‘The Canals of Lowell’ by Sara Swan Griffin (1928)

Sara Swan Griffin, author of “Quaint Bits of Lowell History,” published “Little Stories About Lowell: Romances and Facts of Earlier Days” in 1928. The book was produced by the Butterfield Printing Company. Following is an excerpt from the chapter “The Canals of Lowell.”—PM

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“The Pawtucket Canal almost surrounds Pawtucket Falls from which it derives its name and is entirely within the limits of our city. The object, in the building of this canal, was to assist the lumber-men and farmers of the north, in transporting their products to the markets at the mouth of the Merrimack River, without having to overcome the almost insurmountable difficulties at Pawtucket Falls.

“In the great forests of New Hampshire, the immense trees fell under the woodsman’s axe; these trees were needed for the tall masts of ships sailing out of the ports of Salem, Newburyport, and Boston, and the Merrimack River was the great water-road to these cities. In order to float them down the river, the logs were made into rafts, and expert loggers were sent out with them to pole them down the river. It was a hazardous adventure at the best:—a steady head, a sure foothold, and an accurate knowledge of the river were absolutely necessary to the men in charge of the rafts. The raftsmen met with but slight difficulty, on the smooth-flowing current, until they reached Pawtucket Falls. And there, the dangerous rocks, and precipitous falls, made an obstruction impossible for the raftsmen to overcome.

“Accordingly, at the landing place near where the Vesper Boat House now stands, the rafts were taken apart, the logs loaded on to great ox teams and carried to a point where there was smooth water, near what is known as ‘Little Canada,’ made again into rafts, and started again on their voyage down the river. But the expenditure of time and labor was unsatisfactory to the lumber-men, and plans were formed to build a canal around the falls, running through the town to the Concord River where it empties into the Merrimack. And in 1792, a charter was granted to a company of men known as ‘The Locks and Canals Company’ for the purpose of building this canal. Thomas A. Clark of Newburyport was appointed superintendent of construction, and the canal opened in 1796, about four years after the granting of the charter.

“The route of the canal was straight and direct. Starting at Pawtucket Street, it went by School Street and Thorndike Street through the yard of the Lowell Machine Shop, then in back of the Market Street Police Station, through Central Street and the yard of the Prescott Corporation and flowed into the Concord River.

“The day of the opening of the canal, crowds gathered on its banks to witness the passage of the boat through the locks. The directors of the Company and many invited guests were to make the first voyage through the canal, and the boat was crowded to its utmost extent. Scarcely had it entered the first lock when the sides of the boat gave way, and all on board were thrown into the water, but happily all were rescued without injury. The cost of the canal was fifty thousand dollars, and it proved to be a great success, enabling the raftsmen to pursue their journey without hindrance. . . .”

One thought on “‘The Canals of Lowell’ by Sara Swan Griffin (1928)”

  1. Ironically, the Pawtucket Canal was rendered obsolete by the Middlesex Canal which floated its first boat in 1802 from Middlesex Village (East Chelmsford) to the Mystic River (Medford).

    There’s more irony, in that Thomas Clark returned to the scene at the request of a group of investors; who traveled to the Pawtucket Falls to view for themselves the hydraulic potential of the Merrimack River. The Charles River just didn’t have the zip the the old Merrimack did at the Pawtucket Falls (not the falls you see today). And Thomas Clark, representing the then foundering “Locks and Canals Company” became the middleman in the sale of the property that eventually became Lowell. This included the Pawtucket Canal of course, which was soon thereafter repurposed from a transit waterway to a source of water power for operating the mills. The sale (some say engineered by Clark) included most of the land between the canal and the Merrimack River.

    The initial principals were Nathan Appleton, Patrick Tracy Jackson and Paul Moody of the Boston and Waltham Manufacturing Company (started by Francis Cabot Lowell); later joined by Kirk Boott, the man who was actually charged to build Lowell. By that time (early 1820s) Francis Cabot Lowell was deceased. He never actually was involved in advancing his vision of building mills beyond the Waltham facilities. I’ve seen nothing that confirms he ever came to East Chelmsford (later Lowell) at all!

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