Winter, 2003

From the President

By David G. Barber

Recently, I’ve read the history of both the Kentucky River Navigation and that of the Illinois and Mississippi Canal. In both cases, the navigations were completed by the Corps of Engineers because of political pressure and despite misgivings by the professionals involved. In each case, commercial use did not develop as expected and they were eventually mostly closed.

Also in both cases, recreational use was significant near the end. However, recreational use was considered a frill as it was not part of the Corps’ mandate from Congress. This attitude towards recreational use was also involved in the attitude on other navigations and canals and certainly in the eastern canals owned by private companies. The canals were built to carry freight, not pleasure craft and when freight disappeared, so did their apparent usefulness. I believe the attitude continues.

The British had the same situation as per their canal system at the end of World War II. As commercial use evaporated, the government authorities worked to close the waterways to navigation. The term "official vandalism" was used with some frequency. Hard work by concerned individuals and groups changed that viewpoint and now recreational use is the solid foundation for the system, which the government is now working to expand.

When we change the focus from "commercial navigation" to "tourism", the picture changes. It is well known that tourism is an important part of the economy. But in my area, for example, the popular view of "tourism" involves Cape Cod, the Freedom Trail, Concord & Lexington, the Berkshires, the Maine coast, and New Hampshire’s lakes and mountains, not recreational use of inland waterways.

If we use the Merrimack River as an example, at one time it was navigable from the sea at Newburyport, MA all the way to Concord, NH. Today, it is not possible to boat past any of the rapids along the way except downstream in a canoe or kayak on the smaller drops. Canoes and kayaks are the most dangerous of watercraft and many people aren’t going to get in them. But, between Newburyport and Nashua, NH, there are only two drops, both bypassed by still actively watered canals.

At Lawrence, MA, the first drop going upstream, the Northern Canal still is watered. At its western end is a guard lock which still has miter gates at its lower end. The chamber is full of junk and the upper gates have been replaced by a concrete masonry wall that could be easily removed. The east end of the canal was connected to the river by a flight of three locks that were filled-in, reportedly in 1961. But the site is not built on and the area doesn’t appear to be actively used. Filled-in is not the equivalent of destroyed. There is a nice photo of the three lower locks in the Arcadia book on Lawrence, MA (Volume I). The mile long canal itself does not appear to be currently used for power production.

The other drop is at Lowell, MA where the upper guard lock is actively in use by National Park Service boats, the Lower Locks (2) have been restored, and only the two Swamp Locks are unrestored, but intact. I recently learned that the National Park Service plans to restore the two Swamp Locks in 2003. However, the thought of allowing private craft passage creates all sorts of inertia and "reasons" against that don’t hold water.

These cities are considered to be depressed areas, but both have heritage parks and both are just off I-495. Wouldn’t through recreational navigation help their economies? Doesn’t restoration itself provide jobs? Wouldn’t recreational navigation help the economy elsewhere? How many similar situations are there?

Let me know! Let's expand our inventory of canals that can again be made navigable.

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