Starts & Stops

From home of an innovative canal to home of the NHL champs

The state is taking a rapid approach to replacing 14 bridges along I-93. The state is taking a rapid approach to replacing 14 bridges along I-93. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 19, 2011

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Out covering fan reaction, I spent Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals around TD Garden, watching mostly at North Station, where Bruins fans shut out of the bars nearby found a TV above an ice cream stand on the concourse, their cheers drowning out the boarding announcements. Afterward, I fanned out along the heavily barricaded Causeway and Canal streets, taking notes amid the elbow-to-elbow jubilation, squeezed between riot police and fans chanting “USA! USA!’’ and “Tim-my! Thomas!’’ until they were hoarse.

Surely few in the crowd were contemplating the origins of the names Canal and Causeway — if transportation came up at all, it was about how to get home as the celebration roared up against the witching hour for the T — but the street names hint at the rich transportation history of the area, once the terminus for the nation’s first great canal.

That history precedes the origins of rail and transit at North Station, and it is on exhibit at the West End Museum, a gallery at 150 Staniford St. primarily devoted to preserving the stories of the immigrant-rich neighborhood razed in the mid-20th century in the name of urban renewal.

The Middlesex, a hand-dug, 27-mile waterway completed in 1803, was “Boston’s First Big Dig,’’ as organizers from the Middlesex Canal Association and the museum call it.

The canal linked Boston to the Merrimack River and what is now Lowell, opening the seaport to inland trade and facilitating the Industrial Revolution; its success encouraged the start of the Erie Canal. It also helped build Boston, ferrying the granite used to construct the first Massachusetts General Hospital building and other landmarks.

The canal was financed by a corporation formed in 1793 by James Sullivan, the future governor for whom Sullivan Square is named. It was enabled by an act of the Legislature and completed under Loammi Baldwin, the Revolutionary War colonel regarded as the father of American civil engineering.

The canal initially ended near what is now Bunker Hill Community College, where the Charles River met Boston Harbor. Baldwin concocted a cable tow to pull less-than-seaworthy canal barges across the open water. On the other side, the area around today’s Garden was flooded, except for a narrow berm topped by a causeway (now Causeway Street) separating the open water from what was known as Mill Pond.

In 1804, Charles Bulfinch laid out a plan to fill Mill Pond with a grid of streets inside a triangle; Causeway and the new Merrimack and Charlestown (now North Washington) streets provided the three bordering legs. A smaller, secondary canal was dug through the middle of the newly filled area to connect the Middlesex Canal to Boston Harbor’s wharves.

The canal system’s heyday was short-lived, rendered irrelevant within a few decades by the rise of the railroad. Most of the Middlesex Canal is now filled, but scattered evidence, including a few miles of waterway, remains.

The exhibit, through July 9, consists of maps, renderings, and a video, but there is also a series of events, including a walking tour Tuesday (6:30 p.m.) of the old Charlestown Mill Pond, starting at Sullivan Station, and a museum talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. The museum — free to the public and open Tuesday to Saturday — can be reached at 617-723-2125 or on Facebook.

Transit officials rethink approach to funding

The American Public Transportation Association brought its annual rail conference to Boston last week, drawing 1,200 North American transit agency leaders and industry consultants to the Marriott Copley Place.

Amid cracks by state Secretary of Transportation/Bruins fan Jeffrey B. Mullan about deporting the Vancouver delegation, an array of technical seminars (“Crashworthiness — Integrating New Perspectives,’’ “Direct Fixation Track Structure & Infrastructure Inspection,’’ “What?! A Standard LRV RFP?’’ and so on), and a trio of ice cream socials hosted by Parsons Brinckerhoff, the nation’s top transit official delivered some remarks of interest for MBTA riders.

Federal transit administrator Peter M. Rogoff said the White House recognizes the gaping needs of aging systems like the T and is trying to persuade Congress to end years “of chronic underinvestment.’’ He also said the Federal Transit Administration wants to streamline the review of “New Starts’’ applications for major projects like the Green Line extension and end a one-size-fits-all evaluation that treats applicants the same, whether they are expanding mature systems or building their first line.

Afterward, I asked Rogoff what that might mean for the planned billion-dollar Green Line extension to Medford, and whether the T’s $4 billion maintenance backlog might hurt its chances of winning expansion funding, if pitted against a new project elsewhere. With the MBTA’s general manager, Richard A. Davey, beside him, here’s what he said:

“It’s a critical and important question to ask, and we don’t back away from it. We’re having that dialogue right now with the Muni system in San Francisco and the Central Subway Project in San Francisco, where we want to see a continuing financial commitment to, at a minimum, not allowing the Muni system to go backward when we’re also investing money to expand the system that they will then be required to maintain.

“So if and when Boston comes forward to us, and Rich and I are meeting on that, that’s a question he can expect. And it won’t surprise him, because one of the challenges we have with a number of systems across America is that there was a great deal of enthusiasm and political support to build out the services to communities that want and need it, and far less political enthusiasm for making the necessary investments to maintain it. And it’s a problem that we see in a great many systems all across the country, and it’s not a model we want to replicate.’’

A quick check on the Fast 14 project

Last weekend I took a spin — crawl was more like it — through the Fast 14 project area on Interstate 93 north of Boston to glimpse the effect on traffic.

The state has been crowing about its rapid replacement of 14 decrepit bridges that carry the interstate over local roads and the Mystic River, using precast elements that allow each bridge to be replaced in a single weekend. That means a briefer but more intense traffic impact — like ripping off a Band-Aid — compared with the traditional method of rebuilding bridges in place, a lane at a time, over the course of years.

The work means I-93 is reduced from four to two lanes in each direction for about 4 ½ miles between Exit 29 (Medford/Somerville border) and Exit 34 (Stoneham) from Friday night to Monday morning, with the traffic diverted to the opposite side from the work.

I approached from Boston, driving northbound, at 6:10 p.m. last Sunday, and found that direction relatively painless. Traffic slowed to a stop a few hundred yards before the crossover, opposite the Somerville Home Depot, but quickly picked up after the merger; it took me six minutes to cover 5 miles. I could see on the opposite side, though, that traffic was snarled, presumably full of weekenders returning from New Hampshire.

Reversing direction, I passed a flashing sign just before Exit 35 reading “11 mins — 5 miles.’’ The state is attempting to offer real-time speed conditions using radar mounted on solar-powered trailers. (The same is true northbound, with speeds in the Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr. Tunnel gauged by Bluetooth sensors that know how fast Bluetooth-equipped cellphones are going by.)

The sign was optimistic. It actually took me 19 minutes to move 6 miles, including the backup approaching the crossover. Traffic vacillated between 0 and 30 miles per hour, with several full (and abrupt) stops. But it might have been worse had the state not erected a screen to keep the construction mostly out of view, minimizing rubbernecking.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at