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Early Canal Transportation: The Boats of the Middlesex Canal

The Decline of the Canal 
During the years 1803 to 1807, the canal was plagued by financial difficulties.  The banks of the canal were in constant need of costly repairs.  During times of extensive damage, no tolls could be collected.

The income of the canal waned during the war of 1812, when business was slowed due to the embargo.  Shareholders were charged 100 assessments over the years to construct and maintain the canal.  Business improved in the years following the war, and in 1819 the first dividends were paid to shareholders.  The years between 1819 and 1836 were good ones for the canal.  Toll receipts, and dividends, steadily increased during these years.  The Middlesex Canal Corporation profited by the growth of Lowell.  Bricks, lime, and slate used in the construction of Lowell's first factories and houses were transported on the canal, as was coal.  Eight million bricks were produced in Bedford in a single year.  Luggage boats carried lumber to fire the kilns and returned with finished products.  The mill developers, however, contributed to the downfall of the canal by working in favor of the construction of the Boston and Lowell Railroad.  The canal only carried goods and passengers to Middlesex Village.  Other transport to town then needed to be arranged.  The railroad would be a more convenient mode of transportation to the mills.

The Canal Corporation petitioned the legislature against the railroad, but to no avail.  Ironically, the canal contributed to its own demise when it carried the steam engine Stephenson from Boston to Lowell to be assembled.  It also carried ties to be used on the rails.  The railroad's chief engineer was the son of the canal's first superintendent, Laommi Baldwin.

The Boston and Lowell Railroad was the beginning of the end for the canal.  Canal boats could operate only eight months out of the year and could not maintain strict timetables.  The railroad, by contrast, could operate year round and was more dependable, as well as faster.  The Stephenson made its trial run from Lowell to Boston in one hour and 20 minutes.

The year that the Boston and Lowell Railroad went into operation, canal receipts dropped by one-third.  When the Lowell and Nashua line was opened, business declined by another third.  With the completion of the Concord and Nashua line in 1842, the railroad paralleled the entire waterway route from Boston to Concord.  The Middlesex Canal Corporation struggled on for several more years, but toll receipts dwindled and in 1852, the last boat passed through the canal.  Canal Agent Caleb Eddy's 1843 plan to convert the canal into a drinking water supply for the city of Boston failed, and the corporation's charter was extinguished by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1859.