built by George Rumford Baldwin, son of Loammi Baldwin, to convey a farm road over the canal, and considered by engineers to be one of the most graceful structures of the sort in New England. It is plainly visible as one is journeying along by the Brooks farm in the electric cars.

The line of the old canal is where Boston avenue is now situated, passing through Gibson's lock and the aqueduct over the Mystic river, at a point where the new stone bridge now is, then turning to the east the canal passed under the bridge of the Lowell road,—the wing walls of this bridge are yet plainly visible,—and on past the Royall House, where the canal passed under Main street and sent off a branch to the river, for the benefit of the ship-yards of Medford and Charlestown; and so on through the Mystic trotting park to the base of Winter hill, Somerville. From this point the canal followed the line of the high land around to the short bend in the Mystic river, where Dunning's coal wharf is at present located; then to the south, through nearly the centre of the Broadway park; around the base of Mount Benedict,—now nearly dug away,—across the foot of Austin street, where the gate-house may still be seen; then nearly parallel to Main street, Charlestown, to the Neck, where it passed under Main street, through a lock and into the millpond. [4] Most of the cargoes were loaded here, but for those wishing carriage to Boston there was a lock with double gates working either way, according to the state of the tide, for admission into, the Charles river. Once in the river, it was an easy matter to reach any of the city wharves; but there was also an extension of the canal through what is now Haymarket square-Canal street being directly alongside—following nearly the lines of Blackstone street to the harbor, near what is now North Market street. Nearly all of the stone for Quincy market was brought over this route. On the map of 1812, in the Old State House in Boston, the canal can be traced under Cross, Hanover, and Ann—now North street—along Canal street.

It is difficult to ascertain the whole number of boats employed at any one time. Many were owned and run by the proprietors of the canal, and many were constructed and run by private parties who paid the regular tolls for whatever merchandise they carried. The original toll was placed at twopence per ton per mile; it was afterward, by Act of Legislature, placed at one-sixteenth of a dollar per ton per mile for goods carried in the boats, and the same for every ton of timber floated in rafts. The actual rates ranged from one to two dollars per gross ton for the twenty-seven miles from Boston to Lowell. Boats belonging to the same parties were conspicuously numbered and lettered, and private boats, of which there were many, were painted with such designs as to be easily recognized, as in the case of freight cars of to-day. The luggage or merchandise boats, of which there are probably none in existence, were peculiarly constructed to meet the requirements of canal navigation, and the mode of propulsion was as peculiar as their model. They were about seventy-five feet long, nine feet wide in the middle, and a little narrowed at the ends; flat-bottomed across the full width, but the bottom sloped or rounded up from near the mid-length of the boat, both towards the stem and stern, so that while the sides were level on top and about three feet deep at mid-length they were only a foot or less in depth at either end. A load of twenty tons would make the boats draw two feet or more near the middle, while the bottom would be [5] out of the water at each end. They were built of two-inch pine planks spiked on to small oak cross-joints and side knees, and had heavy oak horizontal timbers at each end. The sides were vertical and without cross thwarts, except what was called the mast board, a thick oak plank securely fastened across on top from side to side a little forward of the centre of the boat. The seams between the planks were calked with oakum and pitched.

The rudder was a long steering oar pivoted on the centre of the cross frame of the stern, so as to afford a good leverage for guiding the unwieldy craft. The blade was about eighteen inches wide and ten feet long, and trailed in the water behind the boat. There were also three large scull oars about sixteen feet long, with six-inch blades. Three setting poles or pike poles, as they are sometimes called (stout, straight, round poles, wrought out of tough and spongy ash about fifteen feet long, nearly two inches in diameter, and shed at one end with a long iron point), completed the propelling outfit.

The crew consisted of a skipper and two bowmen. In going down the Merrimac river the scull oars were used, and when there was a fair wind a sail was hoisted. In going down the river, the bowmen took positions close to either side of the boat facing the bow and about six feet from it, and each worked his oar against a thole-pin placed in the opposite gunwale, the oar handles crossing so that they were necessarily worked simultaneously. The skipper also had his oar, which he worked in a similar way when his attention was not wholly taken up in steering. When the boats arrived at Middlesex Village, they were then towed to Charlestown by horses, frequently without a driver, in which case the man at the rudder kept a small pile of stones or green apples ready for the encouragement of the horse.

In mid-summer, when the river was low, only about half a full load could be carried. Three boats each way a week were run. The fare from Boston to Middlesex was seventy-five cents, and from Middlesex to Lowell six and one-quarter cents. A stage met the boats at Middlesex to carry passengers to Lowell. The pay for a boatman in 1830 was $15 per month. Luggage or merchandise boats made two and one-half miles per hour, while [6] passage boats made four miles. The time required to go from Boston to Lowell was about twelve hours, and to Concord, N. H., from seven to ten days. Between Boston and Lowell the usual time for freight boats was eighteen hours up and twelve hours down.

Of the passage boats there were at first two, one running up and one down daily. Later, when the amount of travel proved insufficient to warrant two boats, one was removed, and the ‘Governor Sullivan’ ran alone. This was a boat on the style of the Erie canal-boats, though somewhat lighter, with a covered cabin over the whole length, except for the standing room at each end. The cabin was provided with seats, and was upholstered much as the horse cars of a decade ago. In its day the ‘Governor Sullivan’ was considered a model of comfort and elegance. When the feverish haste born of the locomotives and telegraph had not yet infested society, a trip over the canal in the passenger packet ‘Governor Sullivan’ must have been an enjoyable experience. Protected by iron rules from the danger of collision, undaunted by squalls of wind, realizing, should the craft be capsized, that he had nothing to do but walk ashore, the traveler speeding along the leisurely pace of four miles per hour had ample time for observation and reflection. Seated in summer under a spacious awning, he traversed the valley of the Mystic, skirting the picturesque shores of Mystic pond. Instead of a foreground of blurred landscapes, vanishing ghostlike, ere its features could be fairly distinguished, soft bits of characteristic New England scenery, cut clear as cameos, lingered caressingly on his vision.

A large amount of lumber was being used during this period by the ship-yards on the Mystic river, and nearly all of it being rafted down the canal. By the regulations, these rafts could not be larger than seventy-five feet by nine and one-half feet; but a number of rafts could be banded together by slabs pinned between them. A band of seven to ten rafts required five men, including the driver; four rafts required four men, and three rafts three men. These rafts were unpinned and sent through the locks separately, and then again united. The rafts [7] were drawn by yoked oxen, a single yoke drawing no less than 100 tons of timber, a load requiring eighty teams on the common road.

According to the rules of the corporation, boats of the same class going in the same direction were not allowed to pass each other. Repair boats had the precedence over everything, then came passage boats, luggage or merchandise boats, and lastly rafts. Landing and loading places were established at the millpond in Charlestown, in Medford, Woburn, Wilmington, Billerica, and Chelmsford. No goods were allowed to be unloaded or loaded at any other places without a special permit from the agent, this being a precaution against damage to the banks. Racing was prohibited. Whenever a boat approached a lock, a horn was sounded to attract the lock-tenders' attention. No horns were sounded on Sunday, although traveling was permitted. Navigation ceased at night on account of the danger of damaging the canal; so at every series of locks there was a tavern. Two of the most important taverns of the time were the Horn Pond House in Woburn and the Bunker Hill Tavern in Charlestown.

To the people who lived near the banks the canal was a source of pleasure, and was made serviceable in many ways. Its clear waters like a silver thread through the landscape added to the natural charm and the beauty of the delightful scenery. The wide tow-path was skirted with a generous growth of shrubbery and dotted with wild flowers, which made it the boulevard of the town. Sunday afternoons ‘fellers with their best girls’ promenaded along the towpath. Many were those who left the heat of the city for country air, just as now-a-days Franklin park affords recreation for many. Picnic parties came and camped on its shores. The Horn Pond House in Woburn was the most important house on the route of the canal. The proprietor was the famous Robert McGill, and had a reputation throughout New England. It was the summer resort of Boston and the surrounding country, and on a summer's day the business done was enormous, people coming by boat and carriages, and as many as 100 vehicles have been counted there in a single Sunday. [8]

In the early spring the water would be drawn off from the canal to allow the men to find breaks in the bank caused by the beaver and muskrat, which were continually making holes, thus letting the water out, frequently doing great damage to the surrounding country. The boys would take advantage of this time and search for articles lost overboard, and it was common to find valuables. When the water was let on every boy and girl would be on hand to watch it and try and keep up with the head of the stream. As an avenue for skating it was unsurpassed, and a spin to Woburn and beyond was of frequent occurrence.

The methods of receiving, transporting, and delivering freight were very similar to those of the present day; a way-bill or pass-port accompanied the goods. Freight charges were paid on removal of the property, and in case of delayed removal, a wharfage or demurrage charge was added.

Meanwhile Caleb Eddy, who assumed the agency of the corporation in 1825, rebuilt the wooden locks and dams of stone. With the accession of business brought by the corporation at Lowell, the prospect for increased dividends in the future was extremely encouraging. The ‘Golden Age’ of the canal appeared close at hand, but the fond hopes of the proprietors were once more destined to disappointment. Even the genius of James Sullivan had not foreseen the locomotive. In 1829 a petition was presented to the legislature for the survey of a road from Boston to Lowell. It was at the house of Patrick T. Jackson, Esq., at 22 Winter street, Boston, where the first step was taken for the organization of a company to build the Boston & Lowell railroad. A committee of the canal was then quickly chosen to draw up for presentation to the General Court a remonstrance of the proprietors of the Middlesex canal against the grant of a charter to build a road from Boston to Lowell. Notwithstanding the pathetic remonstrance of the canal proprietors, the legislature incorporated the road, and refused compensation to the canal. Even while the road was being built, the canal directors did not seem to realize the full gravity of the situation. They continued the policy of replacing wood with stone, and made every effort to perfect the service in all its details, and as late as [9] 1836 the agent recommended improvements. The amount of tonnage continued to increase, and the very ties used in the construction of the railroad were boated, it is said, to points most convenient for the workmen.

The disastrous competition of the road was beginning to be felt. The board of directors waged a plucky warfare with the railroad, reducing tariff on all articles, and almost abolishing it on some, till the expenditures of the canal outran its income; but steam came out triumphant. Even sanguine Caleb Eddy became satisfied that larger competition was vain, and set himself to the difficult task of saving fragments of the inevitable wreck. Business grew rapidly less with the canal after the Nashua & Lowell railroad opened. The country merchants fully appreciated the speed and certainty of the railroad, in spite of the somewhat higher freight rates. Caleb Eddy proposed to abandon the canal for transportation and convert it into a canal for supplying Boston with water. Boston had a population at this time (1843) of about 100,000, and was still dependent on wells for its water supply. Most of the wells were badly contaminated, some being little short of open sewers. Mr. Eddy's plan consisted in abolishing the levels betwen Billerica and Middlesex Village and Woburn and Charlestown, conducting the water of the canal from Woburn by thirty-inch iron pipes to a reservoir on Mount Benedict in Somerville, thence to be distributed over Boston, and possibly Charlestown and Cambridge. The water from the Concord river was analyzed by Dr. Charles T. Jackson, Professor John W. Webster, of Harvard University, S. L. Dana, of Lowell, and A. A. Hayes, of Roxbury, and by all declared to be pure, soft, and eminently suitable for the purpose. The scheme was, however, not successful, and in 1845 Caleb Eddy resigned his position. Stock fell to $150, and in 1846 the canal was abandoned and the property was sold for $130,000, and the amount divided among the stockholders. On April 4, 1852, the last canal-boat was run on the canal by Joel Dix, of Billerica.

By conveyances made in 1832, the company reserved the right to use the land for canaling purposes; perhaps they [10] thought the railroad would not be successful, but they soon gave up such thoughts, if they entertained them; and on October 3, 1859, the Supreme Court issued a decree that the proprietors had ‘forfeited all their franchises and privileges by reason of nonfeasance, non-user, misfeasance, and neglect.’ Thus the corporation was forever extinguished, and went out like a spark.

The canal was not a great financial success, owing to the large sum of money spent in its construction and the continued expense in keeping its bridges, locks, boats, and banks in repair.

To the student interested in noting the actual footprints of progress, old Middlesex Village, adjoining Lowell, and which flourished before the latter was thought of, furnishes subjects for contemplation. In the now quiet hamlet, where trade was once active and manufacturing kept many busy, still stands the office of the collector of the old Middlesex canal. It is a very small structure, and in very good repair, and is surrounded by traces of the enterprise that called it into being. (A few rods away to the north runs the Merrimac river, skirted by the Lowell & Nashua railroad—now a part of the Boston & Maine. The latter stands like a sentry, as it were, forbidding the corpse of the old canal it has slain to rise again; yet, even in death, the old Middlesex canal is remembered by its ancient friend, the Merrimac, whose waters ebb and flow in a narrow culvert connecting the river with the shrub-grown valley which marks the bed of the almost forgotten canal.) The door of this office is unlocked by a huge key, suggestive of other days. The interior is divided into two apartments, one of which was reserved for the collector, and the other for the boatmen and those requiring passports. The little window through which the passports were handed is still there, and not a pane of it disturbed. South of the collector's office stands a tall, Lombardy poplar, another valuable relic, for it calls to mind the banks studded with these odd-looking trees, whose roots once gave stability to the shores of the canal. Several other buildings of interest still stand in historic Middlesex.

The canal is now well defined through the country as one is traveling on the road to Lowell. At Medford the Woburn [11] sewer runs along one portion of its bed, the Spot pond water pipes another. At Mystic lake the new boulevard has taken possession of the old bed. At points, the old tow-path is now a part of the highway, at another it survives as a cow-path or woodland road. At one point it marks the course of the defunct Mystic Valley railroad. At Wilmington, the stone sides of a lock have become the walls of a dwelling-house cellar, and where once the merry shout of the boatmen was heard bringing the upcountry supplies to the city, the rumble and whistle of its successor, the railroad train, thunders past on its hurried journey. Steam at last drove the canal-boat from the field, and about fifty years ago the canal gave up business and disappeared into the darkness of the past, to be forever forgotten except in name.

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