Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Pawtucket and Middlesex Canals

Historical evolution of the canals of Lowell, by Howland and Chrisney. HAER, collections of Library of Congress, public domain
The historical development of the canal system in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Drawing by Mark M. Howland and Margy Chrisney, Historic American Engineering Record. From the collections of the Library of Congress, Public Domain (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ma0543.sheet.00002a/)

Between 1790 and 1860 America underwent a transportation revolution. Canals, turnpikes, and railroads crisscrossed the nation, dramatically improving inland transportation.

Eastern Massachusetts was an early participant in this revolution. The first effort to improve navigation on the Merrimack River came in 1792 when a group of investors from Newburyport-some of the same families that later invested in Lowell-chartered the Proprietors of Locks and Canals on Merrimack River.

They intended to construct a canal around Pawtucket Falls at East Chelmsford and thereby connect New Hampshire directly to Newburyport at the river's mouth. By 1796 the 1 1/2-mile Pawtucket Canal permitted log rafts and limestone-bearing barges to skirt the falls at the future site of Lowell.

Even while the Pawtucket Canal was under construction, Boston entrepreneurs undertook another ambitious canal venture. Completed in 1803, the Middlesex Canal used 20 locks and 7 aqueducts, over a length of 27 miles, to join the Merrimack River a mile above Pawtucket Falls to the port of Boston. Together these two canals provided excellent transportation. The Middlesex, however, soon became the more prosperous canal, at least until the industrialists from Waltham discovered the Pawtucket Canal's waterpower potential.

From: Dublin, Thomas. 1992. Lowell: the story of an industrial city: a guide to Lowell National Historical Park and Lowell Heritage State Park, Lowell, Massachusetts. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Last updated: June 15, 2018