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The Middlesex Canal, New England’s Incredible Ditch

middlesex canal map

The Middlesex Canal, now largely forgotten, was a 27-mile waterway that drove the industrialization of the Merrimack Valley for 50 years from the time it opened in 1803. The canal ran from Chelmsford (now Lowell) to Charlestown (now Boston), transforming small agricultural villages into manufacturing towns, even cities. It cemented Boston’s position as the commercial hub of New England.

The Middlesex Canal inspired more canal building throughout the young nation. It also created America’s first generation of civil engineers who kept on building: the dry docks at the Boston Navy Yard and in Norfolk, Va., the Boston and Lowell Railroad, the Union Canal in Pennsylvania, the Erie Canal in New York and the Back Bay milldam in Boston – to name just a few.

The canal allowed an exponential increase in the amount of product taken to market. A wagon and a team of oxen could haul about three tons. A canal barge could haul 30 tons.

Vast amounts of timber, granite and farm products could be shipped to market along the Middlesex Canal. But a railroad could haul 300 tons, 10 times as much as a barge, and by 1838 the 35-year-old Middlesex Canal started losing out to railroads. In 1853, the canal would give up the ghost.

Building the Middlesex Canal

An early canal boat. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

An early canal boat. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Unlike public works projects such as the Big Dig, the Middlesex Canal was privately financed. Like the Big Dig, it was plagued by huge cost overruns. In the end, it cost about $500,000 to build, an enormous sum in those days

The Middlesex Canal was the brainchild of Boston businessmen and politicians. Gen. Henry Knox in 1791 headed a company with the impractical aim of building a 100-mile canal from the Connecticut River to the Charles River. A canal from the Merrimack River to Boston Harbor presented itself as a saner and cheaper proposition.

On June 22, 1793, Gov. John Hancock signed the charter of the Middlesex Canal Corporation. He was also an investor in the venture, along with prominent political leaders John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Christopher Gore and James Sullivan, the corporation’s president. Loammi Baldwin, a self-educated Revolutionary War veteran, was chosen as chief engineer.

Baldwin, helped by his sons, and British engineer William Weston surveyed the canal route. Land for the canal was donated, purchased and seized by eminent domain, then a novel concept. Eight companies employing 500 workers built the canal. Some of the farmers who owned the property along its route were paid to dig it by hand.

The canal started in North Billerica at the highest point of the Concord River, which supplied most of its water. More water would be drawn when needed from Horn Pond in Woburn. From the river, the canal descended six miles northwest to East Chelmsford – now west Lowell. It snaked 22 miles to the southeast through an aqueduct over the Shawsheen River in Wilmington, past Horn Pond in Woburn, by Mystic Lake in Winchester, through Medford and ending at the Charles River in Charlestown.  It was 3-1/2 feet deep and 30 feet wide, with 50 bridges, eight aqueducts and 20 locks. In Charlestown, barges would be raised 107 feet above tidewater – or, from the other direction, 25 feet above the Merrimack River.

Stone bridge over the Middlesex Canal in Medford. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Stone bridge over the Middlesex Canal in Medford. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Baldwin, the Middlesex Canal’s chief engineer, found innovative solutions to the problems encountered along the way. He developed hydraulic cement to make waterproof bindings for the locks by mixing ground volcanic stone with lime and sand.  He built a floating towpath of logs to span the Concord River. He engineered a 188-foot wooden aqueduct to carry the canal over the Shawsheen River.  An early predecessor of the dump truck, a dump cart, was designed to remove earth from the dig sites.

The first boat was launched on the Middlesex Canal on April 22, 1802. The canal expanded to include branch canals in Medford, Boston and Cambridge. Short canals were built along the Merrimack to make the river navigable all the way to Concord, N.H. In its heyday, the river-and-canal system was more than 100 miles long.

It was a wonder. U.S. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin called the Middlesex Canal ‘the greatest work of its kind that has been completed in the United States.’ Official delegations from other states came to visit the canal to see not only how it was done, but that it could be done.

An Economic Engine

The Middlesex Canal soon proved that canals could promote commercial activity by providing low-cost transportation. Boats as long as 75 feet could be poled, rowed and even sailed down the river, then pulled by horses along the canal. It took a mere 18 hours to go from Boston to the new city of Lowell and 12 hours back.

Brightly painted passenger boats were about 25 percent faster than the freight boats. They carried passengers escaping the city heat to the New England countryside for a few days of vacation, or for sightseeing excursions with stops in the towns and taverns along the canal. There was even dancing and bowling at one of New England’s first amusement parks built along the canal at Horn Pond in Woburn.

Lumbermen, quarrymen and farmers sent down the waterway their stone, iron ore, timber, boards, shingles, ashes, butter, cheese, beef, pork, cider and grains. Merchants sent up the waterway foreign manufactured goods, groceries, codfish, mackerel, salt, lime and plaster.

The canal made accessible the tree bark from New Hampshire used to tan leather, and it transformed Woburn from a rural farm town to a center for the leather industry. Part of Chelmsford became Lowell, and the Lowell textile mills began construction in 1821. Soon raw cotton, wool and finished textiles were shipped up and down the canal. When the Middlesex Canal was extended into Boston, farmers sent their hay to – where else? – Haymarket Square, where horses that drew carriages and wagons fueled up.

Middlesex Canal, Shawsheen Aqueduct. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Middlesex Canal, Shawsheen Aqueduct. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The Middlesex Canal also changed the look of Boston. Light-colored granite native to Chelmsford, Tyngsboro and Westford could be easily shipped along the canal to Boston. The architect Charles Bulfinch used ‘Chelmsford granite’ for the state prison in Charlestown in 1804, followed by University Hall at Harvard, the Massachusetts Bank on State Street, the Middlesex County Jail in Cambridge, the Massachusetts General Hospital, and more. Following Bulfinch, Alexander Parris designed Faneuil Hall with Chelmsford granite; others, still, would follow him.

Not everyone benefited from the Middlesex Canal. Investors who held on to their shares lost money on the venture, though other investors were luckier if they sold at the right time. A share purchased for $25 in 1794 would have brought $500 if sold in 1804, $300 in 1816.

Dams used to adjust the water level flooded farmers’ meadows as far as 25 miles north. Farmers who sued the canal proprietors in court lost their cases, mostly because they didn’t have the clout that the Middlesex Canal Corporation had. Some of their flooded meadows are now wetlands, part of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

Newburyport was probably the biggest loser of all. The city’s commerce declined after the Middlesex Canal was built, as nearly all trade from New Hampshire now went to Boston. The canal was far easier to navigate than the sometimes-treacherous Merrimack River, which flowed into Newburyport.

The engineers who built the canal were in an odd way responsible for its demise. The maps used to survey its path were used to plan the Boston and Lowell Railroad. The first track was finished in 1835 and freight shipments began immediately. By 1851, the Middlesex Canal collected its last toll, and it completely ceased operations in 1853.

All Wasn't Lost

That wasn’t completely the end. The Middlesex Canal’s land, dam and water rights in North Billerica were sold to Charles and Thomas Talbot, who built mills that now stand in the Billerica Mills Historic District.

Today, part of the MBTA Commuter Rail system follows the canal route between Boston and Lowell. Parts of the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford and Winchester were built on the old canal, as were parts of Boston Avenue in Somerville and Medford. Canal Street in Boston is where the canal once extended from the Charles River to Boston Harbor. You can even see parts of the locks on Faulkner Street.

Loammi Baldwin House next to a portion of the Middlesex Canal

Loammi Baldwin House next to a portion of the Middlesex Canal

Water-filled remnants of the canal that can still be seen are in Wilmington, Billerica, and in Woburn near Loammi Baldwin’s house, lately a Chinese restaurant. Filled-in sections are now paths in Winchester at the Mystic Lakes, and in Wilmington, where the remains of an aqueduct can be seen in the park off Route 38.

The Middlesex Canal Association, which tries to preserve and restore the canal, runs the Middlesex Canal Museum and Visitor Center in North Billerica. There is a wealth of information about the canal on its website.

The Middlesex Canal is on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark. This story was updated from the 2013 version. 

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Larry Thompson

    Larry Thompson

    December 31, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    a picture of the yellow house. An important meeting room for bcgi.

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  4. Larz Neilson

    April 23, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    The building of the canal started at North Billerica and proceeded south, with the Concord River providing the water. But your 9th paragraph incorrectly calls that the high point of the river. How did the water manage to flow to that point? North Billerica was the high point of the canal, but not the river.

    • theborer

      February 9, 2018 at 1:52 pm

      the concord river flows north, at the point where the canal crosses the concord river is the highest point also it states the aqueduct is in wilmington but it’s actually in billerica and wilmington at the border

    • Paul Tonks

      April 1, 2018 at 8:45 am

      Are any of the stop points or dwellings still marked or standing in Wilmington ?

  5. george simolaris

    August 5, 2015 at 11:47 pm

    This is an amazing story, if we lived during the building of the canal , it’s completion and time in service, that is all we would be talking about. I imagine the different commodities an treats that would be available, and latter with the Lowell mills producing millions of yards of textiles!!!! It was bright colors curtains clothes. Thew industrial Revolution was a cultural- artistic revolution. People could travel on the boats to sight-see and stop at towns and bars restaurants, and you could travel into the big city in 12 hours from Lowell to Boston , from Billerica to Boston it would probably take 10 and half hours) Imagine going to Boston, it would take at least two days, if you were to look around Boston for a short time. I wonder how long it took by horse? I think horseback might have been a little faster? I know one thing about the horseback ride ,I bet you would have been a little tired out and your rear-end might have a few pains. I bet a lot of people went to the sparkling new city of Lowell, it was a lot closer and cleaner. I am really proud to live in Billerica and in the great Merrimack River Valley.

    • Dianne Richardson

      September 9, 2016 at 8:10 pm

      Too bad it was only useful for about 45 years. It was far cleaner than the coal fired steam locomotive. It must have been a leisurely and picturesque trip and much quieter than the noisy and dirty train.

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