Worcester’s Canal District celebration

By Sue Moynagh

The Blackstone Canal Fest took place on Saturday, September 8. (editor’s note: This is the ICT event preview): This event gets better every year and promises an exciting afternoon for people of all ages. This year it will take place on Harding Street near Kelley Square. Come on down!

Vendors will sell everything from jewelry, arts and crafts, to T shirts and great food. The raffle grand prize will be $500 worth of Massachusetts lottery tickets. Count me in! There will be the 75 foot long replica of the Blackstone Canal with the opportunity to kayak along its length, and you can envision how it will be with the proposed Blackstone Canal replication that will be built from behind Union Station to a basin near Kelley Square. The original Canal is right under your feet as you listen to the music, watch the dancers or just stroll around visiting the booths. The Blackstone Canal fest also provides an abundance of information about the history of the neighborhood, and celebrates its multi-ethnic immigrant heritage.

There is an opportunity to take a horse and wagon tour around this section of the Canal District. Students from South High School act as interpreters and relate the story of how this area has changed over the years. They tell this story through the voices of historical characters such as Abigail Foster, Tobias Boland and Emma Goldman. These kids do a great job; their enthusiasm is contagious and they make learning about the historical sites and events a pleasure. If you’re not up to this type of tour, you can always do a walking tour. Maps are available at the information tent and buildings are now marked. You can even use your smart phone to take an audio tour as well.
You can also learn about the plans to replicate the original canal (this is phase I) and see revitalization that has already taken place in this area of the City. Sidewalks have been replaced, streets resurfaced, trees are being planted and businesses are coming into long- neglected historic buildings. The Canal District Alliance, a group of business owners and other neighborhood stakeholders are strongly advocating to improve conditions in this once blighted district. For instance, there are a number of new restaurants with a wide range of ethic food choices on Green, Water and Millbury Streets. I like to dine out and watch the people passing by. I imagine what it was like in the distant past, when the Canal was being built by Irish laborers. I remember how things were when I was growing up, how vital this small business community was in those days! And now I envision what it will look like in the future, when revitalization is complete and the Canal replica is in place.

To me, the most important aspect of the Blackstone Canal fest is the celebration of the immigrant role in building this district throughout its history. Many of the Irish immigrants who completed the Blackstone Canal in 1828 had also worked on the Erie Canal in New York. The conditions which they labored and lived in were deplorable. They were not accepted by the Worcester community, and had to camp out in swamp land called Pine Meadows. The hope was that they would move on after the work was complete, and for a time, they could not even bury their dead here.

They had a dream that they would settle and raise their families here, investing in Worcester’s future. More Irish came in during the 1830’s to 1850’s because of the Irish potato famine. They worked as laborers in mills, but also invested in small businesses and shops. In time, other waves of immigrants have settled here, making their mark, building factories, shops, churches and schools. The Blackstone Canal fest is truly a reminder of the contributions these people made to this once thriving commercial center. It is now coming to life again, thanks to those with the vision to invest in this district.

I remember when I was growing up that I hated those old brick buildings. They looked so dirty and worn out that I felt like I was living in a slum. Over time, as I developed an interest in Worcester’s history, I began to appreciate them for their place in our city’s development. I am thrilled to see them restored and reused. As I stated earlier, you can learn about them by taking one of the tours. I even love the three deckers that were built to house the vast numbers of people that worked in these buildings. Of course, history is all about the people. So I would like to make a small suggestion to those who work to restore the Canal District and put together the tours. Don’t forget the women!

Women of all ethnicities and backgrounds helped to develop this part of the city. They worked in the shops, schools and churches to improve the quality of life for their families. Much is said about Tobias Boland when you mention the Canal, but what about Eleanor Boland, his wife, who opened a school near her home on Green Street. Here young workers could attend free classes after work to learn how to read and write. What about all those young Irish women who came with their husbands and lived in those crude settlements. Many of their names have not even been recorded. Can you imagine what their lives were like? They were shunned by their Worcester neighbors, lived in shacks surrounded by insect- infested swamp land, had no education, but still managed to raise their children ( those who survived) to have better lives than they had. I believe they helped pave the way for future immigrants, making things just a bit easier for other newcomers. Now people of all ethnicities have the opportunity to contribute to our City and hopefully, to further improve our neighborhood.

Leave a Reply