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The Farmington Canal

May 2024
5min read

The hand-dug waterway is mostly forgotten now, but it opened up areas of New England as well as imaginations.

The first years of the 1800s in America were loud with canal talk. The enormous success of the Erie Canal had aroused engineering instincts in every American. Even the barnyard was invaded; inventive farmers were building small canals from their farms to the nearest river, some had devised sluiceways from barn to barn for floating heavy loads instead of hauling them in wagons, and others made canal ways from their land to the nearest mill to float logs and grain boats instead of braving the yard-thick mud of the roads. The wheel seemed doomed to obsolescence. Oxcart hauling was two-mile-an-hour transportation limited to good weather; a level highway usable in every weather seemed the answer to all travel.

The canal era was the first American school of engineering; only after the Erie Canal did civil engineering become a recognized profession. The great names of early American engineering were largely those of men who had served apprenticeship on the Erie project; but the men who gouged the countryside with a maze of smaller canals are forgotten. Long before excavating machines were devised, men were digging hundred-mile canals through mountainous country with nothing but picks and shovels. The vast extent of such hand labor is almost beyond conception.

One canal, dug by hand shovel through the rocky New England hills, is a classic example, for it embodies the spirit of the canal era at the very moment when America turned to railroads and sounded the era’s knell. The Farmington Canal line stretched from New Haven on Long Island Sound, through the middle of Connecticut, and into the center of Massachusetts—a distance of over eighty miles. To tell the average Yankee of today that hand shovels once built a waterway to float huge boats through New England all but exhausts his credulity. The Farmington has long since vanished into the landscape, transformed into roadbeds for railroads and automobile highways. Many towns that were built along its banks are nowadays unaware that it ever existed. But though the full story of American canals is too complex or obscure to be recorded fully, antiquarians like those who “collect” covered bridges are now delving into canal history, identifying thousands of ditches—their strange stone abutments overgrown with alders—that dot the back country.

It was in 1822, at a meeting in Farmington, Connecticut, that New Englanders began to speak of equaling the Erie Canal with a waterway from Long Island Sound to Canada. The project would run directly through New England, making the region the center of commerce of all America. The same year a charter was granted, and the Farmington Canal Company began getting estimates on quantity orders for shovels and wheelbarrows. The year after, a survey had been completed and an estimate made of the cost of the canal through Connecticut: $420,698.88. The Mechanics Bank of New Haven was chartered on condition of its subscribing $200,000 of the canal company’s stock, and after another year the necessary money had been raised. On July 4, 1825, a ceremony was set for Granby, near the Massachusetts line, where excavation was to commence.

July 4 fell on a Monday that year, but the preparations were so great that spontaneous celebrations broke out on the day before, and accusations by the clergy who had gathered for the occasion led to prophecies of doom because of the Sabbath-breaking. Another evil omen occurred when the gilt shovel with which Governor Oliver Wolcott was turning the first spadeful of earth broke in half. The cautious Yankees were doubtful about the canal from the beginning, and every event seemed to hint of failure. But the celebration was the biggest that New England had ever seen: three thousand people were in attendance, the Simsbury artillery performed, and a canalboat on wheels drawn by six horses came all the way from New Haven with Captain George Rowland aboard. A procession two miles long followed, and a supper was served on the green.

After two years, the little hole begun by Governor Wolcott had deepened into a ditch 36 feet wide from the Massachusetts line to the waters of the Sound. The heaviest machine that had been used was a horse scoop no bigger than the one any farmer kept in his barn. The tools were picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows.

During the building of the canal, the whole state of Connecticut boomed. Taverns were built along the banks, and land was sold as being “close to the canal.” Industries grew beside the ditch even before it held water.

“On June 20, 1828,” Deacon Hooker recorded, “a multitude of people collected to witness the launching and sailing of the first canalboat seen in Farmington.” The Deacon went on to say that “bell-ringing, cannon-firing and music by the Phoenix Band were accompaniments. The boat (named James Hillhouse) was drawn by four large gray horses handsomely decked and rode by as many black boys dressed in white.” It was launched and the canal was at last in use.

From 1828 till 1835, when construction was completed to the Connecticut River at Northampton, Massachusetts, the canal enjoyed a period of romantic activity. Pleasure excursions were the canal’s specialty, but wood products, cider, maple sugar, and meal actually floated down its surface from the north, while salt, oysters, rum, coal, and hardware sailed back into the New England hills. Itinerant vendors with floating stores wandered along the route, underselling the shops ashore and incurring frowns and even hostile ordinances from canalside towns. Yankee peddlers abandoned their well-known wagons and built scows festooned with flags and advertisements. Some were small enough to be poled by hand rather than drawn by horses. Citizens attended town meetings, did their shopping, and even went to church by boat.

But the picture was not all rosy. To begin with, farmers were most unfriendly to a project which had cut their lands in two and drained their bog meadows. Planned “disasters” occurred almost daily: embankments were dug away, tributary streams blocked, and bridges toppled over. One farmer who had a grudge against a neighbor made a break in the canal bank and flooded his antagonist’s farm. Lawsuits took up more of the canal officials’ time than anything else. In the second place, droughts and floods were unkindly toward the Farmington; in 1843 floods damaged it and the whole fall trade was lost; 1845 saw it close down for lack of water. And finally, repairs and maintenance were costing more than tolls—the canal’s only source of revenue—brought in; by 1846 the stockholders had refused to make further advances. The canal had yielded $75,000 a year in its best times, yet overall it had shown the staggering loss of $1,377,156.54.

Then, in 1847, a railroad opened to Plainville, and in that same year a break in the canal caused a barge full of coal to be swept out into the river and overturned. Public sentiment turned away from the canal and concentrated upon the railroad. Almost overnight the canal ceased to be. Taverns became dwellings, farmers moved in and blocked up portions of the canal for their own use, muskrats and rushes took over the banks, and small boys commandeered unused stretches for fishing places. The Farmington Canal was dead.

It was not, however, a complete loss. It opened a shorter route through the middle of New England and prepared a level roadbed for railroad travel. It stimulated business in regions which might otherwise still be back-country farms today, and it sparked the Yankee imagination. One of the Farmington’s little-known claims to fame, for example, was an early propeller-driven canalboat. Connecticut inventor Benjamin Beecher designed it a few years before Ericsson’s propeller had been perfected. He built his boat in an abandoned sawmill, taking it to Cheshire during the winter on an ox-drawn sled and launching it in a frozen creek.

Beecher’s boat was run by a steam engine he had designed himself; from the prow extended his “water-gimlet,” a reverse-action propeller which pulled the boat instead of pushing it. On her first trip the craft carried a group of financial backers four miles upstream and back, but the speed was disappointing. Not only was she slower than paddle-wheel boats, she could be beaten even by horse-pulled barges. A later trip, designed to interest the same group in financing changes in the propeller, ended in engine failure. The passengers had to walk back, and the boat was beached indefinitely. Long after the canal was abandoned, she lay on her side near Cheshire Center, like a monument to the inventiveness and hopelessness of the great ditch itself.

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