Cruising Lowell Canals with Dennis Weaver

August 16th, 2007 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Dennis Weaver as ChesterFlog me with a camera strap. My digital picture box has such a long battery life, I did not bother to charge it…and go caught in Lowell. I was just starting to take pictures on the canal tour when I got the dreaded red battery image. I can’t show you the guide, a National Parks ranger, Amy Glowacki, who surely must be a direct descendant of Dennis Weaver as Chester, nor Motorman Tucker, who drives the trolley to and from the boat launch. Unlike the sharp jawed and wiry Amy, he is rotund with a comically sprouting bushy beard.

I’ll embed a couple of canal shots, but the voyeurism level is low. I am a stupid American.

Nits and Grits: The Park Service has a few canal tours by trolley and boat daily. The 90-minute full version is $8 adults/$7 over 62/$6 for 6 through 16 and free for mites. These tours tend to fill, so you need to call (978-970-5000 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.) and reserve spots. You can park behind the visitors center for free. Details are on the NPS site.

This is a serious geek trip, with engineering and history filling eyes and ears the whole time.

Our guide Amy came complete with a bag of place mats. Actually they were large laminated photos and drawings of Lowell before and after canals, of the dam on the Merrimack River and images of folk working on the projects there.

After a lecture about the history of the river and canals, we took the period trolley a few hundred yards to the boats. The lecture had the typical subversive undercurrent that so many NPS ones there do — after all, this is where trade unions got perking in America. Amy noted that the thumb of land where Lowell is had a few hundred farmers before greedy industrialists saw the waterfalls and knew it mean power and thus money just trying to fall into their hands. They bought out the yokels for spare change and proceeded to plan a huge industrial complex, using water power for the mills-to-be.

James B. FrancisOur next subtle pretext was in our boat, the Sarah Bagley, the only one of the four named for a woman. The next boat was the James B. Francis (the jowly fellow here), who planned the canals for transportation and for water diversion. On the other hand, Bagley was a rabblerouser. She strongly advocated women’s rights, organized labor actions, and was largely responsible for getting the workday reduced to 10 hours.

The tour is a fine leisurely ride on a summer day, but it is also a clear way to visualize how the canals interplayed with the factories. Helping realize the avarice of the capitalists meant some innovative and insightful engineering, under Francis’ direction. Many thousands were abused and overworked in the mills that came with it. Then again, as in the mini-computer industry in Lowell and elsewhere in the last century, this fed and clothed a lot of people and made New England more influential. (Amy didn’t say any of that.)

Lowell canalsBefore the factory-makers arrived, the locals had worked for the Proprietors of Locks and Canals to change the Merrimack. It was impassable by the falls and there was no way to move goods or people on it. Manual labor dug a single narrow canal to skirt the falls and let lumber and farm output get downstream without using carts and wagons. This project took only from 1795 to 1796…with shovels, barrows and pickaxes!

Click on the thumbnail to see Francis’ version of the industrialists’ vision. A dam on the river diverts most water through town, starting in the Pawtucket Canal. A spread hand of canals in town dispersed the water to power multiple mills in many locations. The transportation canal remained to bring in raw materials and take away finished good.

In 1821, the rich guys had bought out what is now Lowell (then part of Middlesex Village). A catalyst for their turning to Lowell was President Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 embargo and the War of 1812. They were sitting on piles of cash that wasn’t earning anything.

We on the Bagley toured the navigable section of the 5.6-mile canal. We passed the backs of brick factories (which don’t look much different from their fronts, minus doors). The mills are largely abandoned, except those that have artists’ lofts.

Francis was damned good at what he did. His turbine that bears his name is still commonly used. As well as being chief engineer for the canals and locks, he was a founder and president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. His old group has a great booklet on the canals and power system here.

Down on the water, you see such fascinating aspects as the construction of the canal walls. The inner side was done by hand. Immigrant laborers moved and fitted large and huge pieces of granite. Like stone walls, they are without mortar and last because of the expertise and raw strength of the masons.

Lowell canal wallsThe other side looks perfectly serviceable, but the stones are much smaller, much more regular. These walls have heavy mortar, which will need maintenance.

The ride passes through one lock at (of course) the Francis Gatehouse. He designed the gates and the lock system for these, as well as the flood gate inside. We passed into a small lock to equalize the water depth between the Merrimack and Lowell sides — about four feet on our day.

While waiting for the lock system to do its seeping magic, you have to revel in what was called Francis’ Folly in 1850. That wacky blueprint guy figured that there was a high likelihood of occasional, unpredictable floods on the plains of Lowell, particularly with the river on one side and the canals in town.

He designed this monstrosity, like a huge wooden guillotine. In the image by Corey Sciuto, you can see part of Francis’ original and the 21st Century upgrade. He took the picture during last year’s flood.

Francis gatehouse

The original was a 25-foot tall curtain of huge wooden beams, rising into the gatehouse. Thick metal chain held it up to the roof. Someone had to climb up to and use a hammer and chisel to release the gate and hold back the diverted river.

The locals didn’t get much time to ridicule Francis. Two years later in 1852, a huge flood filled the Merrimack. The gate came down. Lowell was spared 10 feet of water.

Raising the gate afterward was a big deal, involving many teams of oxen and a lot of workers.

The gate stayed up and loaded until 1936, when another 10-foot flood threatened town. The gatehouse on the dam side of the river still has the highwater mark painted on it. Again, Francis’ plan saved Lowell.

Shortly before Lowell’s 2006 devastating flood, the gatehouse system was updated with a steel beam system, which is in place in the photo. It has the decided advantage of being put in place by using a crane to drop a stack of steel beams into slots in the canal walls. Amy did not say, but maybe they should go back to Francis’ system. Lowell was flooded this time and the water level was only 8-feet above flood level. What can we learn from this?

Leaving canal lock When we emerged from the equalized lock, we tooled up and out to the Merrimack. We went over to the dam, law the still impressive falls, and wondered at the archaic dam itself.

The Pawtucket dam uses some 300 metal bars stuck in granite slabs and topped with plywood. Yes, Home Depot denizens, plywood. An advantage of this is that water forces its way over the plywood, bending it. Of course, twice a year, they have to replace the wood. This anachronistic system involved reducing water flow with dams upstream and sending crews to gather the plywood and bars. A blacksmith shop on the river heats and repairs the bars and crews reassemble the dam.

Before Amy turned us back over to Motorman Tucker, we got our $8 worth. A drain-pipe level tour of the influence of water on the American Industrial Revolution is a better deal than any summer movie.

By the bye, this is a companion piece to the evening adventure in Lowell, a Spinners game.

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