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Medford steamboat days.

by Moses Whitcher Mann.
THE sails of Medford built ships have whitened every sea, but today not one remains in service. We know of but one (possibly two) which were propelled by steam; but these received their engines elsewhere, and never plied on our river. From time to time the tug-boats have come up the Mystic, towing the coal or lumber laden [p. 93] vessels, or assisted at launchings. One even came as far as Auburn street in 1874, towing scows from East Boston with lumber for the earlier houses of Boston avenue, and this was the last to come above Cradock bridge.

But these are not the boats or days of our composite subject, for while the latter part may doubtless be plural the former must ever remain singular—and the circumstances attending them equally singular. Medford's first historian makes no mention thereof. He was then pastor of a Hingham church and was instrumental in securing, for a time, the coming of the second steamboat in Boston bay to that place in 1818.

It may seem incredible today that a steamboat should traverse the entire length of Medford territory (greater then than now) without floating in either the river or the lake, itself but the third in Massachusetts waters, and prior to the second in Boston bay.

But such was the case nearly a hundred years ago, though today no trace of water remains in its course of nearly five miles through old Medford town. Only one year earlier (July 27, 1817) had steam navigation from Boston to Salem made beginning, and proving a failure financially, the Massachusetts was sold, and on the way to Mobile was wrecked. Neither this first, nor the second and smaller steamboat called the Eagle, were built in the old Bay State. The latter made some trips in the summer of 1818 from New Bedford to Nantucket without financial success, and then came to Salem on September 15. The Eagle remained there two days and went presumably to Boston with but two passengers. The following year she made a few trips to Hingham (as alluded to) and in two succeeding years ran to Nahant, Marblehead and Salem, when she was sold and broken up. The Eagle was smaller than the first, being a little over ninety feet long and less than nineteen feet wide.1

We now come to Medford's early steamboat days and the third steamboat, the Merrimack, Captain John L. [p. 94] Sullivan, that ran on the inland route and made a continuous voyage treble the length of those of the Massachusetts and Eagle. She was a still smaller craft, less than a dozen feet wide and fifty or sixty feet long, and of light draught, owing to the physical limitation of her route, the fresh shallow water of the Middlesex canal and the Merrimack river. The former had been in operation but fifteen years, and as yet had paid no dividends, when the steamboat Merrimack first ploughed its placid waters.

With a steam service from Boston to Salem and Newburyport, and the Merrimack river navigable to Haverhill, the canal's interests would be endangered, and its enterprising manager set about their defense. A steamboat line on the inland route would open the Merrimack valley direct to Boston, as locks just constructed made navigation possible to New Hampshire's capital. At that time Lowell and Lawrence were not on the map at all.

But how do we know this? Some fifteen years since a Medford man,2 (now an octogenarian) said: ‘My grandfather told me that they used to run steamboats on the canal.’ As his grandfather, Joseph Wyatt, was a master mechanic on the canal in 1827, the story was the more interesting and credible.

For a time persistent inquiry among the aged people long resident along the old canal, failed to throw light on the subject. An allusion in Amory's Life of Governor Sullivan ‘to many judicious inventions’ by the canal manager (the governor's son), led to further search in Boston Public Library. There we found his printed statements of the same, and also that he had acquired a water power in Medford and had begun to build steam engines for use on the canal. This was on the Aberjona river, a quarter of a mile up from the aqueduct that carried the canal over that stream.3

Mr. Sullivan's steamboat Merrimack was of the type [p. 95] of canal boat then in use. He already had some unsatisfactory experience with ‘a heavy engine from Philadelphia’ and had acquired the patent of Samuel Morey's ‘revolving engine.’ It was one of this type that propelled this third Massachusetts steamboat through Medford at a time before steam service was established in Boston harbor or but one steamboat had ever been seen there. It is also interesting to note that Morey's patent was signed by the first president, George Washington.

A model of Morey's first engine is now at the University of Vermont at Burlington. In the absence of drawings or illustrations it is difficult to explain its operation, but Morey's engine successfully propelled a boat against the current of the Connecticut near his home, fourteen years before Fulton (who had invented no engine) made continuously successful use of steam as motive power on the Hudson.

There is a certain fascination in the gleaming steel and rhythmic stroke of a modern steamboat engine; but here was one of a century long gone, when the age of steam was just beginning, designed by a man of the backwoods who had little education or mechanical training; an engine of complicated parts and crude workmanship, which accomplished its purpose, and which (we are told) contained some of the features of the modern cycle motor.

It was fitly named ‘revolving engine,’ for the vital parts, i. e., the cylinder, piston, cross-head and the frame enclosing them, rotated around a common center shaft which was geared to that of the paddle wheel. The latter was, as Mr. Sullivan said, ‘within the stern’ of the boat. The low-pressure boiler (condensing the exhaust steam) was fourteen feet long, and contained the furnace in which wood was burnt, supplemented with a stream of tar injected therein.

Our search among the aged people was at last rewarded. We had several interviews with one we had long known, at that time over ninety years of age and [p. 96] in possession of her faculties, and her testimony is entirely credible.4 She distinctly recalled the passing of this steamboat through the deep cut of the canal just beside her father's house, and spoke particularly of the noise and smoke it made. The latter was doubtless resultant upon the tar burning fixture alluded to. Probably at our interview (in 1900) she was (in that locality) the only witness of the scene then living.

Some years later it was our good fortune to find in an English work on the steam engine, an illustrated description of one American—the Morey—engine, such as propelled the Merrimack through Medford and up to Concord, N. H. the following year.

At that time Mr. Sullivan kept a journal of his cruise which is as follows:

June 13.In the evening set off from Canal Head, Chelmsford, with two boats in tow.
June 14.Overtook a loaded boat and took her in tow.
June 15.Monday at 9 o'clock arrived at Concord, distance 50 miles: passing 21 locks and 3 canals.
June 16.Went with loading to the Upper Landing, 6 miles, in 1 hour 3 minutes, unloaded and returned in 38 minutes.
June 17.Afternoon 5 o'clock. Went up river 7 miles, in 1 hour 15 min., 23 members of General Court on board.
June 18.Morning. Went up river 7 1/2 miles in 1 hour 8 min., 32 passengers on board.
Afternoon. Went up 8 miles with 157 passengers and a band of music, in two boats in tow.
June 19.Morning. Towed a loaded boat to the upper landing 6 miles, 20 members on board, unloaded and returned with 91 passengers.
Afternoon. Went up and down the river with two boats with awnings, the Governor and Council and other gentlemen on board, in all 211 passengers.
June 21.Towed Capt. Merrill to the upper landing: loaded and towed him to Turkey Falls, 15 miles: got back at 12 o'clock.
June 22.At 5 in the morning took a party of members up and down the river 7 miles.
Afternoon. Took a party of 215 on board with music.
June 23.Left Concord with two loaded boats in tow.
June 24.Arrived at Head of Middlesex.

[p. 97]

The three ‘loaded boats’ towed up stream carried thirteen tons each. Justly proud of his achievement, Captain Sullivan wrote the following letter to the Boston Advertiser .

Mr. Hale: The progress of the art of steam navigation is so interesting to our country that I need not apologize for sending you the enclosed extract from the journal of the Merrimack, at the commencement of the regular application of the power on the canal. This boat is of the form and size used on the canals, provided with a single engine of the revolving kind, similar to that in use at the glass factory5 at Lechmere Point. She is propelled by a wheel of peculiar construction, placed at and within the stern. The engine and boiler occupy about one-half the boat. She works under all the disadvantages of novelty. Previously to the commencement of this trip, she towed loaded boats up river, against freshet, two and four at a time, faster than they could have been impelled by muscular labor in low water, and at a time when they could not have proceeded otherwise. The object is to give to the canal and navigation the degree of regularity and despatch alone wanting to turn the whole course of transportation from Boston in that direction upon the canal.

Jno L. Sullivan. June 27, 1819.

The Massachusetts was built at Philadelphia, the Eagle at Norwich, Conn., but the Merrimack was built somewhere along the course of the canal—not impossibly at Medford. As yet we have submitted no proof that she came to Medford, but we consider that the following is conclusive. The books of record, accounts and papers of the canal company are preserved in the county offices at Cambridge. Search in the carefully audited bills of 1818, reveals one of William Phipps for services rendered and date of each entered. He seems to have been a general utility man, as his services were with parties of ‘ladies,’ ‘the cadets,’ ‘cleaning the boat,’ &c., &c. One item under date of August 11, 1818, at once fixed our attention. It is this: ‘1 day to Medford with steamboat, $1.50.’ The bill bears the check mark of examination and was duly paid. Thus it appears that the little steamboat Merrimack has the unique distinction of steaming through Medford waters on August 11, 1818, [p. 98] one month and six days before the Eagle, (which was but little larger) made her first appearance in Boston harbor.

Through this little old town of barely 1400 people with its ship building industry but a few years in progress, close beside, and never far from, but over and across our tidal river, beside our beautiful lake and through the enchanting woodlands that bordered it, to but not into the smaller river then within our bounds, came the precursor of the modern tow-boat, at that time the only steamboat plying in the waters of the old Bay State.

The query will be raised, Why was not this apparently successful navigation of canal and river continued? for had it been, the successful rival, the railroad, had not gained so easy a victory. The answer may be found, partly in the natural conditions then existing and partly in the financial. The Merrimack river, with its many rocks and the sunken logs of the lumber drives, all difficult to remove, was a continual menace; while the artificial banks of the canal were ever in danger from the surging wash created by the boat's paddle wheel. The latter had caused a similar disaster in Scotland in earlier years. With continued repairs at heavy expense, the enterprise had as yet yielded no return on the investment, but rather, assessment of the stockholders. While the New Hampshire legislators and others of those Captain Sullivan treated to a free excursion enjoyed the same, it requires dollars to finance a project and dynamite to remove obstructions. The former were not forthcoming and the latter then unknown. Under more favorable circumstances Captain Sullivan's dream of river navigation might have been realized.

1 See Essex Historical Collections, July, 1914.

2 Wm. J. Cheney.

3 This water power was destroyed by the explosion of a keg of powder beneath the dam in 1865, at the instance of the Charlestown Water Board.

4 Mrs. Harriet (Wright) Smith, Woburn.

5 New England Glass Works, East Cambridge.

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