The Canals of Lowell

This video is a 30 minute tour of the Lowell canal system that uses contemporary photos and landmarks to identify and describe each of the major canals constructed in Lowell in the 1800s. One of the reasons there is a National Park in Lowell is that all of those canals remain intact.

Here’s a list of the canals of Lowell:

Pawtucket Canal – opened in 1798 to create a safe route around the Pawtucket Falls for boats carrying cargo from the forests of New Hampshire to Newburyport and the Atlantic Ocean. It leaves the Merrimack River just above the Pawtucket Falls and curves through the Acre and Downtown before flowing into the Concord River alongside the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center.

Middlesex Canal – opened in 1803, this 27 mile long canal left the Merrimack River above the Pawtucket Falls (opposite today’s Hadley Field in the Highlands) and traveled through Middlesex County before reaching the Charles River in Boston. Cargo traffic shifted to the Middlesex Canal, putting the Pawtucket Canal out of business.

Merrimack Canal – opened in 1823. The first Lowell canal dug for power generation. It begins as Swamp Locks (alongside the Lowell Justice Center) and follows Dutton Street and Lucy Larcom Park before flowing into the Merrimack River. It powered the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, the first of the big textile mills in Lowell. The Merrimack Mills were demolished in the 1960s as part of Urban Renewal.

Lowell Canal – a relatively short, covered canal that left the Merrimack Canal at a right angle near Market Street and flowed parallel to Market Street until emptying into the Pawtucket Canal near the Market Street Parking Garage. The Lowell Canal powered the Lowell Manufacturing Company which is today’s Market Mills complex.

Hamilton Canal – Named for Alexander Hamilton, a friend of and inspiration for the founders of Lowell, the Hamilton Canal leaves the Pawtucket at Swamp Locks and flows parallel with Jackson Street before turning left shortly before Central Street and draining into the Pawtucket Canal opposite the back of the Market Street Parking Garage. The Hamilton Canal powered the Hamilton and Appleton Mills.

Western Canal – Opened in 1836, this canal also left Swamp Locks and flowed through the Acre until it reaches the Merrimack River on the west side of the Tsongas Arena. It passes between St. Patrick’s Church and Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. It powered the Tremont and Suffolk Mills. The Tremont Mills were located where the Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union headquarters is located and the Suffolk Mills is now known as Wannalancit Mills.

Lawrence Canal – This is a small offshoot of the Western Canal close to its terminus near the Merrimack River. The Lawrence Canal flows parallel to the river and opposite the direction of the river current and powered the Lawrence Manufacturing Company.

Eastern Canal – Opened in 1836, this canal comes off the Pawtucket Canal just before Lower Locks. It runs parallel to Prescott Street, runs underneath East Merrimack and alongside Kerouac Park then it turns left (up river) for a distance. Along the way, it powered the Massachusetts Mills and Boott Mills.

Northern Canal – Because all of the canals mentioned above drew their water from a sole source, the Pawtucket Canal, the water power available to the mills was often inadequate to meet their needs. Chief Engineer James B. Francis designed the Northern Canal to solve this problem. Opened in 1848, the Northern Canal left the Merrimack at Pawtucket Falls via a gatehouse alongside the O’Donnell Bridge then flowed right alongside the river, separated by an earthen and granite dike. After passing underneath the Howe Bridge (University Ave), the Northern Canal curved east and ran parallel to Fr. Morrissette Boulevard until it reached the Western Canal. There, the flow of water from Northern Canal split with one stream turning left towards the river to power the Suffolk, Tremont and Lawrence Mills. The other stream flowed into the Western Canal, reversing the flow of water in that canal so that it ran inland, back to Swamp Locks, where it supplemented the water flowing into the rest of the canal system.

Moody Street Feeder – To give an extra boost of water power to the Merrimack Canal, James B. Francis also designed the Moody Street Feeder, an underground canal that runs from the Western Canal at Moody Street, underneath the street, through JFK Plaza, across Arcand Drive, alongside Cobblestones, and through the gatehouse and into the Merrimack Canal.

The Moody Street Feeder was the last of the major canals constructed in Lowell.

5 Responses to The Canals of Lowell

  1. Mary Anna Sullivan says:

    Great walk, Dick! We look forward to the in-person ones some day! Mary Anna S.

  2. Paul Early says:

    Excellent walk, Dick. Is there much information about the non-Merrimack canals, those flowing from the Concord River and River Meadow Brook?

  3. Susan Hoole says:

    Thank you very much. Would it be possible to add a map of these canals?

  4. kate hemenway says:

    Fascinating! Yet again, you have taught and entertained. Wonderful job, Dick. Thank you for taking the time, making the effort, and helping Lowell residents and anyone else, know more about, and appreciate more the city of Lowell.

    I cannot wait until we can all walk with you again!

  5. Steve Sousa says:

    As a lifelong resident of Lowell the info on the canal,systems is so very interesting. Enjoyed it thoroughly.