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Early Canal Transportation: The Boats of the Middlesex Canal

The Boats
The first mention of a boat in the Middlesex Canal Corporation records was in Superintendent Laommi Baldwin's 1795 report to the Proprietors,

      "A flat bottom boat of about 9 feet in width  
       & 35 feet  in height has been framed & the  
       stuff drying & is nearly ready to pin up and  
       finish off."

Luggage boat entering a lock chamber

The first boats on the canal were small and heavy, designed to carry the lumber and stone needed for the canal's construction.  Later, boats were crafted to carry freight and passengers.  The authorized dimensions of boats were spelled out in the Middlesex Canal Corporation's regulations.  They were to be at least 40 feet in length, but not more than 75 feet long in order that they fit into lock chambers.  Most boats were of the greater length.  They could be no more than 9 and one half feet in width to allow boats to pass each other in the canal.

Three types of boats were used on the Middlesex Canal: rafts, packet boats, and scows.  The scows, also called luggage boats, carried freight such as furs, produce and coal from inland areas to Boston Harbor.  They also carried store-bought goods back to New England residents.  In 1886, General George Stark described the scows as "peculiarly constructed... and their mode of propulsion was as peculiar as their model.  "Designed to meet the unique requirements of canal navigation, they were flat-bottomed, with parallel sides and square ends.  Due to silting; water in the canal was seldom more than three feet deep.  The construction of the scows allowed them to carry loads of up to 20 tons while drawing only two feet of water.

A scow was towed by a single horse, its line attached to a small mast located a little forward of the center of the boat.  In the canal, the boat was usually handled by two men; a driver for the horse and a steersman, who used a large sweep oar at the stern of the boat as a rudder.  When traveling down the river, a crew of three was needed.  A man stood on each side of the boat, facing the bow, and manned the scull oars.  The third man was in the stem with the steering oar.  In favorable weather, a sail could be hoisted on a large mast that replaced the smaller mast to which the tow line had been attached.

When moving up river, two men stood facing the stem holding long poles that were tipped with iron.  These were planted at an angle in the bed of the river. With their shoulders pressed against the pole, the men walked forward about six feet, pushing the boat through the water.  They then turned, walked back to the bow, and repeated the process.  The third man again steered from the stem.

Lumber, much of which supplied the Charlestown Navy Yard and the shipbuilding yards on the Mystic River, was floated down the canal on rafts.  While individual rafts, also called "shots," could be no more than 75 feet in length, they could be joined together to form "bands".  These bands could reach up to 500 feet in length and were unpinned when passing through the locks.  Rafts were towed by a yoke of oxen.  One yoke could draw 100 tons of lumber, a load that would have required 80 teams over land.

Packet boats, which were towed by two horses, carried passengers.  These boats were typically painted with bright colors.  The George Washington had a red wale above a white waterline strip.  The hull was painted black.  The quarter railing was a bright red, the posts light blue, and the interior was orange.  The cabin was large and comfortable, with upholstered seats.  At one time two packet boats - the George Washington and the Governor Sullivan, both owned by the Middlesex Canal Corporation - operated on the canal, one leaving from each terminal every morning.  Later, only one Packet was maintained.  Journeys on the canal were a popular summer pastime.  Passengers often sat on the top of the packet boats in order that they might sight see and the tow path was a favorite place for Sunday afternoon strolls.

Corporate records show that between April 1, 1805, and January 1, 1806, the Middlesex Canal transported 9,405 tons of goods at a cost of $13,371.  It was estimated that land transportation would have taken 9,405 teams at a cost of $53,484.  The granite used in building Quincy Market and many other Boston buildings was carried down the canal, as was the lumber used to repair "Old Ironsides" during the War of 1812.

There is not much known about the boats of the Middlesex Canal or about how many boats traveled on it at any one time.  The boats were both the property of the Middlesex Canal Corporation and private parties.  A person wishing to transport freight, but having no boat, could rent one from the company's fleet of seven luggage boats.

Luggage Boat Sailing Down Merimack River