Historic House of the Month Middlesex Canal Houses

By Nancy Hayford Kueny

The Middlesex Canal which operated from 1803 until 1853, carried agricultural products, timber, granite, raw materials and rafts of logs from East Chelmsford (now part of Lowell) to Charlestown, and returned north carrying manufactured goods and ocean trade products from Boston. Heading south, the canal passed through Billerica, Wilmington, Woburn, Winchester, Medford, and Somerville. The southern terminus was the Charlestown Mill Pond (created 1670-75), which eventually became the land fill that encompasses the area to the west of Main Street (in the vicinity of Rutherford Avenue and beyond).  In 1803 the Middlesex Canal Corporation purchased the Mill Pond, its dams and tidal power mills and a large parcel of adjacent Charlestown land.  By 1845 there were five Greek Revival homes on the canal property located at 372-380 Main Street where they stand today. 

Gov. John Hancock signed the Middlesex Canal Corporation Charter in 1794. The thirteen member board of directors chose the prominent lawyer and Attorney General (later Governor) James Sullivan, the son of Irish immigrants born in Berwick, Maine, in 1744 to be the president of the Corporation.  Sullivan Square is named after James and his son John Langdon Sullivan, later a Canal Superintendent. Loammi Baldwin, was appointed first Canal Superintendent as well as the Chief Engineer overseeing the canal construction.  Loammi is also known for overseeing the construction of a dry dock in the Charlestown Navy Yard, as well as discovering the Baldwin apple in Wilmington while surveying the proposed canal.

The canal, 27 miles long, was comprised of 20 locks, 8 aqueducts (required to raise the canal above large streams) and 48 bridges. The canal was dug entirely by hand using pickaxes, shovels, wheelbarrows and various other tools. In 1803 it was finally completed and canal business commenced. It would have taken a horse and wagon three or four days to carry a few tons 27 miles on poor roads, but a canal boat could make the trip from East Chelmsford to Charlestown in a day carrying 15-30 tons of goods.  In addition to carrying goods on canal boats drawn by horses or oxen, packet boats utilized the canal to carry day passengers on excursions. Judge Samuel P. Hadley of Lowell described the canal as a “beautiful ribbon of water enclosed in green banks” with long lines of Lombardy poplars flanking each side of the canal. The canal boats would sometimes stop so that the passengers could collect lilies.  In winter when the canal was frozen the canal was often used for ice skating excursions. It is further noted that the proprietors gave license to individuals to cut blocks of ice in the winter, ice being a precious commodity at the time.

After reaching the Charlestown Mill Pond, the canal boats could pass through locks into the Charles River.  From there, they could be towed via a tow line across the Charles to the Boston side.  Here, they could enter the Mill Creek Canal, which passing along what are now streets: Canal Street, then on to Haymarket, along Blackstone Street, through Dock Square and on by South Market Street in order to reach the Harbor at the Town Dock (now the site of the Quincy Market North Building). 

A survey of the Charlestown canal property from 1844 indicates that at that time there were two canal worker’s homes, a workshop, three sheds, a blacksmith shop, a large stable, the collectors office, a lock tenders house, and last but not least, the Bunker Hill Tavern at the corner of Main and Essex sStreets.

The centerpiece of the Main Street canal houses is the double Greek Revival house with brick ends and paired chimneys built circa 1835, located at 374-376 Main St. and seen on the 1844 survey.  The main façade of this three storied pair features six bays with double entrance doors in the center.  Richard Frothingham, a canal employee, lived at 374 Main.  Born in Charlestown in 1812, he began his work with the Middlesex Canal Corporation in 1834 and remained there, working up through the ranks until the Corporation was liquidated in 1860.  He eventually became Treasurer of the Corporation and later in life held several governmental offices.  376 Main was occupied initially by Thomas Greenleaf who was a carpenter and also the lock tender at Lock #3 (the Malden Road Lock) located on the Charlestown Neck. 

Flanking the double house are three additional Greek Revival single family residences located at 372, 378 and 380 Main St.  These homes were built circa 1845, and were not shown on the 1844 survey.  Henry Burr, lumber dealer, lived at 372. William Frost, carpenter, lived at 378 and Charles Woodbury, carpenter and trader, lived at 380.  Interestingly the majority of the early owners were involved in the building trades.

These five homes are straightforward renditions of the Greek Revival style which sometimes feature elaborate columns and entry porches as well as elongated first floor windows. The three single-family homes gabled end faces the street, giving the façade the characteristic appearance of a small Greek temple. Two of these homes still retain their original sidelights flanking the entry doors and 380 Main still has an elaborate entry porch, both hallmarks of the style.

 As innovative as the Middlesex Canal was, her demise was eventually caused be a more powerful innovation, the steam railroad. Completed in 1835, the Boston and Lowell Railroad’s path ran very close in places to the Middlesex Canal, which must have been a visually jarring juxtaposition.  Ironically, the Canal played a role in the building of the railroad by transporting the granite ties and cast iron rails used to build the track.  Additionally, the first locomotive, manufactured in England, was transported north in pieces by the canal boats before being assembled. The Middlesex Canal was considered to be one of the first and finest examples of the new field of civil engineering. This incredible handmade wonder, which served as a prototype for other canals throughout the country including the Erie Canal, ceased operating in 1853.    Sources:  “The Old Middlesex Canal” by Mary Stetson Clarke, “Boston Landmarks Commission Survey, A Field Guide to American Houses” by Virginia Savage McAlester, www.middlesexcanal.org, Middlesex Canal Museum, Billerica.

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