Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Middlesex Canal

After posting several times about Colonel Loammi Baldwin and Count Rumford AKA Benjamin Thompson of Woburn, Massachusetts, I was incredibly curious to learn more about the Middlesex Canal.  If you remember the post with the photo of Loammi Baldwin, it is located right across the street from the remains of the canal in Woburn.  We went over to look at the canal and to read the signs, and it was not an impressive sight since it looked like a barely visible ditch.  However, the historical markers described a great canal system that ran from the current city of Lowell to downtown Boston.  I wanted to learn more!

After Googling the Middlesex Canal, and reading more about it in the History of Woburn, I learned that there was a Middlesex Canal Museum in North Billerica.  We spent a pleasant afternoon there, and picked the brain of the volunteer on staff.  He told me much information about how Loammi Baldwin was one of the original proprietors of the canal in 1793, and invested in the new transportation system which brought goods and people from the Merrimack River (Northern Middlesex County and New Hampshire) right to Dock Square in downtown Boston. 

The canal was laid out from the Merrimack River in Chelmsford in 1794 and arrived at the Charles River next to Boston in 1803.  It was dug by hand by local workers.  Eventually it went right through downtown Boston to Dock Square near today’s Quincy Market, where goods could be loaded onto seagoing ships, or sold and traded in the city.  Much of the canal is now invisible, especially in the urban areas closer to Boston.  But the canal can still be seen in northern Middlesex County, and is even still navigable in many places.  Stonework bridges, aqueducts and other features such as locks are visible, too.

Loammi Baldwin was also the treasurer of the state of Massachusetts after the
Revolutionary War.  You can see his signature on this $20 bill from 1786
at the Middlesex Canal Museum in North Billerica, Massachusetts
If your ancestors lived in New Hampshire, Middlesex County or Boston during the period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, their lives would have been greatly changed by the building of the canal.  It brought great prosperity to the region, and it changed the way people traded and moved goods in New England.  The success of the Middlesex canal influenced other canals in the new United States, including the Erie Canal and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) canal near Washington, DC.

The rise of the age of rail and steam brought an end to the profitability of the Middlesex Canal, but in its short life it made many of the proprietors wealthy men.  Life along the canal was busy, with stations for travelers and goods, taverns, inns and other facilities that are mostly now gone.  The few that are left are often not recognized as part of a great transportation system that once existed in this area.  It takes a map, a keen eye and some research to follow the trail of the canal. 

This mural by Thomas Dahill at the Middlesex Canal Museum
is also an illustration in the book Life on the Middlesex Canal

There are bike tours, walking tours and historical tours offered year round of the old Middlesex Canal.  While we were visiting the Baldwin Apple monument, one of the bike trails tours appeared, and the participants were quite enthusiastic about finding the hidden history of a National Treasure right in their own backyards!

Some people bike the canal trail, we rode nearby with the little red convertible!
This photo is at the Baldwin Apple memorial in Wilmington, Massachusetts, not far from the canal

For more information:

Middlesex Canal Association website

Life on the Middlesex Canal by Alan Seaburg, Cambridge, MA: Miniver Press, 2009

The Old Middlesex Canal by Mary Stetson Clarke, Easton, PA:  Center for Canal History and Technology, 1974

The Incredible Ditch: A Bicentennial History of the Middlesex Canal, by Carl Seaburg, Alan Seaburg and Tom Dahill, Cambridge, MA: Miniver Press, 1997

The History of Woburn, Middlesex County, Mass., by Samuel Sewall, Boston, MA: Wiggin and Lunt Publishers, 1868.  (available to read or download online at Google Book Search)

My blog post from 14 October 2013 on "Colonel Loammi Baldwin"


To Cite/Link to this post:   Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "The Middlesex Canal", Nutfield Genealogy, posted October 24, 2013, ( accessed [access date]).