- Historic Sites
The Main Stream Of New England
Flowing from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound, nourishing both industry and agriculture, and carrying on its back sailing sloops, steamships, and pleasure craft, the Connecticut River has been for three hundred years.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
In the 1820s the Enfield rapids limited traffic above Hartford to flatboats carrying less than ten tons, and Hartford’s merchants were frustrated by their inability to make the fullest use of the river for trade northward with Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Further, their business was threatened by the granting of a charter, in 1822, to a New Haven group to build the Farmington Canal, paralleling the river route. The ditch, which was actually built (and is now a weed-grown freight railroad track), headed north, bypassing all the river ports some miles to the west, and finally joined the Connecticut at Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1824 the Hartford interests formed the Connecticut River Company and obtained a charter for the purpose of improving upstream navigation above Hartford. Eager to demonstrate that the river was far superior to the canal for economical transportation, they at once decided to prove it with a steamboat. In mid-November of 1826 a stern-wheeler called the Barnet, only seventy-five feet long and drawing less than two feet, arrived at Hartford, having been towed from New York. She was to cause a tremendous sensation. It was reported that one man followed her some distance along the shore and exulted that the boat went just as fast as he could walk. Fearing the river would soon freeze, her owners wasted no time. Leaving Hartford November 17, she reached Warehouse Point, site of Pynchon’s warehouse, where the larger scows still unloaded their cargoes; her first attempt to climb the rapids failed. Two days later, with a scow lashed to each side and manned by thirty fallsmen with poles, she succeeded, and at Springfield “twice 24 guns announced and welcomed her arrival. …” At every stop during the two-week trip she was met with cheers and the firing of cannon. Most of the country folk had never seen a steamboat before. At Bellows Falls, Vermont—the northern terminus of her trip—a banquet was tendered the crew and effusive toasts were drunk: “Connecticut River—Destined yet to be the patroness of enterprise, and to bear upon her bosom the golden fleece of industry,” and “The grand highway from Canada to the seaboard. Give us steam!” Her backers were ecstatic. For the first time a steamboat had ascended 200 miles above the tidewaters of the river at the marvelous speed of six miles per hour against current and head wind.
Thus encouraged, the merchants proceeded with the building of the Enfield canal, a six-mile-long, seventyfoot-wide ditch to get around those rapids, deep enough to accommodate large flatboats and steamboats up to seventy-five tons. (In 1795, with the construction of the canal at South Hadley, Massachusetts, to bypass the Hadley Falls, the Connecticut had become the first river in the United States to be so improved.) Four hundred Irishmen arrived as workmen, their worldly goods tied in red bandannas, and in 1829 the Enfield canal opened to traffic. Fifteen boats passed through the first day, including Thomas Blanchard’s new stern-wheeler Vermont. Soon stern-wheelers were chugging daily between Hartford and Springfield, going up through the canal and down over the rapids. Tolls were one dollar per passenger and fifty cents per ton of freight. In February of 1842, Charles Dickens made a downstream trip in the Massachusetts , which he described as having “about half a pony power.” Actually, it was nearly twenty. In his American Notes, he wrote:
Fortunately, however, the winter having been unusually mild, the Connecticut River was “open,” or, in other words, not frozen. The captain of a small steamboat was going to make his first trip for the season that day (the second February trip, I believe, within the memory of man). … Mr. Paap, the celebrated Dwarf, might have lived and died happily in the cabin, which was filled with common sashwindows like an ordinary dwelling-house. … But even in this chamber there was a rocking-chair. It would be impossible to get on anywhere, in America, without a rocking-chair. … I may state that we all kept the middle of the deck, lest the boat should unexpectedly tip over. … The river was full of floating blocks of ice, which were constantly crunching and cracking under us; and the depth of water … did not exceed a few inches. … The Connecticut River is a fine stream; and the banks in summer-time are, I have no doubt, beautiful.…
Dickens was less enamored of the leading citizens of Hartford whom he met upon arrival: “Too much of the old Puritan spirit exists in these parts to the present hour; but its influence has not tended, that I know, to make the people less hard in their bargains, or more equal in their dealings.”
Two years after his voyage the completion of the railroad between Hartford and Springfield signalled the eventual end of the boom days for both the upper river and the steamboats which used it. But the Enfield canal still had its uses; it was converted to a source of power for the paper and textile companies springing up along the river. Even today its four locks are operable, and powerboats go through them to return to the mouth of the Connecticut at the start of each yachting season. On the lower river, between Hartford and the sound, however, travel only increased.