The Middlesex Canal was a 27 mile (44 km) barge canal connecting the Merrimack River with the port of Boston. When operational it was 30 feet (9.1 m) wide, and 3 feet (0.9 m) deep, with 20 locks, each 80 feet (24 m) long and between 10 and 11 feet (3.0 and 3.4 m) wide. It also had 8 aqueducts.
The canal was chartered on June 22, 1793 with a signature by Governor John Hancock, and was built between 1795 and 1803 under the engineering guidance of Loammi Baldwin, with the aim of opening up the vast interior of New England to merchant capital. In 1795 ground was broken at North Billerica Mills and the first boat operated on April 22, 1802.
The opening of the canal ended the commercial viability of the port of Newburyport, Massachusetts, the outlet of the Merrimack River, since all trade from the Merrimack Valley in New Hampshire now went via the canal to Boston, rather than through the sometimes difficult to navigate river.
The canal ran from Middlesex Village in East Chelmsford, Massachusetts, later Lowell, through several Middlesex County towns. At first it terminated in Medford, but was later extended to Charlestown, Massachusetts with a branch near Medford Center to the Mystic River. A series of other canals along the Merrimack allowed freight to be transported as far inland as Concord, New Hampshire. The water source for the canal was the Concord River at North Billerica. This was also the highest point of the canal, and is the present location of the Middlesex Canal Association's museum.
Freight boats required 18 hours from Boston up to Lowell, and 12 hours down, thus averaging 2.5 miles per hour; passenger boats were faster, at 12 and 8 hours, respectively (4 miles per hour). A roundtrip between Boston and Concord, New Hampshire usually took 7-10 days.
The canal was one of the main thoroughfares in New England until the advent of the railroad. In fact, the Boston and Lowell Railroad (now a part of the MBTA Commuter Rail system) was built using the plans from the original surveys for the canal. Portions of the line follow the canal route closely, and the canal was used to transport the construction materials for the railroad.
The canal was no longer economically viable after the introduction of railroad competition, and the company went bankrupt in 1851. The Middlesex Turnpike, incorporated 1805, also contributed to its downfall. The proprietors proposed to convert it into an aqueduct to bring drinking water to Boston, but this effort was unsuccessful. Parts of the canal bed were covered by roads in the 20th century, including the Mystic Valley Parkway in portions of Medford and Winchester. Though significant portions of the Middlesex Canal are still visible, urban and suburban sprawl is quickly overcoming many of the remains. The Middlesex Canal Association has made an effort to erect markers along much of the canal's path. Prominent portions of the canal that are still visible include water-filled portions near Baldwin House (near I-95 in Woburn), and dry sections in Winchester, most notably a section at the Mystic Lakes where an aqueduct was situated.
WHEN THE ROAD WAS A RIVER Commerce flowed on the Middlesex Canal for a half-century and pieces of it still exist today
Jul 03, 1999; BILLERICA -- It was "the Big Dig of its day," says Thomas Raphael, chairman of the state's Middlesex Canal Commission. Take that...