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LIFE ON THE MIDDLESEX CANAL

 

Cover: Life On The Canal

LIFE ON THE MIDDLESEX CANAL

 

BY ALAN SEABURG
BOOK REVIEW BY TRACI JANSEN

Alan Seaburg was born in Medford - not far from the Branch Canal - and grew up there, went to the Medford schools - and then to Tufts. In 1980 with his brother Carl he wrote for the Medford Historical Society - and for their fellow citizens - Medford on the Mystic - an illustrated history of the community as a part of the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city. This led to their writing with Tom Dahill The Incredible Ditch - the Bicentennial History of the Middlesex Canal. Seaburg’s most recent publication, Life on the Middlesex Canal, offers a new, social perspective of the subject.

Life on the Middlesex Canal is about the “Golden Age” – 1803-1835 – of the Middlesex Canal. Seaburg makes it clear that the intent of the book is not to provide a history of the canal or an engineering study of its construction, but rather, to supplement existing studies with more attention to certain aspects of the canal’s story. The author uses a collection of six essays to portray the human side of canal life.

In Life on the Middlesex Canal, Seaburg possesses a charming writing style. He connects with the reader as well as his subject in a casual, convincing way that that makes us believe he is a friend. Within the text of the essays, we are sent off to the pages of other articles and publications in search of an illustration or a chapter that further explains one of his points. I found myself with a lap full of open books cross checking and completely captivated. I appreciate the inclusion of the author’s worldly perspective on canal life and life in general. All of the essays are well researched, using detailed footnotes to credit original sources and Seaburg includes poetry and song to portray a cheerful time in history. Tom Dahill’s extraordinary cover and familiar sketches offer a glimpse into the past and help us imagine life as it was back then.

One essay, “The Canal, the Master-Builder, and the Bulfinch Building of the Massachusetts General Hospital” describes Boston’s desire for a public hospital. In the essay we learn how the MGH Trustees, after studying several building designs, chose their Master-Builder, Charles Bulfinch. The essay includes a great deal of information about the use of Chelmsford granite as well as the methods of transportation and working of the stone for the MGH building and many others in Boston. The author invokes feelings of pride and perseverance in the reader as he invites us to “remember, then, the next time you are at MGH as you approach the Bulfinch Building/Pavilion the laborers who quarried the Chelmsford granite, those who loaded the stone for Charlestown onto the boats that plied the Middlesex Canal, the convicts who hammered and cut it into useable blocks, and finally the men who used them to construct the first building of one of America’s greatest hospitals. And please salute them all!”

As an elementary school teacher, I incorporate the Middlesex Canal into the social studies curriculum for third graders. The Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks in History require that third graders learn about Colonization of America, the American Revolution, and state and local history. Third graders learn of an independent America that was no longer limited to trade with England and sought to open up the vast interior of New England for the purpose of transporting goods. The subject comes to life when students visit the remains of the Shawsheen and Maple Meadow Brook Aqueducts which are right in our own back yard. I believe that Life on the Middlesex Canal has a place in the elementary classroom as a supplement to the existing Middlesex Canal curriculum. The essay “Fun and Games at Lake Innitou” describes the recreation of the Horn Pond resort and students can easily compare life today with life of earlier inhabitants such as the members of “the Massachusetts,” the first English colonists, and the passengers who visited on Middlesex Canal boats.

Another essay, “Your Passport, Please” answers the question of what kinds of goods were transported on the old Middlesex Canal? Seaburg explains that the “Golden Age” of the commercial life of the canal was a time marked with hope and promise for New England as the “population was growing rapidly, towns were being built, water power was being developed and utilized, old factories were being enlarged and new factories founded.” Life on the Middlesex Canal helps students understand the idea of an improving America. The book could be used as an integral part of a high school history curriculum as students could read for themselves the social and historical significance of the “Golden Age” of the Middlesex Canal and the impact it had on our country’s progress.

The final essay in the collection is an account of the first Middlesex Canal Museum. “We Just Had So Much Fun” tells the story of the founding of the Middlesex Canal Association in and the efforts of those local folks to establish a museum “devoted to the history of said canal and of transportation in general.” Through news items and interviews Seaburg recounts the story and the reader can feel the enthusiasm of those involved. While it is true that the story of the first canal museum is complete and part of the past, I wanted the author to bring the subject of the Museum into the present and to share with the general reader all of the fun we’re having today with the new Middlesex Canal Museum. But perhaps it is too early to tell the story of 71 Faulkner Street. The closing theme of Life on the Middlesex Canal, “We Just Had So Much Fun” clearly connects the two museums and connects our past and present to the future.

Contact Alan Seaburg, 4 Riverhurst Road, Unit 207, Billerica, Massachusetts 01821 to obtain a copy of Life on the Middlesex Canal. Checks must be made out to Alan Seaburg for the amount of $16, which includes shipping expenses and any other appropriate charges such as sales tax. The book should also be available through the Middlesex Canal Museum store.

Source: Middlesex Canal Association        P.O. Box 333        Billerica, Massachusetts 01821

www.middlesexcanal.org     

Towpath Topcis: 

Volume 48  No. 1October 2009