July 4: A Waterway to Prosperity

On July 4, 1825, thousands of Connecticans, surrounding a canal-boat-on-wheels specially created for the occasion, 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 both to 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 surpass their thriving competitors along the Connecticut River. Construction was to be privately funded by sales of stock in the new Farmington Canal company, chartered 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 was smaller than one might expect. Only four feet deep and 20 feet wide at the bottom, it flared up in a triangular shape to a wider 36 feet across at the water’s surface. Constructing it was a colossal undertaking. It took thousands of workers – most Irish immigrants – to dig the over four million cubic yards of dirt and rock by hand, 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, as 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. Worst of all, the canal soon faced brutal and ultimately overwhelming competition from the emerging railroad industry.

Eventually, this array of challenges got the better of the company. Canal operations ceased in 1848, and the route was converted to railroad use, which continued until 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, cycling and outdoor activities. All of this began with the dream of a waterway to prosperity and a broken shovel-full of dirt, Today in Connecticut History.

Further Reading

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

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

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