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Medford Branch canal.

ON May 16, 1805, the Massachusetts Legislature passed
An act to incorporate Benjamin Hall, Esquire and others, by the Name of Proprietors of the Medford Branch Canal and Locks between the Middlesex Canal and Mystic River, and easterly of the Post Road leading from Charlestown to Medford.

A bibliography of that old Middlesex canal would be of much interest as, judging by the articles (often illustrated) that have appeared in the weekly issues of Boston papers, there is a fascination connected therewith. The writer confesses to having come under its spell, and derived much pleasure and satisfaction therefrom, even though it entailed much study, work and travel. Some years since he was rallied a little for his neglect of the present subject, having only made the briefest mention thereof. Search in his own collection of the work of various writers, fails to reveal more attention paid by them to this branch canal. The recent acquisition by the Historical Society of the original record book of the Medford Turnpike Corporation gives some data, and the present seems a fitting time to notice this short but essential connection of the famous old waterway with the ‘Medford river’ of those days (the Mistick of earlier), today called Mystic.

Why essential? First, because the Middlesex canal (opened two years before) was a through line to Charles river and Boston. Contrary to original intent, it left Medford at one side with only a ‘way station’ at the further end of its first level in a corner of the ‘West End.’ There the original survey was commenced by [p. 26]Samuel Thompson of Woburn, who began his work and proceeded from Medford river near the location of the present lock.’1

There, was to have been the southern terminal of the canal, and from there the tidal flow of the river made a continuous waterway through Medford to Boston harbor. At that identical spot this article is written.

Second, because a new industry (perhaps unthought of at the inception of the canal) had arisen in Medford, i.e., ship-building. It was a ‘long haul’ and a heavy one to transport ship timber up and down hill for two miles, as was the case of that coming down from the north country on the canal, and the same was true of other commodities.

Third, it was claimed that the management was not of the best, and that the canal was deficient in one important requisite, viz., water. It was also said that its extension to Charlestown had been unwise, and perhaps the Medford Branch canal proprietors anticipated this to be a remedy. The shortage of water was later relieved by placing ten-inch flashboards on the dam across Concord river at Billerica. The canal proprietors had to fight in the courts for what they got, and the reports thereof are interesting reading today. Benjamin Hall, the principal corporator, left on record his views of the matter, plainly expressed.2

Itt is Very Evident that the Corporation has not Fullfill'd there Part of the Act Untill they have Lockt the same in Medford River.

The legislative record states that permission had been obtained for connecting with the Middlesex canal. The act fixed the capital stock at thirty shares, one vote to each, provided no one shareholder had more than five shares. It allowed them to hold real estate to the value of ten thousand dollars, and fixed the rate of toll at one-sixteenth of a dollar per ton; toll was to commence as soon as the canal was completed. It also gave specific direction as to construction and maintenance of a bridge [p. 27] for the Medford turnpike. This branch canal was of necessity at a lower level than the other and required two locks for its operation. Land was purchased of Samuel Dexter and William H. Sumner (owners of Royall estate), seven and one-half acres and two rods for $751.25, and was to revert to the grantors if disused for two years.

A storage basin3 was constructed on this land, beside the main canal, with a side lock, or gates, in the embankment to give access thereto. Mr. Hooper, who when a boy lived nearby on the turnpike, says the lock was a big timber-framed box between two heavy stone walls which were several feet away, and timber braces between, up and down which the boys could climb. His description tallies with that given by others of the wooden locks of the Middlesex canal.

At the opposite side of the basin, a lock was built like those in the canal, and from it to the river the branch canal was excavated at the requisite lower level. There another lock of the same size was erected, but with tidal gates at the river end. These locks were of timber and plank construction, reinforced by heavy stone walls. The remains of the latter lock, slowly decaying for sixty years, were removed but a few years ago, when the extension of the parkway was made along the river's edge.

That the branch canal was completed and in operation in 1807, is shown by Miss Wild in her excellent memorial of Benjamin Hall4 as follows:

In two years (1807 to 1809) $256.98 were received for tolls. Jonathan Warner and John Jaquith were the keepers of the locks. The first dividend was declared in February, 1809—four dollars on a share of one hundred dollars.

The Middlesex canal paid none till 1819

How long the branch maintained a separate corporate existence, or that it was merged with the other we may not say, but we know the time came when it shared in the decadence and final abandonment in 1852. [p. 28]

From 1819 to 1835 were the ‘palmy days of the canal.’ Those of the branch began earlier and continued longer, as the bulk of its traffic was in ship-timber. It is unlikely that it diverted any of the ‘through to Boston’ shipments. How much of Medford's peculiar product was exported via the branch we may never know, but probably no inconsiderable amount.

Near the basin was the Columbian Hotel, which though on the ‘Post-road,’ shared in the general ruin, and was cut in two, moved and made into dwellings. Some factories were built, and houses along Union street, which people called Back street. The Branch canal was back of that and became a dumping and drainage place. We find no reversion of title when ‘disused for two years.’ Probably the ‘Proprietors’ sold it (as did the Middlesex) in closing up their affairs. The unsanitary conditions that were created were more evident with the introduction of water from Spot Pond in 1871, and the ‘Branch Canal’ figures considerably in the reports of the Board of Health in the early seventies. At last the nuisance was abated. Along its course are the Teel carriage factories, the city stables, Water and Sewer Department buildings, and lastly the extension of Mystic Valley parkway.

Across and beside the river are the Cradock dam and lock of concrete masonry, erected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. During their construction there stood a few rods away the last visible remains of Benjamin Hall's enterprise of a century earlier, the river lock of the Branch canal. At its beginning Mr. Hall had attained an age at which most men retire from active enterprise. He saw it completed and ten years in use ere he passed on.

We can record no story of sentiment or romance of it. Probably none of the excursions to Bacon's grove or the ‘Lake of the Woods’ started on its level. Had they done so the following from Ballou's Pictorial of 1855, would well describe the ‘locking through.’ [p. 29]

You embarked in a trim built barge with a very comfortable cabin, the craft drawn by two horses harnessed tandem. At the very outstart you entered a lock. The gates enclosed you in a damp wooden receptacle, and you seemed lost to society in the bottom of a mouldy chest. But right ahead the water came sizzling down from above, and you gradually found yourselves rising in the world, finally coming up to quite a respectable elevation. When the gates were swung open, the horses were put to and you resumed your voyage.

As the Medford turnpike had been chartered and built, the Branch canal proprietors were required to construct and maintain the requisite bridge at their crossing It could not be over four and one-half feet above the water, and the approach to it steeper than five inches in one rod.

A meeting of the Turnpike Corporation was held to make remonstrance against the canal charter and a committee appointed to ‘compromise,’ then another committee

to attend the General Court and take means to prevent the said canal's passage through the turnpike, but not to appear with counsel.

As Benjamin Hall was a prominent shareholder and corporator in all three enterprises, the above seems a little strange, but perhaps it was only a show of resistance. The turnpike records contain but two other allusions to the canal:

July 6, 1807. Voted to allow Peter Tufts, “Junior” account $7.50 for surveying bason of canal

Feb 10 1834 Voted That the Proprietors of the Medford Branch Canal & Locks be notified to remove the piece of timber from off the top of the bridge over the said canal in the middle of the said turnpike road, it being an inconvenience and an obstruction to the public travel on said turnpike road; also to make their bridge wider and repair the causeway on each side thereof according to law.

Abner Bartlett, esquire, was then the clerk and his entry is followed by

Seved a copy on Mr Stearns

The piece of timber was evidently for the purpose of keeping passage to the right in either direction, and as [p. 30] this is the only allusion during the years, we may presume that the relations of each corporation were generally pleasant. Eighteen years later (1852), this canal ceased operation, but the turnpike continued a few years longer, only to succumb to the inevitable. Nothing romantic about it, purely utilitarian was the Medford branch canal.

1 See Historical Sketch of Caleb Eddy, agent of canal, 1843.

2 See register, Vol. III, p. 87.

3 The area of this is still noticeable near Mystic avenue.

4 See register, Vol. III, p. 88.

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