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Early Canal Transportation: The Boats of the Middlesex Canal

Middlesex Canal

On June 22,1793, the General Court of Massachusetts granted a charter to the Proprietors of the Middlesex Canal.  This new corporation was to be responsible for the construction and operation of a canal that would link the Merrimack River with Boston Harbor, improving transportation to the state's capital.

Trade was hindered in the city of Boston because no major river flowed into its port and the raw materials needed to fuel its economy were difficult to obtain.  The few roads which did exist were in poor condition, making travel slow and costly.  In addition, work had begun on a canal which would by-pass the Merrimack River's Pawtucket Falls.  This was to be called the Pawtucket Canal and would allow boats to pass unhindered to Newburyport, potentially creating unwelcome competition with Boston's markets.

Not only did Boston need to be supplied with raw materials from inland New England, but it also needed a domestic market for the goods it produced.  For 50 years the Middlesex Canal met these needs by providing the safe and economical transport of goods and passengers from the Charlestown Mill Pond to the Merrimack River.

The Middlesex Canal was an engineering marvel and its construction was an arduous task. First, England's William Weston was hired to survey the route of the canal, an event which was marked by the first use of an accurate leveling instrument in this country.

Next came the acquisition of land. A total of 142 parcels were acquired by gift, purchase, and the power of eminent domain.  Prices for the parcels ranged from $25 to $150 per acre.

At the time of construction, the available labor pool was small.  The area was thinly settled and most people were farmers, unable to leave their lands for extended periods of time.  In many cases, landowners were hired to complete the section of canal that ran adjacent to their property.  The average pay for common laborers was $8 per month.  The cost of construction was close to $500,000 and was funded by the sale of stock and assessments levied on shareholders.  The capital stock was divided into 1000 shares, 200 shares of which were retained while 800 shares were sold in 1793 for two dollars each.

The route of the canal transversed many types of terrain.  Rock ledges had to be cut and low lying areas filled.  More than half of the canal was built above the natural surface of the land.  Despite the many difficulties encountered, the canal was completed within the ten year time frame put forth in the legislation.

The canal ran for 27 miles from Middlesex Village (a part of Chelmsford at the time and later, Lowell) to Charlestown.  It was 30 and one half feet wide at the top and 20 feet wide at the bottom.  The bottom and sides were covered in clay which had been tamped to a two foot thickness.  The water depth was three feet and the depth of the banks was four and one half feet.  A ten foot tow path ran along the west bank and a five foot berm on the east.

The main source of water in the canal was the Concord River.  A dam crossed the river in Billerica, creating a mill pond which stored the water that fed the canal.  Another engineering first was the floating towpath, developed to allow the canal to cross this large water body.  The water in the canal flowed from the pond six miles in a northwesterly direction to the Merrimack River, dropping 27 feet through three locks on its journey.  To the southeast, the canal flowed 22 miles and dropped 100 feet through 13 locks to the Charlestown Mill Pond at the Charles River.  The canal was made up of eight different levels ranging from one to six miles in length.

In order that the canal would not be subject to flooding, care was taken that water from rivers and streams never mixed with canal water.  Eight aqueducts were constructed to carry the canal over other bodies of water.  The most impressive of these was the 35 foot Shawnsheen River Aqueduct in East Billerica, the ruins of which can still be seen today. 

A branch canal was constructed in Boston so that boats, after crossing the Charles River, could travel all the way to the harbor.  At the opposite end of the Middlesex Canal, locks were constructed along the Merrimack River, creating a totally navigable route between Boston, Massachusetts and Concord, New Hampshire by 1814.

                                Boat on Middlesex Canal

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."

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.

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.

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.