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


Use of the Blackstone River

By 1822, there was renewed interest in a Worcester-Providence canal. Business was expanding and "transportation was demanded for all kinds of freight."5 Benjamin Wright, Chief Engineer of the middle section of the Erie Canal, was hired to survey a route for the canal. Wright and his assistant, Holmes Hutchinson, reported to the committee of investigation that there was a descent of "451½ feet from Thomas Street in Worcester to the tide-water at Providence."6 The report outlined the locations of various locks to raise and lower canal boats along the route and noted potential sources of water to fill the locks and maintain an adequate water level in both the canal and the river.

Unfortunately for the future canal company, the report vastly underestimated the amount of water available in such places as North Pond in Worcester as well as the amount of water that would be used by the locks. "This lack of water was one cause of friction with the mill-owners"7 as they fought to preserve their access to the power of the river. This friction was the result of the use of navigable stretches of the Blackstone River as part of the canal route.

While using part of the river for the route reduced the costs of building the canal in terms of labor, money, and time, it also caused other problems that the canal company would have to deal with in the future. First, the use of the river set off the confrontations with the various mill owners over water rights. These confrontations resulted in canal vandalism. Mill owners often paid men to dump loads of rocks into the canal lock or dig through the canal embankments to release water back into the river.8

The arguments over water rights also led to a lawsuit by the owners against the Blackstone Canal Company in 1833. The mill owners won the lawsuit and an $8,450 judgment was awarded to them in 1837. Appeals by the Blackstone Canal Company delayed payment until 1840, when the judgment was finally ordered paid. In that year, the company's annual gross revenue was less than the judgment and the company had $3,000 worth of repairs to make to the canal due to a harsh winter.9 If the canal company had built its own trench for the canal instead of using parts of the river, the resulting financial damages to the company could have been avoided.

The use of the river for parts of the canal route also caused problems with navigating the river in times of severe weather. During excessive rains or times of drought, high or low waters caused the canal to become impossible to navigate. Coupled with the tendency of boatmen to run the more-profitable shorter hauls along the lower stretches of the canal, shippers, especially those of the upper section, became frustrated with the canal's inability to move goods. The freezing and closing of the canal during the harsh New England winters only served to compound the frustration. These two factors made the use of the river as part of the canal route another fatal flaw in the construction and operation of the canal.

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© 2002: John Carter. All Rights Reserved.