Dead and Buried: The Graveyard of Worcester's Blackstone Canal  


Burying the Canal

In Worcester, water continued to flow through the canal bed. However, the canal soon became a filthy, disease-ridden mess as it turned into an open sewer for the residents and businesses of Worcester. As early as 1850, less than two years after the final toll was collected, Worcester Mayor Henry Chapin called for the "construction of ample Common sewers, and a more effective mode of draining the city," which would include the use of the old Blackstone Canal.18

The canal was becoming the sewer for parts of the city, including the Green Island district, what is now Millbury and Harding Streets near Crompton Park. Sewage would be collected in cesspools and then carted off to be dumped in the canal. Looking down the canal from a bridge, one would see "privies," or outhouses, lining the old canal.19 These outhouses would, of course, drain into the canal, the waste to be washed down stream into the Blackstone River for the towns and factories below to deal with.

A portion of the canal ran through the city's Green Island district. This area was a low-lying section of the city that had once been a swamp. It had been partially filled and then built upon, but many of the homes suffered water problems. During wet periods, water would collect in the basements of these homes. Often this water was contaminated by sewage and the city was concerned with the spread of such sewage-born diseases as cholera. Chapin remarked in his Inaugural Address that "a cellar partly filled with water has a strong tendency to to produce disease in the household, and the materials which collect in and around the standing water in the low part of the City, must have an influence upon the atmosphere as unwholesome and undesirable."20 In an effort to reduce the risk of such diseases, the city covered over this section of the canal as well. This allowed the city to provide better sewage and storm drainage to the area.

Burial of the CanalThe city's solution to the problem was to bury the canal and make it part of the new sewer system. Burial would control the stench and allow the city to use the canal to drain both sewage and storm runoff from the city. Worcester's first sewer was approved in 1867 and included parts of Mill Brook and the old canal in its plan to run from Lincoln Square down Union and Summer streets. The rest of the canal was maintained in an open, stinking, unsanitary condition until the 1870s when Washburn & Moen Company sued the City of Worcester over its failure to deal with the issue. By 1886, the city gained approval to then bury more of the canal and use it and the waters of the Blackstone River in its sewer system if necessary. In return, Worcester was required to build a purification plant near the city line. By 1893, almost the entire stretch of the Blackstone Canal that was within Worcester was arched over. Click the picture to enlarge.

Unfortunately, by burying the canal, Worcester left little trace of this important part of its heritage. Standing in downtown Worcester, one would have no clue as to the where the canal was located or of the importance it played in the development of the city into a commercial center. Instead, Worcester's Blackstone Canal, with its flesh long rotted away and its skeleton sometimes visible, lies in an unmarked grave under and among the streets of Worcester. Given the odds that were stacked against the Blackstone Canal from its first twinkling in John Brown's eye, perhaps its ultimate destiny was simply to become "dead and buried."

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