The Middlesex Canal
New England Yankees in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s had a transportation problem. Water routes were the most efficient but rivers were often challenging to navigate. Footpaths gave way to coach paths and turnpikes as the need for more efficient transportation between Boston and points north and west developed. Three modes of transportation developed in the 1800’s that still exist in some sections: the Middlesex Turnpike, the Middlesex Canal, and eventually the railroad.
The Middlesex Turnpike was chartered in 1805 and opened in about 1810. It ran from Cambridge, Massachusetts to the New Hampshire border in Tyngsboro. As a turnpike, coaches would pay to ride this route. But other options made it unprofitable as a business and it became a free road in a little more than 30 years. You can still drive sections of the Middlesex Turnpike today.
One of the big competitors to the Turnpike was the Middlesex Canal, which had opened eight years before and ran roughly parallel to the Turnpike and had the advantage of tying directly into Boston Harbor on one end and the Merrimack River at Lowell on the other end, so barges could be loaded once and towed by horses to their destination at the mills. Other goods from New Hampshire could be floated down the river and right into the canal.
The Middlesex Canal killed off much of the trade flowing down the Merrimack River to Newburyport. This route was problematic as boats needed to divert around the falls at Lowell and Lawrence. Lowell’s Pawtucket Canal was built in 1796 for this purpose. But a canal that ran directly from Lowell to Boston was attractive and surveys were done even as the Pawtucket Canal was being constructed. As traffic on the Middlesex Canal increased, Newburyport struggled and the Pawtucket Canal was converted as a source of power for the growing textile mills in Lowell.
Just as the Middlesex Canal expedited the demise of the Middlesex Turnpike, Pawtucket Canal and Newburyport, it suffered a similar fate with the construction of the Boston and Lowell Railroad. The irony of this demise is that the construction materials for the railroad were transported on the canal. Just as the canal was far more efficient at transporting goods between Boston and Lowell than the Merrimack River or the turnpike had been, so the efficiency of the railroad brought a quick end to the Middlesex Canal.
Today you can see reminders of the canal, particularly in Billerica, Wilmington and Woburn. The water hazard between the second and third holes at the Mount Pleasant Golf Course in Lowell was once the canal. The Baldwin House in Woburn sits next to an overgrown section of the canal. In North Billerica running from the Concord River towards Wilmington you can clearly see the canal path on satellite images. And arguably the most interesting surviving structural component of the canal is the stone foundation of the Shawsheen River Aqueduct in Wilmington.
While the Middlesex Canal is nothing more than a ditch that most people ignore today, the railroad that replaced it is still heavily used. Sections of the Middlesex Turnpike are heavily used to this day. The Pawtucket Canal still looks much the same as it did when it was constructed, though only used now for tours. And Newburyport, once economically decimated by the Middlesex Canal, as rebounded nicely.
The glory years of the Middlesex Canal lasted for one or two generations between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. This was a time of massive expansion, innovation and population growth in New England. The canal featured many firsts, including the first use of hydraulic cement in America, and it inspired growth of other canals, like the Erie Canal in New York.
There were many factors that went into the canal’s demise, but ultimately it was done in by the technology race. It became a footnote in history, but also a stepping stone. The lessons of the canal carried over to generations of engineers who helped build the exploding network of roads, bridges, canals and railroads that fueled the industrial revolution and America’s population growth.