MY CANAL YOUR CANAL
EVERY ONE’S CANAL
Review by Howard Winkler of Alan Seaburg’s
A Social History of the Middlesex Canal
This book can be thought of as an extension of Alan Seaburg’s most canal book, Life on the Middlesex Canal. Most Middlesex Canal writings are focused on the engineering, financial, and commercial aspects. In contrast, Seaburg focuses on people related to the canal, impact of the canal on society, and historical events related to the canal. To call the Middlesex Canal America’s First Major Canal is in my opinion regional chauvinism. The Santee Canal in South Carolina which connected the
Santee River to the Cooper River and to Charleston was 22 miles long, had ten locks, and was completed in 1800. This engineering feat, however, is disgraced since it was built by slave labor, but then almost all significant structures in the anti-bellum south were built by slave labor including the White House. The most significant contribution of this book is the chapter about American Slavery and the Middlesex Canal. Northerners felt virtuous as never having
owned slaves, but the economy of the north reaped the benefits of the output of slavery and providing goods and services in support of the slave economy as the author explains. Seaburg does not mince words when he discusses slavery and its stain on our democracy.
I was charmed to read among many biographies of 19th century persons connected to the canal, and the biographies of Marion & Stuart Potter and
Nolan Jones. There are 18 interesting biographies. Only two biographies of persons mentioned in the first pages of Chapter III, Personalities and Promotion,
in Robert’s book were included, and they are Christopher Gore and James Winthrop. On the occasion of the formation of the canal, businessmen from Medford united with James Sullivan to develop a scheme for connecting the Merrimack River with Boston Harbor. Five members of the Hall family were in this group, and I would presume that Ebenezer Hall, a slave owner would have been among them. The layout of this social history is unorthodox, in that it does not have Chapters, but Interludes which are only to be found in some modern novels, and are not appropriate in history books, in the opinion of this reviewer. There are many references in the book, and these demonstrate the depth of research by the author. We are very fortunate to have a resident artist, Tom Dahill. Two of his wonderful murals, The Dock and Middlesex Village are on exhibit at the Middlesex Canal Museum, and a third mural, The Canal that Bisected Boston, is on display at One Canal Street in Boston. There are at least three levels of observing these murals. The first level is that of viewer who has little or no knowledge of the canal. The second is that of a viewer who has knowledge about the canal and its history. The third is detailed knowledge by someone, the author, who has worked with Tom Dahill, the painter, and informs us on the pages of this book details that the casual observer would possibly overlook. This reviewer found a few small problems with Seaburg’s book, but its deep research makes a very important contribution to the history of the Middlesex Canal.
The book is available as a free PDF download at https://www.anneminiverpress.com/online-editions-list.