In 1803, one of the first New England canals made Boston the undisputed commercial center of New England.
Called ‘the Incredible Ditch,’ the Middlesex Canal allowed a barge to haul 30 tons of goods back and forth between Chelmsford (now Lowell) and Charlestown (now Boston). A horse and wagon could haul perhaps three tons over the rough roads of the era.
Canal fever broke out in New England during the early 19th century with the opening of the Erie Canal, finished in 1825. The Erie Canal gave New York City an unbeatable advantage over other port cities, and a frenzy of canal-building broke out throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic States.
New England states built dozens of canals, first to transport goods to seaports and then to power mills and factories. By 1840, there were 3,300 miles of canals in the United States.
Today the canals are mostly gone, filled in, paved over or maybe declared a Superfund site. Some still function as recreational trails, waterways for pleasure boats or even sources of hydroelectric power.
Here are six canals built in New England before the Civil War. If you know of other interesting canals, please mention them in the comments section below.
The Connecticut Legislature granted six canal charters to private companies, but only two – the Enfield and Farmington – were actually built.
Beginning in 1825, Irish immigrants and farmers along the route dug the canal, four feet deep and 20 feet wide using handmade shovels, wheelbarrows and wagons. The private investors got no state help and struggled financially. It took 10 years to dig the canal, which began at New Haven, snaked through Granby and ended at the Connecticut River in Northampton, Mass. The laborers also built 60 stone locks along the 80-mile waterway.
When the New Haven-to-Farmington leg of the canal opened in 1828, four African American boys rode gray horses that pulled a boat carrying 200 dignitaries sipping refreshments. For a while the towns along the canal prospered, as apples, butter, cider, and wood flowed south to New Haven; coffee, flour, hides, molasses, salt, and sugar headed north.
But heavy rains damaged the canal, which required repairs, and toll revenue covered only 20 percent of expenses. The Farmington Canal turned a profit in just one of its first 10 years, and canal operations were slowly phased out. Eventually the Farmington Canal owners sold the land to the New Haven and Northampton Company, which built a railroad that became the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad.
Cumberland and Oxford Canal
Unlike Connecticut, Maine lawmakers decided the state should support a new canal from inland lakes to the Portland seaport. A state lottery raised $50,000 and a bank was chartered to provide the funds for the $206,000 project.
The Cumberland and Oxford Canal, opened in 1832, connected the large lakes of southern Maine with Portland along the Presumpscot River. The 38-mile canal required 27 locks to reach Sebago Lake, 267 feet above sea level. Passengers paid a half cent to go through each lock.
Barges carried lumber, firewood, masts, barrel hoops and apples from Maine’s forests and farms to the sea. From Windham, the Oriental Powder Company mills sent down the canal a quarter of the gunpowder used in the Civil War.
When the railroad that became the Maine Central opened a station in Sebago Lake, the canal started its decline. A steamboat company continued to carry tourists between Portland and the Lake Region until the last steamboat Goodrich burned at its dock in 1932. Songo Lock is still in service for pleasure boats.
Tours have been held along the old canal in Portland.
Lowell Power Canals
Lowell, Mass., contains the world’s largest system of canals that generate hydro-electric power, but they began as a modest transportation waterway in 1796.
The Pawtucket Canal was built so New Hampshire logs could be hauled around the Pawtucket Falls in East Chelmsford, Mass., to shipyards in Newburyport, Mass.
By 1806, the Middlesex Canal made the Pawtucket Canal irrelevant.
In the early 1820s, associates of Francis Cabot Lowell (who had just died) gave new life to the Pawtucket Canal: They saw it could power textile mills instead of hauling canal boats. The subsequent canals that fed off he widened and deepened Pawtucket Canal created the City of Lowell.
First the Merrimack Canal powered the Merrimack Manufacturing Co. Then waterpower from the Hamilton Canal was sold to other companies. Then the Northern Canal and the Moody Street Feeder increased the waterpower to the system. The canal owners finally built the Pawtucket Gatehouse to control flow from the Pawtucket Dam into the Northern Canal.
Manchester, N.H., was a tiny town called Derryfield when industrialist Samuel Blodget declared, “For as the country increases in population, we must have manufactories, and here at my canal will be a manufacturing town, the Manchester of America!”
It was 1807, and Blodget was as good as his word. He had gotten money from state lotteries in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In 1798, he broke ground on the canal, which ran parallel to the Merrimack River. Ten years later, the granite-lined canal was ready for business.
Why a canal? It was nearly impossible to travel up the Merrimack River in New Hampshire. Between Chelmsford, Mass., and Concord, N.H., the river falls 135 feet, including a 54-foot drop at the Amoskeag Falls. The canal bypassed the falls through a series of locks.
In 1810, the first textile mills were built along Blodget’s canal, then renamed the Amoskeag Canal. They used secondhand machinery bought from Samuel Slater, but it didn’t work well. In 1831 the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. bought the land and water rights along the canal and built the enormous brick Millyard, which became a manufacturing powerhouse until the 1920s.
A second canal was built one block east of the Amoskeag Canal along the length of the Millyard and parallel to the river. The two canals powered the mills. By the 1880s the mill owners switched to electricity and steam power (with disastrous results in 1891).
The canals were paved over in the 1970s. One became Commercial Street, the other a railroad track.
Today, the remains of two small canals sit at the top of Manchester’s Millyard near PSNH’s Energy Park.
During the canal mania of the 1820, Providence merchants wanted to profit from trade with the farming communities near Worcester County and the Blackstone Valley. Until then, farmers sent their products by wagon to Boston.
In 1823, shortly before the Erie Canal opened, Massachusetts gave a charter to the Blackstone Canal Co. Rhode Island soon followed. Irish immigrants dug the canal, a ditch next to the Blackstone River. In Providence, the Moshassuck River became the lower part of the canal.
Benjamin Wright, the chief engineer, had supervised work on the Erie Canal and applied lessons learned to the Blackstone Canal.
The 45-mile canal opened on Oct. 7, 1828, when the canal boat Lady Carrington arrived in Worcester. For the next 20 years, the canal brought prosperity to farmers, sparked the construction of textile mills along its banks and sustained the growth of Providence and Worcester.
In 1847, the Providence and Worcester Railroad opened, putting the Blackstone Canal out of business the next year.
Today, long sections of the canal belong to the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park in Massachusetts and the Blackstone River State Park in Rhode Island.
Every summer in Providence, the Moshassuck and Providence rivers attract tourists to the WaterFire Festival. People light 86 fires in braziers anchored just above the waterline to the sound of world music.
Pine Street Barge Canal
In the 1860s, Burlington, Vt., ranked one of the busiest lumber ports in the United States, and the Lake Champlain waterfront near Battery Street ran out of room. City planners dreamed up the Pine Street Canal to expand the waterfront and allow the loading and unloading of canal boats. A breakwater was also built near the shore of Lake Champlain.
The plan worked. Commerce flourished and factories sprang up along the Pine Street Barge Canal. Unfortunately, the factories also dumped toxic waste into the water.
The U.S. government has designated the Pine Street canal, now a 38-acre polluted swamp, as a Superfund site – perhaps the only superfund site with four shipwrecks in it. At the canal entrance, surveyors found three construction barges from the mid-20th century and the mid-19th century schooner Excelsior.
The brick factories that grew up around the Pine Street Barge Canal are now restaurants, an antiques mall and yoga studios.
Images of canals: Farmington Canal By Staib (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22646095; Pawtucket Gatehouse By Emw – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21042220. This story updated in 2022.