Middlesex Canal (1802)

The early United States possesed an agrarian based economy. Agricultural products were raised on farms and transported via rivers or the ocean to the major cities. The Middlesex Canal was proposed in 1793 and opened for service in 1802. The 27-mile long canal allowed transportation of timber, grains, and other products to be transported via locks from the Merrimac River in Lowell to the Mystic River in Boston. Central New Hampshire was now connected to Boston via inland waterways, bypassing Newburyport at the outlet of the Merrimac River.

The canal was shallow, and horses would pull the barges up river with ropes or use gravity on the southern trip. The average speed was about two miles per hour, with passenger boats doubling that speed. The Middlesex Canal was initially a great success, opening up communication with many rural areas of New England. With the advent of railroads, regional canals were made obsolete, and the Middlesex Canal corporation went bankrupt in 1851.

The September 3, 1802 Columbian Courier (New Bedford, MA) describes the opening of the Middlesex Canal:

Middlesex Canal
Middlesex Canal, North Woburn

"The project of this canal, the most expensive, hazardous, and useful to the public, of any which has hither to been devised in New-England, was first made public in June, 1793, when the legislature, ever ready to encourage useful enterprises, incorporated James Sullivan, Esq. and others, men of property and respectability, by the name and style of The Proprietors of the Middlesex Canal, for the purpose of carrying it into execution. The act gave power to elect a president and other officers, to take lands necessary for their purpose, on equitable appraisement; and required the corporation to remunerate all damages done to private property, in the prosecution of their plan.

The object of the corporation was to open a water communication between the harbor of Boston, and the Merrimack river, at a point 30 miles north of Boston, for the purpose of facilitating the transportation of the produce of an immense and fertile country, lying on the Merrimack and its branches. A main branch of this river issues from Winnipiseogee Lake, in New-Hampshire, about 130 miles from Boston, and pursuing a southerly course, approaches within 30 miles of that town; and then turning eastwardly runs 40 miles into the sea at Newburyport. Immense quantities of excellent timber, grow around this lake along the banks of the river and its branches, and around the Massabesic pond, which lies a few miles east of the Merrimack, and which is to be connected with the river by a canal. In this fertile and thrifty country, grain, beef, pork, butter, cheese and other articles for market, are to be found to an immense amount; and in return for which are required large supplies of West India, and other foreign heavy articles. To provide water carriage for the transportation of these articles, to induce to the opening of other canals to communicate with the main canal, and with the Merrimack, and thus to open an extensive intercourse by water, between Boston and the interior country, are the grand objects of the corporation.

The novelty of this scheme denied to its projectors the means of estimating with accuracy the sum which would be necessary to carry it into effect; they were willing, however, at the outset, to risqué L110,000 lawful money, equal to 366,700 dollars. As no person appeared to enter into a contract for the whole work, the corporation commenced their operations, and have hitherto proceeded, by hiring laborers by the day, but principally by small contracts for portions of the work.

Concord river, which passes in a sluggish stream through Sudbury meadows, Concord, and Billerica into the Merrimack, at a fall in the town last mentioned, 4 miles from its mouth, is, in the summer season, 107 feet higher than the waters in Boston harbor, at full tide. This river is the reservoir of the Middlesex canal. From the fall above mentioned, north, five miles and three quarters, to the Merrimack, the canal has for several years been completed and in use. The Merrimack is 21 feet below the level of this part of the canal; which descends this distance into the Merrimack, by means of three locks, formed of free stone laid in mortar. The lock next the river is called the first lock. This is 90 feet long, and twelve wide. The earth is removed below the bed of the river, to prevent the undermining of the works, and filled with an immense quantity of common stones. On these is laid a floor of oak timber, hewed two feet square, on which is another floor of similar timber laid crosswise, and then a floor of 3 inch plank, all well spiked and trunneled. On this base the walls are raised 8 feet high, and 6 or 7 feet thick. The walls are constructed of very extraordinary species of stone, taken from a vast ledge in the neighborhood, which is the property of the corporation. These stones are with little labor taken from the ledge, of any manageable dimensions, and easily yield to the hammer. The second and third locks are of the same length and construction, the second 16, the third 14 feet high. The culverts and gates are so well contrived and made, that a boat or raft may pass the three locks in eight minutes. The workmanship of these locks, in point of neatness and strength, equals any piece of stone work in the United States. To behold and pass through them, is worth a journey of a hundred miles.

Having ascended 21 feet from the Merrimack, through these locks, to the level of the canal, it proceeds to the Concord river, which it crosses on its surface, and passes several other rivers and smaller streams, on aqueduct bridges, preserving the same level for 11 miles. In this distance Shawsheen river is passed on an aqueduct bridge more than 20 feet above its surface; and no spot, two or three excepted, required to be dug more than 20 feet deep. In two places were ledges, the cutting a passage through which, was very laborious and expensive.

At the end of 11 miles is another lock of seven feet descent, and a mile and a half further, another of the same height and dimensions. Thence to Woburn the land is favorable to the design, and there is neither lock nor sluice in this distance. In order, however, to preserve the level of the canal, banks, in some places 12 or 13 feet high, have been raised at considerable expense, and which, in a course of years, are found to be more solid and impenetrable by water, than the earth in its natural state. In several places where these banks have been raised on morasses, they have sunk to such a depth, as to occasion great expense to the proprietors.

In the line descending from the Concord to the level of the sea, thirteen locks are required, so divided as to make a descent in the whole of one hundred and seven feet. These locks are of wood, each containing one hundred tons of timber, strongly built, planked inside, and supported outside with a dry stone wall.

This original project was to drop the canal into Horn Pond, through a declivity of 57 feet, by means of 7 locks; and to make that pond, nearly a mile in length, a part of the canal. But it is now wisely concluded to avoid that pond, and to cut the canal and form the locks on the east side of it. It is also determined to avoid; in like manner, Mystic pond, into which the tide flows, and through which, it was originally intended, the canal should pass. There two alterations will render it necessary to cut three miles further than was as first contemplated; but then incalculable advantage will result from the alterations, because, agreeably to a first principle in canalling, it will give a complete command of all the water in the canal at all times, which could not have been the case had the original plan of using these ponds as part of the canal, been pursued. Besides, upon the improved plan, the water in the canal, at the commencement of the severe weather, can be drawn off; and should there after wards be a soft and open season, it can be filled and used even in the winter, and also immediately on the opening of the spring, which could not be done upon the original plan, because the ice in these ponds, which would be a long time dissolving, would prevent it.

At Medford, on the bank of Mystic river, the canal will have such an elevation above the tide, that crossing Mystic river, on an aqueduct bridge, it may with great ease be carried to Boston, either on the west bank of that river, or through the town of Cambridge, as may be thought expedient. 
The canal is 20 feet wide at bottom, and is to have at least 3-1/2 feet water. The banks are formed on an angle of 33 degrees from the horizon, which makes the surface of the canal of sufficient width to permit boats, of 12 feet wide, to pass each other with convenience.

The canal is now completed, or nearly so, as far as Horn Pond; and the residue is under contract, to be completed as far as Medford, by the first of July, 1802. From the head of the canal to that place is 23 miles; three of which remain to be cut.

In January, 1802, the accounts of the treasurer of the corporation were settled to that period; when it was found that the taxes on the proprietors amounted to 296,000 dollars. To complete the work to Medford, according to the best estimate that can be made in this stage of the business, will cost 37,000 dollars, making the whole expense 333,000 dollars. But of this, 33,000 dollars have been expended in mills and other estates, which are very valuable property, independent of the canal.

Whether this canal is to be productive property to the proprietors, can certainly be known only from experience. But when it is considered, that into the country to which it opens a communication, there is now transported by teams, immense quantities of salt, West-India and other goods; and that from this country are now brought, in the same manner, beef, pork, pot- and pearl-ashes, grain, butter, cheese and other articles to a vast and increasing amount, and at a great expense; all which business can, and probably will, be done upon the canal at a small part of the expense now incurred; and when it is considered also, what quantities of wood, timber and stone will be wanted in the navy-yard, Boston and its vicinity, an inexhaustible supply of which are found, on the waters connected with this canal, there can remain little doubt but that the proprietors will be liberally compensated for their hazardous and expensive enterprise.

The property of the canal is divided into 800 shares. The legislature has given the corporation the powers and exclusive right of cutting canals any where in the country of Middlesex. The toll established by law is one sixteenth of a dollar for each ton carried one mile on the canal; and this is to be continued to the proprietors and their successors forever. Should this effort be crowned with success, there can be no doubt that other works of the same kind will be undertaken in different parts of the country. Every project to save the labor of man and cattle, in the transportation of articles, is peculiarly important to an agricultural country, like that of the United States.

There is an expectation of opening a communication between the Connecticut and Merrimack rivers, by means of the Sugar river, which runs into the Connecticut, and the Contocook which runs into the Merrimack, or through the head waters of Miller’s river."

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