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Early Canal Transportation: The Boats of the Middlesex Canal

Canal Operations
On April 4,1830, John Langdon Sullivan, agent of the Middlesex Canal Corporation, published a pamphlet entitled "Regulations Relative to the Navigation of the Middlesex Canal."  This document contained a great list of rules concerning travel in the canal, including speed limits.  Packet boats were to travel no faster than four miles per hour, while scows could travel at two and a half MPH and rafts at one and a half MPH.  The speed limits, along with many other of the regulations, were put into effect to prevent damage to the canal's banks.

The regulations spelled out the procedures by which boats could pass one another in the canal.  Packet boats could pass scows, which, in turn, could pass rafts.  Repair boats had priority over all others.  Boats traveling from either terminus to the summit at the Concord River had the right of way over boats moving away from the summit.  Boats of the same type traveling in the same direction were not allowed to pass each other in order to discourage racing.  The regulations made it clear that this was to apply to boats operated by the Proprietors as well as others.

Boat operators were not allowed to pass themselves through locks.  Only the lock keeper could do this.  To protect the canal walls, voyages after dark were prohibited.  Dark was determined to be 7:00 p.m. during the spring and fall, 9:00 p.m. during the summer, and 10:00 p.m. on moonlight nights.  Sunday operation was permitted in deference to the distance that many travelers were from their homes, but the whistles usually blown to alert the lock keepers were silent on this day.

All boats were to bear the name of its owner and be numbered "from 1 to the greatest number owned by the same person."  Upon entering the canal, passports were assigned to each vessel.  This passport had to be presented to the keeper at each lock for his signature.  When a boat reached its destination, the passport was presented to the Collector of Tolls.  The Massachusetts legislature set tolls at 1 / 16 per dollar - or 6 1 /4 cents - per ton per mile.  The corporation could place a lien on merchandise for tolls owed and could collect wharfage for goods not promptly removed from the landing.  There were eight landings along the canal and goods could only be loaded and unloaded from boats at these points to prevent damage to canal banks.  Lumber was an exception to this rule.