July 4: A Canal for Connecticut

 

On July 4, 1825, surrounding a canal-boat-on-wheels specially created for the occasion, thousands of Connecticans  gathered at Salmon Brook Village in Granby for ground-breaking on what was then the largest transportation project in Connecticut history – the Farmington Canal. Governor Oliver Wolcott spoke briefly before digging the ceremonial first shovel of dirt, officially kicking off Connecticut’s “canal era.” (Ironically, and perhaps prophetically, the spade Wolcott used broke.)

Conceptualized in New Haven in 1821, the Farmington Canal was intended to both compete and connect with New York’s almost-completed Erie Canal, the 363-mile project that would soon link the Hudson River with Lake Erie. Its purpose was to help New Haven’s then-languishing merchant community compete with their thriving competitors along the Connecticut River. Construction was to be privately funded by sales of stock in the new Farmington Canal company, charted by the state in May 1822.

Initially surveyed and approved by the chief engineer of the Erie Canal Benjamin Wright, the Farmington canal ran 58 miles from New Haven to the Massachusetts border, passing through eight towns: Hamden, Cheshire, Southington, Plainvillle, Farmington, Avon, Simsbury and Granby. In Massachusetts, it linked up with another newly built canal to reach the the Connecticut River at Northampton.

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Map of the Connecticut and Massachusetts Segments of the Farmington Canal

Though long on ambition, the canal itself was smaller than you might expect: only four feet deep and twenty feet wide at the bottom, flaring up in a triangular shape to a wider thirty-six feet across at the water’s surface. Still, constructing it was a colossal undertaking. It took thousands of workers – most Irish immigrants – to dig-by-hand the over 4 million cubic yards of dirt and rock, construct the canal’s 28 locks (water-level-elevators that allowed boats to move up or down according to the terrain ), and build the aqueducts that carried the canal over intersecting rivers.

Three years after the groundbreaking ceremony, the first boat made its way from New Haven to Farmington in November 1828. Travel to Northampton began in 1835. Business, however, was neither easy nor smooth, and the canal faced a myriad of problems: fundraising proved as hard as making a profit; pesky muskrats burrowed into the canal’s sidewalls; heavy rains caused erosion damage; aqueducts leaked; and all too soon, the canal faced brutal competition from the fast-growing railroad industry.

Eventually, these pressures got the better of the company. Canal operations ceased in 1848 and the route was converted to railroad use, which only ended after flooding in the 1980s made the line unusable. Since the 1990s, the canal greenway route has been developed as a recreational multi-use Rail-to-Trail path, popular for hiking, cyclists and outdoor activities. All of which began with a broken shovel-full of dirt, Today in Connecticut History.

Betsy Golden Kellem

Further Reading

Richard DeLuca, “New England’s Grand Ambition:The Farmington Canal,” connecticuthistory.org

Ellsworth S. Grant, “The Ill-Fated Farmington Canal,” ctexplored.org