For years I have seen the Great River Wall in Lowell but never knew how to get there to stroll along the Merrimack. I finally tracked it down and learned that the Northern Canal Walkway is a delightful 1.6 mile path that is open to the public and operated by the National Park Service.
It is only open until Oct. 14 so hopefully some of you will get out this weekend and investigate, as it is not a huge investment in time. It is open 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. There are two access points; the bridge at Mammoth Road near the Pawtucket Dam and the walkway at UMass Lowell right where Pawtucket Street and Father Morrisette Boulevard connect, near the Eldred L. Field hydroelectric plant.
We parked right on the street near the hydro plant.
Known as the Northern Canal, the walkway runs along an island that has helped to form the channel of water which has powered the textile mills in Lowell since 1847. The canal now generates enough waterpower to supply electricity to 30,000 homes in New England.
Excavation of the canal and the building of the huge wall that separates the water from the Merrimack was conducted over 18 months using up to 1,000 laborers, steam engines, horses, stone cutters, and oxen. Tons of blasting power was used to carve out the 100-foot wide channel. The granite wall is 36 feet high. The canal is reported to have increased waterpower by 50 percent to the mills.
The path is flat and easy to enjoy. There are steep steps at either entrance, but there are handrails. Some of the path is boardwalk, then granite blocks, then dirt path. We went on a Sunday afternoon and it was quiet on the path with the still canal water on one side, and the very low and fascinating Merrimack on the other.
With the river so low, all of the craggy outcroppings are visible and one could practically walk across the mighty Merrimack at this point — a sight that is so surprising given how high the waters can typically be. The National Park Service does patrol the path and it was just a pleasant, easy walk.
Interpretive panels give a history of the canal and area along the way. We observed a juvenile cormorant diving for dinner in the canal, and recommend keeping an eye out for one of the Merrimack’s American bald eagles as well.
We noticed the different wall structures which must have served various functions in the early days of the canal’s operation, and marveled at how close we were able to get to the river, especially at this low water stage.
The island was called “the finest place for promenades in the neighborhood” in the 1840s, with purposeful landscaping and trees planted to showcase a marriage of usefulness and beauty.
The walkway is open May to October and is open when flow rates allow. Set aside an hour this weekend and go checkout the walkway. Bring your binoculars for birdwatching and appreciate this marvel of engineering right in our own back yard.