The Farmington Canal

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.