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


Causes and Impact of the Delay

Its population being so small, Central Massachusetts, and in particular Worcester, had very little political clout; most of the political power of the new state was concentrated in Boston. In 1796, Boston was about to gain control of the commerce of the Merrimack Valley north of Boston through the construction of the Middlesex Canal. The merchants of Boston wanted to make sure that it could do the same with Worcester County and countered the Brown plan by proposing a Boston-Worcester canal. Because of Boston's political clout, the Boston-Worcester plan was eventually approved by the legislature in favor of the Worcester-Providence Plan. However, the Boston-Worcester plan never received financial backing and was therefore never constructed. Unfortunately for Worcester, "this policy of opposition postponed for nearly thirty years"4 a plan which would have contributed much to the economic development of Worcester County.

If the canal had been built when originally proposed by John Brown, not only would the canal have begun to contribute to regional growth sooner, but it also would have been more successful in its own right. When the canal was finally approved by both states and was in the planning stage, there were several arguments over water rights between the Blackstone Canal Company and the owners of the mills along the Blackstone River. The design of the proposed canal used portions of the river itself and the mill owners were concerned about a loss of waterpower to run their mills. The Blackstone Canal Company was forced to build extra reservoirs and agree to financial reparations for potential losses for the mill owners. The extra reservoirs increased the cost of construction and when the mill owners sued the company over water usage, the financial claims that the courts awarded helped to bankrupt the Canal Company. However, in 1796, there were few mills along the Blackstone River utilizing its power. If the canal had been built at this time, the company could have avoided the financial reparations imposed upon it as well as the legal wrangling by claiming first rights to the water. This is just one blow the Boston trade interests would deal to the Blackstone Canal over its short lifetime in an effort to hold onto Central Massachusetts' trade.

By delaying the building of the canal, the Massachusetts legislature made the canal the equivalent of a sickly child born to an aging mother. At the time of the canal's eventual birth in 1828, the peak of the canal age had already passed. Railroads were about to become the newest transportation fad and would replace most of the canals in the country, including the Blackstone, within the coming years. The sickly canal would barely make it to its twentieth birthday.

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