- Historic Sites
The Farmington Canal
The hand-dug waterway is mostly forgotten now, but it opened up areas of New England as well as imaginations.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
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.