A Short Blackstone Canal History: The Significance of the Blackstone Canal to America's Industrial Development

By Ranger Chuck Arning
The John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor

     With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, where Great Britain ceded all its North American Territory with the exception of Canada to the fledging new nation, the United States of America, the joy of its victory for Independence gave way to the nation's need to win an equally important war - the war for economic independence. Not an easy task with much of the new nation's goods still coming from Great Britain. 
     Of an equal challenge was the ability to move goods from one part of the country to another. The bulk of the nation's population lay within 50 miles of the sea. Moving produce and material into the hinterlands from the nation's well populated seacoast was costly and exceedingly slow due to the lack of roads and transportation routes.
In 1792, John Brown, ship owner and entrepreneur, and a true visionary, proposed the building of a canal from Providence, Rhode Island through Massachusetts, up through New Hampshire and Vermont connecting to the Connecticut River and finally into New York with the great North (Hudson) River as its destination. This canal would be able to move goods deep into the center of the new country. While the Rhode Island Legislation enthusiastically endorsed the concept, the Massachusetts State Legislature, based in Boston, in 1796 saw the canal as an economic threat and defeated enabling legislation. As the local paper reported that if a canal were to connect the City of Providence with Worcester in the central part of the state, "Boston would become nothing more than an insignificant fishing village."
     The canal concept lay dormant until construction began on the first major segment of the Erie Canal in 1817. With the entire nation witnessing the beginning of this highly successful operation, the prospect of building the Blackstone Canal was, once again, resurrected. This time both state legislatures readily approved the canal company's proposition. By 1827, 1,000 Irish workers, skilled canal builders, were employed along the canal route, cutting granite for locks, digging the trench and building the tow path as the canal's progress approached Worcester.
In many ways the construction and operation of the Blackstone Canal in early Fall of 1828 was a breakthrough event. Not only did it revolutionize transportation in the region, move significant amounts of goods up and down the canal creating all kinds of entrepreneurial opportunities, but it also introduced the first major ethnic group to the Blackstone Valley, the Irish. With the arrival of the Canal, the creation of the first Catholic Church outside of Boston in the booming Village of Worcester took place. With the arrival of the Canal, the development of Worcester literally took off with increases in population, the building of a downtown district around the canal, the building of adjacent mills that would capitalize on the availability of the new transportation route, and the development of new products. True entrepreneurial opportunities emerged with the completion of the canal.
     One good example of these "entrepreneurial opportunities" is the story of Nathan Heard, a Worcester merchant who saw the canal as a great way to market his goods. He bought the entire contents of the first Blackstone Canal boat, the Lady Carrington, to arrive in Worcester, sight unseen for he believed that he could market his new purchases by using the speed of the canal boats as an indicator of freshness. So, in all three newspapers, he placed ads highlighting in big bold letters,

BY THE CANAL
Nathan Heard has just purchased the entire
Cargo of the
LADY CARRINGTON
Consisting of SALT and GRAIN, which he
Offers for sale on the most reasonable terms,
by the quantity or otherwise.

To the lady of the house, to the purchaser of food products "BY THE CANAL" translated into "fresh". Merchant Heard saw a new technology, a new mode of transportation, the Blackstone Canal, and envisioned it as a profoundly new way to market his goods. 
Another example of the impact of the Canal on the people of the Blackstone Valley is the change in the way the local newspapers handled the coming and going of the canal. The three papers the National Aegis, the
Massachusetts Yeoman and the Massachusetts Spy would, at the start of the canal era, early October of 1828, list the arrival of the canal boats and their contents in quite general
terms. Salt and Grain, Molasses, timber, etc. By December of the same year, 1828, each newspaper would have their own column dedicated to reporting what arrived and what departed from the Port of Worcester. Some columns were called "Inland Navigation" or "Blackstone Canal Navigation" or even "Marine Intelligence", but it was clear that what came up the canal and what went down the canal was important to all. Here are a few examples:


Blackstone Canal Navigation
Friday, April 24

Arrived, Canal Boat, Rhode Island, 
from Smithfield,
With 95 casks of Lime to D. Heywood, and 
Trees for S. Salisbury.

Cleared, Canal Boat Rhode Island, for
Providence, with Cards for Providence, and
Machinery for Ohio

Tuesday, April 28
Arrived, Canal Boat Washington, with 2 tons
Groceries, 50 bushels Corn, and 30 casks
Lime to Gardiner Paine; 1 ton Pig Iron and 1
Ton Coal to Sumner Smith; 100 bushels Corn to Benjamin Porter;
3 tons Groceries to H. Perrin; 10 barrels Flour to F. Merrifield;
3 tons Groceries to Geo. Perrin & Co. - in all 23 tons.
Cleared, Canal Boat Lincoln, Capt. Brigham, with 2 boxes Books from C. Harris; 14 barrels Apples from E. Flagg; 1 tons furniture from the Captain;
1 box Cards from Wm. B. Earle; 4 boxes Cards from Chenery Hatch;
21 boxes Boots and Shoes from John Hubbard;
6 tons Hay from Heard & Estabrook.


    One final note that clearly indicates the importance of the canal to the region, again relates to the newspapers. In an editorial dated November 15, 1828, the Editors of the Massachusetts Yeoman wrote due to the development of the Blackstone Canal, "the increasing intercourse between this town and Providence will probably induce many people, especially businessmen, to take a Providence newspaper. The Publishers of the Yeoman are agents for the Rhode Island American, a paper of established reputation, and which we can recommend, from long acquaintance with it, as an able and well credited journal of extensive circulation. Subscriptions or     Advertisements for the American will be received at this office and forwarded without expense."
     This business approach to connecting these newly partnered economic entities, Providence and Worcester, via newspaper subscriptions so that local businesses would know what was happening in their partners community was as significant in 1828 as it is today in 2005.
     While it is true that the investors of the Blackstone Canal suffered financial losses and that the Blackstone Canal Company was litigated extensively over water issues with the mills of the Blackstone Valley, these negatives are small in comparison to the general benefit to the welfare of the region. The growth of the American Entrepreneurial Spirit can be seen through these examples of small businesses seeing the vision of the canal and using it to aid the growth and development of their own concerns.
     Finally, the most significant clear indication of the success of the Blackstone Canal was that within six years of the inaugural trip of the Lady Carrington to Worcester, Boston sponsored a railroad to Providence in 1834 and a railroad to Worcester in 1835. The merchants of Boston also, quite obviously, wanted a piece of the lucrative business generated in the center part of the state. The Providence & Worcester Railroad, still very much in existence today, would use major sections of the Canal's tow-path as the bed for its rail as it replaced the "weak as water" canal route with the "strong as steel" railroad line to Providence in 1848. The Albany & Western Railroad would connect the harbor City of Boston to the tremendously successful Erie Canal Terminus in Albany and all through the City of Worcester. 
     By 1850, Worcester would have 24 trains arriving and departing to all corners of the Northeast. It would grow from a tiny hamlet to a major industrial city. It would be the center of an American Renaissance in New England with lyceums, literature, the arts, reform movements and political thought - all which can be attributed to the development of the small, but significant Blackstone Canal.