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Historical Sketch of the old Middlesex Canal.

By Herbert Pierce Yeaton.

Navigation on the Merrimac River.

the Canals of the Merrimac River had their day and active existence in the first half of the last century. They have been referred to as the earliest step 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 island 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 eighty-five miles.

The Middlesex Canal, twenty-seven 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 work to render the [50] 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, fifteen 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, Griffin's and Merrill's Falls. About a mile above Merrill's 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, where the great fall of between fifty and sixty feet 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 seventeen and one-half feet; further up the Bow locks and canal afforded the final lift of twenty-seven 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 forty 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 eighty-five miles of water was thronged with boats taking the products of the country to a market and the New England metropolis, and returning [51] 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 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 the 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 other 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.

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 [52] 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 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 twenty-three miles. This formed a portion of Mr. Sullivan's far-reaching plan for inland waterways, 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 [53] 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 25, 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.:—

That 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 11, 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, Chelmsford, and 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 Symms' River to Horn Pond in Woburn, and through said pond to the head thereof. [54]

Meeting here bars they could neither let down nor remove, they went back to Richardson's Mill on Symms' 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 twenty-three miles, and the ascent he found to be, from Medford River to the Concord River, sixty-eight and one-half 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 sixteen and one-half feet above that at Billerica Bridge, and the distance six miles,’ when in fact the water at Billerica Bridge is about twenty-five 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 that the Concord 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 in 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.

Colonel Baldwin made a lengthy and able report on the twelfth 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.’ [55]

About the fifteenth 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 second 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 at Billerica Mills on the Concord River, and first complete the level to the Merrimac at North Chelmsford. Colonel Baldwin, who superintended the construction of the canal, removed the first turf on the tenth 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 from the Merrimac to the Charles River, the first boat, however, being actually run over a portion of the canal on April 22, 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 1, 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 [56] 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 & 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, until 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.

Firewood 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. [57]

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 effects on the canal. In the deaths of Governor Sullivan and Colonel Baldwin in 1808, the enterprise was deprived of the wise and energetic counsellors to whom it owed its existence. Lotteries were deemed necessary as a 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, canal boats were detained, for weeks sometimes, till the owners were ready to unload them. After the death of Governor Sullivan, his son, John Langdon Sullivan, a stockholder 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. In 1819 the first dividend was paid, the assessments at that time amounting to $1,455.25 per share on 800 shares, a total expense of $1,164,200.

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 123 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. [58]

The canal as built was twenty-seven and one-quarter miles long, thirty feet wide at the surface, eighteen feet wide at the bottom, and four feet deep, with seven aqueducts over rivers and streams, twenty locks, and crossed by fifty bridges. Four of the levels were five 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 eleven feet wide and seventy-five feet long, with an average lift of about seven 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.

[To be continued.]

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