The Blackstone Canal: Artery to the Heart of the Commonwealth
Transporting goods by water, which offers far less resistance to motion than the smoothest road, has always been the cheapest method; indeed, we still use the verb "to ship" when we sent goods, even by truck, rail, or airplane. A Worcester Massachusetts man observed in 1822 that it cost less to ship goods the 3000 miles from England to Boston than to cart those same goods the last forty some miles overland to Worcester.
Where nature did not provide a navigable ocean, lake, or river, early 19th century Americans often saw a dug canal as the best alternative to land transportation. With cargo floating on a level path lubricated by water, a draft animal could pull perhaps twenty?five times as much weight in a boat as it could in a wagon travelling over dirt roads. Constructing a transportation canal, however, involved much more than just laboriously digging and blasting a ditch, however. After funds were raised and the land secured, engineers and surveyors had carefully to lay out the easiest route, which especially in New England was seldom a straight line. Often scores of locks, or inclines with winches, had to be built to raise and lower boats over hills. Unpredictable soil conditions, the difficulties of insuring adequate water supplies for the canal and locks, political contention over the route, and the necessity of raising huge amounts of capital all made canal building expensive and complicated propositions.
In 1793 the first canal company in Massachusetts, seeking to build the Middlesex canal from Middlesex Village to Charlestown, was incorporated. A decade later the canal opened, carrying goods to Boston that had come down the Merrimack River from New Hampshire. In 1808 U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin boldly proposed the construction of several canals (as well as roads) along the eastern seaboard, confident that this investment in improved infrastructure would dramatically expand commerce and economic prosperity. No action was taken, however. In 1817 the famed and hugely successful Erie Canal was begun in New York, financed by a combination of private investment and state funds. When completed in 1825 it ran 363 miles across the Empire State, linking the rich lands of western New York, Ohio, and the Great Lakes country to the Hudson river and ultimately the Atlantic seaboard. Even before completion it sparked imitation. There were fewer than 100 miles of canals in the United States before the Erie was completed; by 1840 the country boasted over 3,000 miles of artificial waterways. Of this total, forty five miles were accounted for by a canal that ran from the seaport of Providence, Rhode Island to the still?small shire town of Worcester, Massachusetts: the Blackstone canal.
"From its inception the canal was a Rhode Island enterprise," as one Worcester?based historian noted.ii
Providence, Rhode Island merchant John Brown first proposed the construction of a canal along the valley of the Blackstone River in 1796, to link his wharves with the interior of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Brown was powerful enough in his home state that his petition to the Rhode Island legislature was approved; but a companion bill in the Massachusetts legislature, equally necessary to the project, was defeated. That same year Massachusetts entrepreneurs were planning a rival canal from Boston to Worcester and then beyond, to the Connecticut River at Springfield. Although this proposed canal was never built due to lack of capital, supporters still had enough political clout to sink a project that might allow Providence to rival Boston as the port of choice for central Massachusetts. Neither canal became a reality, and as a result, economic and industrial development of this predominantly agricultural region was perhaps retarded for decades.
The Blackstone river has been described by many as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution; in the early 1800s, it was, mile for mile, the busiest and hardest working river in America. Over its 46?mile course it drops 438 feet, which is farther than the Colorado River falls through the entire Grand Canyon. In 1790 the Blackstone's waters powered the pioneering cotton mill of Samuel Slater at Pawtucket, Rhode Island, America's first mechanized cotton factory. Slater's success spurred him to expansion of his enterprise and brought a host of imitators to the valley, creating ever?expanding demands for labor and raw materials. Local farmers increased their production to feed, house, and warm the ever growing army of factory workers and their families. Capital accumulated, technical specialists gathered, and villages were built. This remarkable growth generated a need for a better avenue of commerce than the rutted dirt roads that then served the region.
The Blackstone river itself had too many twists, turns, falls, shallows, and rapids to be navigable for any distance, so in the winter and spring of 1821?2 meetings were held in towns all up and down the Blackstone Valley to discuss the construction of a canal to carry goods to and from the wider world. In Worcester, for example, prominent citizens, including future?Governor Levi Lincoln and printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, met in Colonel Sike's coffeehouse to consider the project. In a circular letter all the towns in Worcester county, they said they were convinced that "extensive business done on the banks of the [Blackstone] river, and in the adjacent country [would] fully justify" the building of a canal. They predicted a canal would "reduce the expense of transportation... from one?half to one?fourth of what it now is. It will probably open to us a market for many products which we cannot now send abroad, by reason of the expense of transportation, and will enable us to carry on, with success, many branches of industry, which cannot now be pursued." iii
They asked what each town produced, what each thought it could sell given a canal, and what would be most in demand from the wider world if a canal were built. A majority of towns responded favorably, equally sure that given a canal, their lumber, cider, grain, and other produce would find ready markets. They knew also that they wanted cheap transportation for the bulky items they wanted to buy, such as plaster for their houses, and lime to sweeten their acidic soil.iv Committees of prominent citizens were formed in Worcester and Providence whose members subscribed enough money to hire experienced canal engineer Benjamin Wright to make a topographical survey of the proposed route. An experienced surveyor, Wright had recently been the chief engineer on the middle section of New York's massive Erie Canal project then under construction. The committees also charged Wright to work out the problems of how to supply enough water to operate the proposed canal's locks, examine the soil conditions along the route, and estimate how much such an undertaking would cost. With the help of two assistants, Wright completed his plans by September, 1822. Before the year was out, the proposal was published, and favorably received.
Encouraged by the prospect of dramatically increased business opportunities, and with the professionally engineered project proposal in hand, dual canal corporations were approved by both the Massachusetts and Rhode Island legislatures by the summer of 1823. While the states had to pass acts of incorporation, the Blackstone was entirely a privately funded enterprise, unlike the Erie. Subscriptions for stock in the canal were opened, with shares nominally priced at $100 each. (In reality they sold for $37.50 each, and when more shares were offered in 1829, the price was only $15.) To sweeten the deal, canal company stock was exempted from property taxes for eight years. Initially people were so eager to invest in the project that after all the shares in the Rhode Island company were sold, profit?hungry Providence investors chartered an express stage to Worcester so that they could snatch up any unsold shares in the Massachusetts company; there were none. Ultimately, Rhode Islanders invested half a million dollars in the project, and Bay State investors put up the remaining quarter of a million dollars that the canal would cost. No doubt this reflected the greater population and wealth of the seaport, and the realization that they had more to gain from selling goods to the interior than access to wider markets would benefit the uplanders.
More detailed surveys were conducted of the route, rights of way were bought up, and construction contracts signed. Construction began near the Cove in Providence in 1824, with workers receiving pay of $9.00 per month. (This is about what an unskilled laborer could expect at the time. For example, that same year wealthy farmer and timber speculator Salem Towne of Charlton, Massachusetts offered wood?choppers $10.00 per month to cut timber on Naushon Island, less than fifty miles away.) While Yankee laborers provided a majority of the work force, Irish immigrants did a substantial amount of the backbreaking toil of digging, damming, blasting and building. These Catholic foreigners were often ridiculed and despised by the Protestant Yankees, but work on the canal brought the Irish into the countryside and upland towns. Many remained there working as agricultural and general laborers, even after work on the canal was completed.
The canal they built was 32 feet wide at the top, 18 feet wide at its bottom, and 3 or 4 feet deep. It took advantage of the natural river channel and the slack water of ponds for about a tenth of its route, entering and leaving the river sixteen times. This would prove to be a major flaw in the canal design, as boats were often stranded at these sites by drought, or the swift currents and dangerous debris of floods. Along the whole route, towpaths for the draft horses that pulled the boats were constructed along the bank. In all, the canal used 49 locks to raise boats the 451 1/2 feet from tidewater in Providence to Thomas street in Worcester, 45 miles away, a rise of over ten feet per mile.v
The canal commissioners decided to use granite blocks from a quarry along the canal route in Northbridge, Massachusetts for all but one of the locks. While stone cost an average of a thousand dollars more per lock as compared to wood, they felt that the longevity of granite would be worth the initial expense.
Each lock was essentially a box, about 70 feet long by 10 feet wide, with massive doors, or gates, at each end. When a boat was floated into the lock, the gates were closed behind the vessel. If the boat was "locking up," water from the higher level of the canal was admitted to the lock through small doors, or wicket gates, near the bottom of the larger lock gates. In about four minutes the water lifted the boat eight or ten feet to the next level. The gates on the upper level were then opened, and the boat proceeded on its way. To "lock down", the procedure was reversed: water was drained out of the lock, and the boat settled to the lower level. This was a bit faster, and the boat could move on in about three minutes.
The canal locks used a large amount of water to raise and lower boats. Raising a boat 8 feet, for example, sent 5,600 cubic feet of water irrevocably downstream. Locks, leakage, and evaporation required the building of storage ponds along the canal to hold water until needed.
Millers in the Blackstone Valley were concerned about their continued access to water, and their political clout forced the company to make many promises to them before it received its charter. For example, the canal's Rhode Island charter gave mill?owners access to the gates of the canal's storage ponds so that the water they needed to turn their mill wheels would not be denied them. This policy was not followed in practice, however, and hoarding of water resources would later cost the canal owners dearly. But that was in a darker, as yet unimagined future.
The year 1825 saw the union of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island companies. The joint corporation had three directors from each state. (Directors General Edward Carrington, Moses B. Ives, Stephen H. Smith, and First Director/Treasurer Thomas Burgess were from Providence, while John Davis, Sylvanus Holbrook, and John W. Lincoln were the Massachusetts directors.) Two thirds of the stock was in the hands of Rhode Islanders, however. On July 8, 1826 the canal company broke ground at the northern terminus of the canal, near Thomas Street in Worcester. It hoped the crews digging north and south would meet and complete the canal by the end of 1827, but a particularly wet fall and the withdrawal of some contractors proved that goal overly optimistic. After the ground thawed in the spring of 1828, yet more rain fell, slowing the digging and washing out canal embankments in several places. However, as early as April 1828, optimistic newspaper advertisements in Worcester were soliciting business for the unfinished canal.
By early summer the lower section of the canal up to Albion, Rhode Island was complete. On the First of July the canal's first boat, the Lady Carrington, passed the first lock in Providence to the boom of cannon salutes and the cheers of an assembled crowd. The boat, named in honor of the wife of Providence canal commissioner Edward Carrington, had been built on Eddy's Point in Providence at a cost of $2,500. 68 feet long, 9 1/2 feet wide, and weighing 22 1/2 tons, she drew only eight or nine inches of water empty, and only about thirty inches fully loaded. The Lady Carrington's hull was surmounted by a 45?foot cabin. She was painted white, and for this occasion she was elegantly fitted out with red curtains in her cabin windows for the accommodation of her distinguished passengers; the fifty dignitaries on this maiden voyage included Rhode Island governor James Fenner, two of the canal commissioners, and an eight?piece band. The eventual practice was for two horses in tandem to pull the boat along at four or five miles an hour, but a special six?horse hitch was employed on this festive day. A veteran East Indies skipper, James Esdall, was her captain. vi On this joyous maiden voyage they passed through nine locks up to the factory in Albion before returning to Providence.
The Lady Carrington began her career as a packet boat and excursion craft even as construction on the northern part of the canal continued, moving goods and people as far up the canal as navigation was possible. For example, in August 1828 a Providence newspaper announced: "Canal Packet Lady Carrington will leave the Mill?Dam To?morrow afternoon at half past 1 o'clock, for Horton Grove and Scott's Pond, to accommodate those who may wish to partake of the Clam Bake and Chowder at Horton Grove. [sic]"vii
These canal boat trips were convenient ways for large groups to travel, and also provided the novel experience of riding up and down the locks. Within a few years, however, they became as commonplace to residents of the Blackstone Valley as air?travel is for modern Americans. By October 6, 1828 the canal was at last complete from end to end. That afternoon the Lady Carrington again was towed north from Providence, this time with four commissioners aboard, and a mundane but perhaps symbolic cargo of corn and salt. At 11:00 the next morning she tied up in the basin at Worcester to the sound of cannons, ringing bells, and cheering crowds. First Selectman of Worcester Colonel Pliny Merrick delivered a welcoming speech from the deck of the boat itself to those assembled. The dignitaries then retired to the mansion of Worcester resident Governor Levi Lincoln for a banquet. The Massachusetts Spy, Worcester's primary newspaper, marked the occasion by including an announcement noting the boat's arrival, boldly titled "Marine News." Forty?five miles from salt water, Worcester was now a seaport! The paper also published an original poem welcoming the vessel:
What mean those guns, and that tremendous shout? The town 'twould seem by demons is assail'd; What can this fuss and fluster be about? Has Adams or the Jacksonites prevail'd? "The boat's arrived!" the children in the street Exclaim, partaking of the general fright; "The boat's arrived," from every quarter greet Our ears while pressing forward to the sight. Where are thy wheels, or hast thou none to show? Thy runners then, or what is thy machine? The water in our little "ditch" we know Can boast great things, but never have we seen So large a car by tandem drawn along On wheels or sled with such apparent ease; And then the multitude thy quarters throng! How canst thou them contain, tell if thou please. She comes! "The Lady Carrington" appears In letters on her stern; tis then the boat, The long expected visitant; for years The promis'd guest in our canal to float. We bid thee welcome, welcome to "the heart," The bone and sinew of this Commonwealth; In cups of sparkling wine, before we part, We'll drink to thee and thy successors' health.viii
The Lady Carrington was taken briefly to Burbank's pond, a few miles south of the terminal basin, and then took Worcester passengers on an excursion to the town of Millbury for a day, so that they too could experience the novelty of riding a boat up and down locks, just as Providence residents had already done. After that she was kept on display in Worcester for two weeks, to further satisfy the curiosity of inlanders who might not have seen such a large boat before, especially 45 miles from the ocean. She then headed back to Providence with a load of products from Worcester County: butter, cheese, paper, sundry domestic goods, and coal from the short?lived anthracite mine in the eastern section of Worcester.
Boston merchants had seen some of their trade with the interior diverted through New York since the Erie Canal opened in 1825. The Blackstone canal was sure to draw off even more business, and there was already some Bostonians talked of building a railroad to Worcester as the best way to safeguard Boston's role as the principle port of New England. Boston newspapers took notice of the canal's opening, and the economic threat to their city that it embodied. The Boston Daily Advertiser, however, dismissed contemporary talk of a competing railroad, claiming investors would never sink money into a railroad when they could get higher returns elsewhere.ix Eventually over a score of boats, bearing the names of towns along the canal, influential personages, and famous American statesmen, joined the Lady on the Blackstone canal. Each was manned by a captain and two assistants, one of whom drove the two horses, which walked one in front of the other.x
This flotilla was of the basic style that would eventually be adopted by canal boats in general across the country: long and narrow, with pointed prow and shallow draft, and a cabin running for most of its length. Although sharp at the bow, they drew only 8 or 9 inches of water when empty, and only 30 inches fully loaded. Each boat could carry twenty to forty tons of goods, depending on their bulk.
The canal was served by at least two competing boat lines, (and sometimes more, as new ones were started and older ones went through several reorganizations over the years.) There were several independently operated boats as well. Shippers sometimes even leased a boat and moved their own goods themselves, using their own crew and horses. The first boat to be built and launched in the new "port" of Worcester was the Washington, the first vessel of the Worcester Boating Company. She was constructed on Summer Street near the county jail, placed on wheels, and moved overland to the canal for launching. Company. The Rhode Island?based Providence and Worcester Canal Boat Company was their main rival. Eventually over a score of boats plied the waters of the Blackstone canal.
As the festivities ended, canal traffic increased. For example, on November 8th six boats, each carrying 30 to 40 tons of cargo, put into Worcester. They carried such heavy items as plaster, grindstones, shingles, iron, lead, grain, cotton, molasses, salt, oil, flour, and assorted groceries. Stores took out newspaper advertisements to proudly proclaim all the goods newly arrived by canal, and by 1830 boat companies opened stores of their own, seizing more of the profits that cheap transportation brought. Worcester did not receive all the canal's traffic, however, since many boats dropped off their cargo at a town further down the canal and returned to Providence. Shippers in Worcester were often left waiting for bottoms to carry their goods. These short trips were often more profitable than longer ones, since more trips could be made in the same amount of time. For example, on October 18 several freight boats made a run from Providence only to the textile town of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, unloaded their goods, took on finished textiles and other produce of the area, and hurried back to Providence the same day.
Travel on the canal was not wholly without risks. In early December, the Lady Carrington struck a submerged rock in Scott's pond. Passengers were not much disturbed by it, not even the one man who fell into the water in the middle of a story he was telling. He just climbed out and resumed, "as I was saying..." xi
Still, the damage was bad enough that the cargo had to be unloaded before the crippled boat was towed back to Providence.
By mid?December, ice forced the cessation of canal traffic for the year. (This became the normal pattern of operations for the canal.) All was not completely quiet through the winter months, however. A group in the northern Worcester County town of Sterling, Massachusetts met to plan an extension of the Blackstone canal that would reach all the way to Nashua, New Hampshire. Although local farmers and merchants were enthusiastic about the prospect of increased business opportunities, the extension, like hundreds of such expensive schemes, was never built.
When navigation on the Blackstone resumed on April 24, 1829 the canal was found to have suffered much less damage over the winter than many had feared. (Again, the April opening of the canal became a norm.) More boats were added and traffic continued to increase. Worcester saw an average of seventy?five or eighty arrivals or departures a month that spring. At first, boats simply left when they were full, or as was sometimes the case in Worcester, Worcester when the captain became tired of waiting for a full load. By summer, however, a more regular scheduled service was instituted, partly in reaction to Worcester shippers' complaints about short hauls on the lower canal. The Worcester Boating Company began by offering two scheduled trips a week; the Providence and Worcester Company countered with three. By July the Providence and Worcester made daily trips, forcing the Worcester Line to expand its fleet and follow suit. Some of the independent carriers tried to offer a regular schedule for shippers and occasional travelers.
For moving bulky freight such as grain, coal, cordwood, lumber, shingles, butter, cheese, iron, salt, flour, molasses, bales of cotton and wool, plaster, and leather, the canal saved shippers $3.80 per ton over wagon transportation.xii
Lime kilns and stone quarries along the route, which produced extremely heavy materials, shipped their products both up and down the canal, and experienced a burgeoning demand for their products. The increased commercial activity caused taverns, warehouses, and yet more factories to spring up along the route of the canal. Worcester and its environs too took on a new bustle, as reported by the Massachusetts Spy:
"There is a prospect of full employment at present of all the boats on the Canal, which have now become considerably numerous. The lading and unlading of boats, the arrival of teams with freight to put on board of them, and the constant passing of trucks with goods brought by the boats to be delivered at different points in town, yesterday and the day before, presented scenes of activity and bustle in the vicinity of the head of the Canal which afforded a gratifying contrast with the appearance of the same place four years since when no improvements had been made, and when the land occupied now by the canal and basin, was used for a mowing field."xiii
Business boomed even more for Providence merchants, who profited from greatly expanded trade with towns up and down the valley, and indeed throughout Worcester County. Their prosperity reflected not merely a shift of business from the port of Boston, but real economic growth in the greater Blackstone valley. One sign of this was the chartering of the Blackstone Canal Bank in 1831 by Rhode Island merchants and manufacturers in need of more working capital.
Like a turnpike, the canal itself was just a highway, not a transportation service. The boats using the canal charged customers a fee of so much per ton per mile for shipping, and then added on the toll charged by the Canal Company for use of the waterway. The original canal charter called for a toll of six cents per ton/mile, even charging empty boats for their full capacity. Surviving freight records from 1829?1831, however, kept by Providence and Worcester Boating Company agent Anthony Chase, indicate that the actual toll charged for most goods was only three cents per ton/mile, or $1.35 per ton for a complete trip. Stone was shipped at the bargain rate of only one?cent per ton/mile. In addition to toll on cargo, each boat also paid a toll of two cents per mile. Agents to collect tolls were appointed at various locations; each received a salary of $100 per year, the same as that of Thomas Burgess, the company's director/treasurer. $8,606.00 in tolls were collected in 1829, in the canal's first full season of operation. The total shot up to $12,016.82 in 1830, went to $14,944.67 in 1831, and peaked at $18,907.45 in 1832.
Freight rates charged by boat operators varied slightly over time and according to the specific cargo, but seem to have remained generally consistent for the life of the canal. In 1829 and 1830, most items went from Providence to Worcester for 16 cents per 100 pounds, (which works out to a bit more than 7 cents per ton/mile). Building materials such as lumber, shingles, lead, marble, nails, and bricks went for only 14 cents per 100 pounds, and plaster was shipped for the bargain price of 12 1/2 cents per 100 pounds. Many items shipped in bulk in easily moved barrels soon went for a special "per barrel" rate. A 400 pound cask of lime went for 52 cents, and by the summer of 1829 made the trip for only 36 cents, saving the shipper 28 cents off the general rate, or 14 cents off the rate for plaster. A barrel of flour, gross weight 214 pounds, went for 30 cents in 1829, and 25 cents in 1831 (or 9 cents less than the general rate).xiv
With competition among the boat lines and independent operators increasing, rates dropped slightly by the early 1830s. Most items went to Worcester for 14 cents per 100 pounds, with "liberal discounts" offered "for large lots of heavy goods." xv
Since boats tended to carry about twice as much cargo on their way up the canal as they did back down to Providence, boat lines hoping to fill their vessels advertised much more extensively in Worcester newspapers than they did in Providence journals. They also began to charge a lower rate of 12 1/2 cents per 100 pounds for goods going from Worcester to Providence. Competition also prompted them to waive commission and storage fees, and some even offered free pick?up and delivery service within the city. Boating companies would even arrange ocean transport of goods sent down the canal to anywhere in the world. When winter ice shut down the canal, the boat companies used their draft horses to haul goods in wagons and sleds, albeit in much smaller amounts. The canal did not revolutionize passenger travel. Regular stagecoach service had been in place between Worcester and Providence since 1821, and it continued to be the preferred mode of personal transportation after the opening of the canal. For a fare of $2.25 a traveler could go from one town to the other in twelve hours or less. Although primarily a freight line, the canal offered passenger service for the bargain rate of 3 cents a mile or $1.00 for the same journey. Boats such as the Independence, Lafayette, and Governor Lincoln regularly carried both people and cargo, and often ran special excursions, carrying church groups, people to college graduation ceremonies, or militia companies on picnics. Non?excursion travelers had to find space on the boats where they could, however: there were no special accommodations for them. While canal transportation was novel, cheap, and spared riders the jarring ride of a stagecoach speeding down bumpy roads, it was slow and unreliable. Company policy kept speeds to under four miles per hour (to prevent racing!) and travel was restricted to daylight hours only. High water in the spring and low water in the summer, particularly where the canal route followed the natural river channel, could leave boats stranded for days or even weeks. Once an early freeze kept some boats stranded for an entire winter. These conditions were an inconvenience for freight shippers, for whom low rates were crucial, they made the canal far less appealing for personal transportation. The boat companies advertised for riders and posted regular schedules, promising that an early morning departure would put one at his destination by that same evening, (or that an evening departure would mean a morning arrival.) But since canal transport was restricted to daylight hours, trips could sometimes take two days, and might well necessitate a night's stay in a tavern along the way.xvi
Boston merchants feared that much of their trade with central Massachusetts was being diverted to Providence. Just a few years earlier they had begun to see their ocean?going trade drawn off to New York City by the formidable Erie Canal system. The Boston Centinal echoed the somewhat hyperbolic fears of many Bostonians when it proclaimed: "...if something is not done to counter the effect of the Blackstone Canal, Boston will in a manner of years be reduced to a fishing village."xvii Indeed, Boston was losing tons and tons of freight business to and from the greater Worcester area. As a contemporary observed, "However strong habits of business may be, the love of gain is stronger; and whatever may be the force of attachment to old channels of trade, and old methods of intercourse, they ... give way to the powerful attraction of making money."xviii
By sending goods to Providence on the canal rather than over the land route to Boston, upland merchants saved almost $4.00 a ton. In May 1830 alone, for example, Providence sent 1019 tons of goods up the canal, and upland ports sent another 551 14 tons back down to Providence. xix Boston merchants were not taking the loss of trade with the "Heart of the Commonwealth" lying down, however. Some of them revived the old 1790s plan of a canal to Worcester and Springfield, which would have run through Sturbridge, and this time included a link with the Blackstone canal itself. But its costs were projected to be well over a million dollars, which cooled the enthusiasm of many; like most proposed canals, it was never dug. Other Bostonians, however, began to plan for an even costlier avenue of commerce, but one that would not freeze over for four months every winter and perhaps run dry for another month or two in summer: a railroad.
In 1826?27 Gridley Bryant of Quincy had built a short horse?operated railroad to move stone four miles; its success suggested to many that railroads might be practical. In those same years a group of men, including the merchant Thomas H. Perkins and Boston mayor Josiah Quincy, sent a circular letter to Massachusetts towns asking how a railroad might affect their imports, exports, and production of goods for market. They also unsuccessfully petitioned the legislature to survey for a horse railroad to the Hudson. Then in 1828 the Blackstone canal began siphoning off more of Boston's trade, and in 1830 the Manchester and Liverpool steam railway opened in England. The "iron horse" soon became a real alternative to canal transportation in the minds of many Bostonians.
On June 23, 1831 the Boston and Worcester railroad was chartered. Most of the capital for the project came from Boston, with about a quarter of it coming from outside of Massachusetts, mostly from New York investors. Little of the financial backing for the railroad came from Worcester. Not only was Worcester small compared to Boston and New York, but once again the ports had more to gain than the upland towns. Furthermore, Worcester's citizens had lost money in too many unsuccessful turnpike and canal schemes to jump at the next transportation plan to come along. It is interesting, however, that among those in Worcester who did buy railroad stock were many of the major backers of the Blackstone canal. In all the Boston & Worcester railroad cost $1,500,000 to build.
The B & W did not wait until completion to begin operation. As the tracks were laid service was commenced to towns along the way. Full operation began on Independence Day, 1835: "the cars" made the 44?mile trip in less than three hours. On July 6, Worcester celebrated this additional link to the metropolis and the sea with even more enthusiasm than the canal had engendered only seven years before. Once again Governor Levi Lincoln presided over the festivities. Twelve cars and two locomotives brought the company's board of directors and 300 stockholders out from Boston. Crowds listened to speeches by noted orators John Davis (a Blackstone Canal Director), Edward Everett, and Artemas Ward. Boston rapidly began to retrieve its lost central Massachusetts trade. "Canal fever," and the volume of canal traffic was waning even before the first railway cars rolled into Worcester. Canal revenues began to decrease in 1833, with $17,545 in tolls collected, down over 7% from the previous year. Decline was steady from then on. By 1836 tolls collected on the Blackstone canal were only $11,500, a year that also marked the last time a dividend was paid to canal shareholders, (a modest 25 cents per share, compared to $1.00 per share in the banner year of 1832).
While the railroad was faster, reliable, and ran year?round, it did cost a little more to use, at least initially. On the Blackstone, the complete 45 mile run from Providence to Worcester, tolls and freight combined, averaged $4.35/ton. Initially the railway charged 11 cents per ton/mile, making a full 44 mile train trip from Boston to Worcester $4.54/ton. But while canal charges remained fairly constant, the railroad rates dropped. The Blackstone canal's days were numbered. In just its first six months of operation, the railroad earned $18,828 in freight charges, and collected a whopping $72,912 in passenger fares. The Blackstone canal did not generate half that revenue in the entire year!xx
In 1836 the B & W took in $59,837 in freight fees, and twice that for passengers. That same year freight tolls on the canal dropped to only $11,500, a mere fifteenth of gross B & W railroad revenue. Within a few years, the railroad charge fell to $3.50/ton from Boston to Worcester, but only $3.00 for the return trip. (Once again, the upland towns consumed more than they exported, at least in terms of volume, and the cars often rattled back to Boston empty.) The railway turned out to even be a bargain for passengers. The fare fluctuated, but was often only $1.50 each way. For passengers willing to ride in a smoky and sooty "forward" car close to the engine, it cost only a dollar. What had been an all day trip by stage could now be made in a few hours for a smaller fee. The economic focus of Worcester County was definitely back on Boston!
Competition from the Boston & Worcester Railroad was not the only problem faced by the proprietors of the Blackstone canal in the 1830s. With economic growth, more and more mills (their number nearly doubled in the 1830s) crowded along the banks of the Blackstone River, competing with each other and with the canal for the finite amount of waterpower available. While the ponds created by the canal company to store water to work the locks probably created more stable water levels, each locking up or down of a single boat did send over 40,000 gallons of precious water irretrievably downstream. Waterpower could lift a heavy boat or turn a mill wheel, but it could not do both at the same time and place.
Blackstone Valley mill owners were jealously resentful of the canal's control and feared the loss of the water they needed to run their spindles and looms. When dropping water levels threatened to shut down canal operations, canal management did not, as promised, immediately replace water taken from the river or allow the mills open access to their storage pond dam gates. In 1829 a factory owner had a canal feeder destroyed near Millbury, but at first the courts and public opinion sided with the canalmen, and he was forced to repair the damage. But tensions continually increased in the early 1830s. Mill owners resorted to dumping rocks into the canal locks by night to disable them and prevent the canal from drawing off water. Angry canal men threatened to retaliate, forcing factory owners to post guards at their mills to protect them from arson.
The issue finally went before the courts. In 1833 a group of factory owners sued the Canal Corporation over water rights. They had a strong case. Not only had the canal management violated its own charter; the pattern of legal interpretation in early 19th century New England increasingly favored the rights of mill owners to the water they needed. After years of delays, in 1837 the Canal Company was ordered to pay a fine of $8,450; appeals put off execution until 1840. The fine was more than the Canal Company's gross revenue for that entire year. The court, it seemed, intended that such a huge sum would be largely symbolic: the hope was that the canal company would be stunned into husbanding the water more carefully and allowing mill owners freer access to the water resources, and it was not expected that the mill owners would actually pursue payment of such a large sum. Inflamed passion, old grudges, and greed made this wishful thinking, however. The mill owners pressed the financially strapped canal for their pound of flesh, and in May of 1841 the company unsuccessfully attempted to change its charter to avoid payment. Ironically, floods that season did $3,000 worth of damage to the canal. Breached banks and dams could not hold back enough water for navigation, and tons of late?summer produce from Massachusetts farms rotted on landings and boats unable to get to market. This failure to serve its customers turned even more shippers away from use of the canal.
By the early 1840s it was obvious that the Blackstone Canal, booming just a decade before, was in deep trouble. In 1833 companies were incorporated to build railroads from Worcester to New London, Connecticut (the Norwich and Worcester) and from Worcester to Springfield, Massachusetts (the Western Railroad). Both were up and running by 1840. Perhaps to cover the cost of so many empty runs and the constriction of the money supply known as the Panic of 1837, the Canal's boat companies raised their rates slightly in the late 1830s, just as railroad rates were declining. Lack of a modern sense of profit/loss analysis and a parochial attitude probably also contributed to this rate increase. The final newspaper ads for shipping on the canal appeared in 1840. After many buy?outs and reorganizations, many left the canal boat business, and only one line remained in operation. With effective competition on the canal itself gone, the final version of the Providence and Worcester boating company no longer offered discounts as it had just a few years before, but warned it would now charge extra for "bulky or risky freight." xxi Like the canal itself often did in summer, business on it was drying up.
In 1844 the Providence and Worcester railroad, which paralleled the canal's route, was chartered to serve the bustling Blackstone valley directly. The following year much of the now infrequently used Massachusetts route of the canal was sold to the new Railroad Company; sections of the towpaths made convenient roadbeds for the tracks. In Worcester, sections of the canal were made into sewers, or covered over and forgotten. Granite blocks from most of the canal's locks were sold off for use in new construction projects. The company's modest buildings along the canal were sold off, and creditors, especially factory owners who were still owed damages, fretted about the insolvent canal company abandoning its remaining properties before they were paid what they were owed. What began with the bang of cannon salutes ended with a whimper. Occasional use was made of the lower portion of the canal through the 1840s, until the last toll was collected in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on November 9, 1848. In 1847 the cars had begun running on the Providence and Worcester railroad, making the canal completely obsolete. Since it was no longer an avenue of commerce, the canal's right of way reverted back to its original owners, and the remaining properties were sold off. The once eagerly sought stock was now virtually worthless, and investors had only received $2.75 per share in total dividends. When the company's books were closed, almost $1,900 was still due the treasurer. The canal boats rotted away in Providence or were broken up for scrap. Like most American canals except the mighty Erie, the Blackstone turned out to be a financial failure for its builders and investors. A reveler at the celebration of the Providence and Worcester Railroad toasted to "The two Unions between Worcester and Providence. The first was weak as water, the last is strong as iron." xxii
The Blackstone canal was far from a complete failure, however, regardless of the financial loss to stockholders and boat operators. (As early as 1837, Worcester historian William Lincoln observed that it was of greater benefit to the public than to the overseers of the company.xxiii) For several years it brought increased trade, wealth and economic development to the region. By 1840, Providence had a population of 23,171, and Worcester had almost doubled its size in just ten years, to 7,497 residents, becoming the biggest town in the county. (Now Worcester has a population of more than 160,000, and Providence well over 150,000.) The area also received its first significant influx of foreign residents with the Irish canal workers.xxiv The Blackstone canal also fostered economic development in communities beyond its direct route. For example, by the mid?1830s timber?rich towns in northern Worcester county such as Gardner, Sterling, and Templeton were manufacturing well over half a million wooden chairs a year, sending most of them off to the wider world down the Blackstone canal. "Chairs, chairs, everlasting in number, brought into town in large loads from the northern parts of the county, seemed to me to be the principle loading of the boats down the canal," a contemporary recalled of 1830s Worcester's wharves.xxv
The canal also regulated water levels in the Blackstone valley and minimized flood damage. Despite the perceptions and protests of mill owners, its storage ponds ultimately made for more dependable waterpower for area factories. It had a less direct role as well. By temporarily shifting a good deal of business away from Boston, it speeded the construction of Massachusetts railroads by giving merchants more powerful reasons to invest in them. Indeed, many who had invested in the canal saw that it was being superseded by a new technology and also invested in the railroads. One historian has observed that it was on the Blackstone that what became the "classic" design of American canal boat began, and where canalmen first saw themselves as a separate segment of society.xxvi
Finally, in one more way, the Blackstone canal was both a parent and a child of the American Industrial Revolution. With canal networks bringing in cheap western flour and feed, New England farmers turned decisively away from mixed agriculture centered around stock raising and cereal production. While dairying remained important throughout the region, and many farmers focused on producing special products for expanding center village markets, New England agriculture as a whole began a slow decline. Optimistic predictions of the 1820s that a canal would help area farms failed to take into account the fact that produce from other regions with more productive land would then compete with the fruits of New England's tired, stony fields. More and more those inclined towards farming abandoned New England, and moved west. Those who stayed turned increasingly to commerce, manufacturing, and urban life. From about 1850 onwards forests began to reclaim the land. Certainly the Blackstone canal was not solely responsible for this transformation, but for central Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and even for Boston and Providence, it definitely played a significant part. Although long gone, the effects of the Blackstone Canal remain with us to this day. The path of the Blackstone canal now serves as the trunk of a National Heritage Corridor, which includes 250,000 acres of private and state land. Its goal is to preserve and interpret the multi?faceted story of this region for modern Americans. The National Park Service maintains a Visitors' center for the Corridor in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, but the Corridor itself encompasses state parks, private museums, nature sanctuaries, and historic sites, and over a dozen towns and villages. Boat tours are offered on sections of the river, and canoe trails still allow New Englanders to float along on now peaceful portions of the same canal, which once saw so much activity, briefly caused such excitement, and left such an important legacy.
i An Account of the Proposed Canal from Worcester to Providence... "Published by order of the Committee for the County of Worcester." William Manning. Worcester: 1822.
ii Coombs, Zelotes W. "The Blackstone Canal" Worcester Historical Society Publications. v. I, #8. April 1935. p.458.
iii Circular letter dated May 14, 1822, signed Levi Lincoln, et al. American Antiquarian Society collections.
iv Canal Questionnaire replies. Worcester County Papers, Oversize Manuscript, Folder 3. Worcester Historical Museum. (Twenty?seven towns replied. Worcester itself, for example, boasted "ship?lumber, an inexhaustible quantity of building stone and anthracite to exchange for large additional supplies of cotton goods, lime, plaster, salt, etc." Leicester expected it could export an additional "50 tons hay, 500 bushels grain, 4000 bushels potatoes, 200 barrels cider, 15 [thousand barrel] hoops, 100 bushels beans, and [a canal] would increase the demand for most of the heavy articles.") Smithfield, Rhode Island had lime kilns that could send products both up and down the canal.
v The original plans called for 62 locks.
vi "The Blackstone Canal" Providence Press, July 3, 1880, and Directory of Providence. H.H. Brown. Providence, RI: 1828.
vii Manufacturers Farmers Journal. Providence, RI: August 7, 1828.
viii Massachusetts Spy. Worcester: Oct. 8, 1828.
ix reprinted in: Manufacturers Farmers Journal. Providence, RI: Oct. 30, 1828.
x Horses were used exclusively on the Blackstone, it seems. New Englanders never made the extensive use of mules that people in other regions did, and oxen were thought to be just too slow for this job.
xi "The Blackstone Canal." Providence Press. Providence, RI: July 3, 1880. It is not completely clear when this fall into the water happened; it may have occurred on another trip.
xii Lewis, p.10.
xiii Massachusetts Spy. Worcester: April 25, 1829.
xiv Canal ledgers, 1828 ? 1831. Worcester Historical Museum.
xv Massachusetts Spy. Worcester: Sept. 8, 1830.
xvi The record time was set by the Lady Carrington in June of 1829 when she made the run from Providence to Worcester in only fourteen hours.
xvii Quoted in Lewis, Edward A. The Blackstone Valley Line. Seekonk, MA:1973. p.9.
xviii An Account of the Proposed Canal from Worcester to Providence... "Published by order of the Committee for the County of Worcester." William Manning. Worcester: 1822.
xix Massachusetts Spy. Worcester: June 16, 1830.
xx These statistics are from Lincoln, William. History of Worcester. Moses D. Phillips, Worcester, MA:1837. pp.372?3. Tolls in 1835 were $14,433.08. I have used this figure to estimate freight fees for that year at somewhat more than $30,000, since I have not found surviving freight books for this period.
xxi Massachusetts Spy. Worcester: March 25, 1840.
xxii Centennial History of the Town of Millbury, Massachusetts. Millbury: 1915. p.118.
xxiii Lincoln, William. History of Worcester. Moses D. Phillips, Worcester, MA:1837. p. 340.
xxiv These were the first Catholics to settle in Puritan Worcester; today Worcester and its environs have so many Catholics that it is a diocesan see of the Catholic Church.
xxv Knowlton, John S.C., and Wheelock, Clarendon. Carl's Tour in Main Street. Sanford Davis, Worcester, MA: 1889. p.123.
xxvi Drago, Harry Sinclair. Canal Days In America. Clarkson N. Potter, New York:1972. p.21.
Tom Kelleher, The Blackstone Canal: Artery to the Heart of the Commonwealth, (Sturbridge, Mass.: Old Sturbridge Village).
Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.