Worcester Historical Museum

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History of the Canal
The Blackstone Canal: A Brief Overview of Its Historical Significance

For the residents of post-industrial, twentieth-first century New England, the Blackstone Canal and other manmade waterways of its day possess a quaintness and an air of simplicity. They strike us as a leisurely way to travel, free from the noise, smoke and grime and the nervous bustle that began to characterize travel with the introduction of the railroad, the epitomal image of the Age of Iron and Steam. Yet the Blackstone Canal represented a significant accomplishment for its time and its construction marked a critical transition point in the history of the Blackstone Valley, in terms of the region's economy and its social life. As such, the canal should be considered a major artifact of the "Age of Internal Improvements", a historic site that links the period of industrialization with the preindustrial era of maritime commerce and near-subsistence farming, an era that was passing with the canal's construction.

In terms of finance, the building of a canal required heavy capitalization; the Blackstone Canal represented the economic success that the merchants of Providence had already enjoyed in their pursuit of trade around the world. As a financial venture, the canal demonstrated the ambition and the vision of the entrepreneurs of Providence, Worcester and the country towns in between.

As a technical feat, the canal was a product of the rather precocious skills of the American engineering profession, whose rapid rise to maturity had been strikingly demonstrated by the successful construction of the Erie Canal between 1817 and 1825. The chief engineer and many of the supervising engineers on the Blackstone Canal brought to the job expertise gained during the construction of the Erie Canal. Begun in 1825, the canal, which was nearly forty-five miles long with forty-nine locks, was the last major canal to be begun in New England during the Canal Era.

Thomas Street Canal Basin, Worcester, Massachusetts

As a social force, the canal had the immediate effects of bringing the countryside into closer contact with the urban center of Providence, promoting development along its route and accelerating the shift in the focus of activities in rural society from the small circles of families and friends into the larger and more impersonal realm of national and international commerce and politics. The canal also served to introduce the Irish into the Blackstone Valley, the first of the many immigrant groups that were to come in search of work and new homes.

Ostensibly an engine of commerce, the Blackstone Canal was first projected by Providence merchants eager to secure new home markets in the fertile interior to supplement their maritime trade in Europe and Asia. By facilitating the trip back downstream to Providence, the canal also encouraged production for market among farmers and artisans who had hitherto been frustrated by the length, labor and expense of overland travel on roads of poor quality. As John Brown, the Providence merchant, had pointed out as early as 1796, by lowering transit time and costs, the canal made it feasible to deliver country produce that had been too bulky or perishable to transport overland to Providence, where it would be consumed or shipped to other markets. At the same time, boats traveling back up the canal would be delivering merchandise and raw materials imported through Providence from this country and abroad, goods that would be distributed from the northern terminus, Worcester, and smaller villages along the way.

In its relatively brief life of twenty years (1828-1848), the canal performed as expected for a while, though not without difficulties. It carried the life's blood of commerce that enabled Providence to sustain its growth into one of nineteenth century America's great industrial cities, the self-proclaimed "gateway to southern New England." At the canal's opposite end, Worcester consolidated its position as the major market town for central Massachusetts and began its own rise to prominence as a major industrial city. Between the two termini, the canal raised property values, promoted industry and trade and provided the impetus for the development of several villages. It was not until the railroad arrived and could offer the same services equally well or better that the canal ceased to be a viable method of transport.

Canal barge, detail from 1838 lithograph, "View of Worcester, taken from Union Hill"

Although to modern eyes, the canal appears to have been a relatively simple improvement of the basic exchange of goods and services, and, as such, part of the universal and perhaps inevitable process of change that affected the entire country in the nineteenth century, the simplicity is deceptive. By drawing the backcountry into closer commercial ties with Providence, the canal was acting as a powerful agent of economic change, ushering in the era of the market economy and supplanting the traditional household economy. With this economic change, which began as early as the eighteenth century when Providence merchants began to trade their imported and manufactured goods for products of the farms and forests of the Blackstone Valley, came social change as well, as the disruption of subsistence farming and production for home consumption led to the displacement of the home as the production center and the family unit as the basic labor force.

These changes, which proceeded gradually in some instances and more dramatically in others, were most evident in the textile factories and other industries that were proliferating in the Blackstone Valley by the 1810's. The textile industry, although it proved to be a powerful rival in the subsequent contest over water rights on the river, served as a strong impetus for the canal. The numerous mills located on the Blackstone and its tributaries formed one of a few significant concentrations of industry in the country and they had considerable transportation needs. Raw cotton and wool, machinery and other materials had to be obtained and the finished cloth goods had to be delivered to market. In the eyes of the canal promoters, many of whom were also investors in these factories, the canal and industry would be mutually beneficial allies. To a large extent this proved to be true: existing factories were improved, isolated mill seats attracted developers and, in some cases the canal itself created manufacturing opportunities where none had existed before. Perhaps the greatest universal benefit was the system of reservoirs built by the canal, which served to regulate the river's flow year round, thereby eliminating some, if not all, of the manufacturers' low water problems. In return, as a review of the canal boat cargo lists reveals, the factories generated a large percentage of the canal's business. However the textile manufacturers did not find the canal to be indispensable, indeed for the whole of the canal's career, they often united in opposition against it. For the Blackstone Valley as a whole, it was manufacturing that was to determine the course of future development

The demise of the Blackstone Canal can be attributed in large part to the continued action of the same forces that brought it about, although inherent flaws in the technical design had a critical effect as well.

To consider the latter reasons first, the canal was hampered throughout its career by periodic disruption of travel. The three basic causes were: too much water, caused by floods and freshets; too little water caused by droughts; and ice, which could close the waterway for four or five months from late fall to early spring. The problems of high and low water were compounded by the fact that for approximately ten per cent of its length the canal ran in the Blackstone River, where water levels were largely beyond control. What powers of regulation the canal company did possess were further hindered by the prior right of mill owners to the "natural run" of the river. As a series of costly court cases proved, the use of water for transportation was possible only after the manufacturers' needs were satisfied. Even though the canal company had constructed a system of reservoirs at the head of the river to provide water during times of drought, the waters they impounded were still judged to be public property and part of the river's "natural run." With the regular recurrence of these seasonal disruptions, profitable operation of the canal was severely hampered.

The canal fleet consisted of 12 freight boats and one passenger "packet," the Lady Carrington.

Apart from the canal's internal difficulties, a major and ultimately fatal threat developed out of the continuing rivalry between Providence, Boston and other seaboard cities to extend their spheres of economic influence. As in the case of the canal itself, a new transportation system developed out of the combination of entrepreneurial vision, venture capital and technological expertise. Boston, jealous of Providence's incursion into Worcester County, after first contemplating its own western canal, decided to apply the newly-matured technology of the steam-powered railroad to the situation. Begun in 1831 and completed in 1835, the Boston and Worcester Railroad provided faster and more consistent service than the canal could and so served to redirect much of the Worcester trade back to Boston. Canal revenues dropped precipitously, though traffic on the lower portion of the canal remained relatively unaffected. However, the superior advantages of rail transport eventually convinced capitalists in Providence and Worcester to form the Providence and Worcester Railroad. Completed in 1847, the Providence and Worcester finalized the canal's gradual decline. It is worthy of note that in many cases the investors in the new railroad had been investors in the canal, a fact that testifies to their prevailing faith in the value of a transportation route up the Blackstone Valley, and to the confidence and economic resilience that allowed them to write off their heavy losses in the canal and invest in a new venture. The speed with which the canal became obsolete, even as its economic function increased in importance, typifies the sudden effects of what economic historian George Rogers Taylor has labeled the "Transportation Revolution."

While the Blackstone Canal has generally been regarded as a failure for its investors and something of an anachronism as a transportation system, for the Blackstone Valley its construction and operation served as a major milestone in a process of thoroughgoing change in the region's economy and social life. Today, the results of that change are in evidence throughout the valley, while the process of change has been obscured by the passing of generations and the incessant accumulation of their residue. To a large degree, the canal has long been regarded as just another part of that residue. Now, with many valley's other surviving historical resources, it is rightfully being put to use to commemorate that formative period and provide an understanding and an appreciation of the historical process that transformed a wilderness valley into one of the most significant industrial regions in the United States.

Richard E. Greenwood
Historian and Archaeologist
Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission

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