Chapter 16. Transportation (Canals, Railroad and Trolley Sites)



This chapter captures a bit of the feeling of canaling by visiting the regional canals, many of which are now state parks. While enjoying the history of the canals, you can also hike, bike, picnic, or go boating. After a brief introduction, this part of the section on the Industrial Revolution visits a few of the region's canals.

During America's early years, boats and canoes were the major means of in-land transportation. As pioneers hacked out primitive roads through the wilderness, stagecoaches and wagons became the main transportation methods. These methods, however, were slow and cumbersome. The few roads that existed were extremely rough, making them difficult to traverse.

Toward the end of the 1700s Americans turned to a new method of hauling cargo that was much more economically efficient, namely canals. This method made possible a great reduction in the cost of freight. A team of horses could pull a 1,200 pound wagon, but a team of mules could pull a 50 ton canal barge.

Between 1792 and 1796 quite a few canals were either being built or were already built in many sections of the United States. It is difficult to discover which are the oldest canals, because the dates of construction often overlap. New England got the jump on the mid-Atlantic states when in 1793 Massachusetts built the South Hadley Falls Canal, a few miles south of Northampton. Nevertheless, real "canal fever" did not arrive until the construction of New York's Erie Canal.

As the Erie Canal pushed the port of New York forward, Philadelphia felt pressured to build a comparable system in order to stay competitive and win its share of the western trade. The state should have planned an all rail route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Instead, state officials built a mongrel system of rail and canal that performed poorly. The 395 mile "Main Line" cost twice as much as the Erie Canal, partly because it had to go over mountains at 2,200 feet above sea level. The system was never a formidable rival and was not commercially successful.

Although Pennsylvania was unable to come up with a rival to New York's canal, the need to transport coal to New York City and Philadelphia provided the impetus for constructing an extensive canal network that extended into the neighboring states of New York and New Jersey.

The South Hadley Falls Canal Park off Canal Street in South Hadley, Massachusetts has a plaque describing this 1794 canal, which was one of America's first. It ran 2.5 miles long in order to avoid Hadley Falls. The remnants of the canal can be seen on the east side of the dike which parallels the Connecticut River near the Falls.

The state of Connecticut had relatively few canals even though a number of canals were built on the Connecticut River in order to improve navigation. One of these canals was the Enfield Canal located at Windsor Locks. Another was the Farmington Canal, which ran from New Haven, Connecticut to Northampton, Massachusetts.

Enfield Canal

Windsor Locks

The biggest obstruction along the Connecticut River was the Enfield rapids. Goods headed up river actually had to be unloaded and stored at Warehouse Point. Men subsequently loaded the goods on flatboats and poled these over the rapids.

To avoid the falls and rapid, a six mile long canal was dug by Irish workmen and opened in 1829. This was the last of the canals to be built on the Connecticut River. The canal permitted regular river traffic between Hartford, Springfield, and Holyoke. It had four locks capable of carrying boats up to seventy tons in size. Located twelve miles upriver from Hartford, in warm months visitors can boat, walk along the towpath, and delve into canal history.

Lock 12 Historical Park
487 North Brooksvale (Route 42 off CT 10), near Cheshire, CT (Open Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5, Mar-Nov)

New Haven citizens were very aware that Connecticut River travel made Hartford an important port. Therefore, in 1822 they supported James Hillhouse's efforts to obtain a charter to build a canal from Farmington, Connecticut south to New Haven. A group of investors took over from Hillhouse and proposed to build a canal reaching from Long Island Sound, at New Haven, all the way to the St. Lawrence River in Canada. Luckily for the investors, the plan never reached fruition.

The canal was in financial trouble from the very start. A drought in the summer of 1845 that halted operations for three months severely hurt the canal. The canal extended some seventy miles from New Haven to Northampton, Massachusetts, making it New England's longest canal. However, in 1847 the canal went out of business.

Here is a small museum dealing with the Farmington Canal. Here also are blacksmith and carpenter shops, lockkeeper's house, and a picnic area.

Railroad and Trolley Sites

In the early days of railroads there were literally hundreds of railroad companies. With time, however, these merged into just a few powerful companies. Following a brief history of the larger railroads in the region, the two chapters list the railroad museums and train rides available in the region.

The English took the lead in railway developments. In 1803 the Englishman Richard Trevithick put in operation the first locomotive to do actual work. In the United States charters were being granted to build railroads, but horses, not steam engines, provided the motive power. In 1821 New Jersey granted a charter to John Stevens of Hoboken to build a railroad across the state. The resultant horse-drawn Camden and Amboy Railroad was the earliest railroad in the region.

The first locomotive ever to run commercially on a track in the United States was the imported British locomotive, the "Stourbridge Lion." Allen brought back the "Stourbridge Lion" and first ran it in 1829. Unfortunately, the locomotive was too heavy for the rails and had to be used as a stationary power source.

Railroad building proceeded rapidly in the 1830s with the emergence of myriads of small railroads. For instance, by 1840 there was a chain of ten short connecting railroads from Albany to Buffalo, New York. You can imagine the confusion when moving passengers and materials from Albany to Buffalo over track owned by so many companies.

In 1848 workers completed a line from New York to New Haven. Several years later the line extended to New London. A railway bridge across the Connecticut River from Old Saybrook to Old Lyme and one between Middletown and Portland were desperately needed, but for twenty years the steamboat interests blocked such construction. They finally got permission to build the bridges and the Middletown bridge opened in 1870 and one at Old Lyme a few years later. In 1871 workers completed the Connecticut Valley Railroad, running from Old Saybrook to Hartford. This opened traffic all the way from Hartford to New York. The new lines made it possible to attract Hartford and New York residents to river resorts such as the Goodspeed Opera House, the Gelston House, or the Champion House in East Haddam; the Griswold Inn in Essex; or the Pease House or Fenwick Hall at Saybrook Point.

Valley Railroad Company and Connecticut Valley Railroad Museum
Depot at Railroad Avenue, just west of Exit 3 of Connecticut Route 9, Essex, CT (open most weekends, May-Dec)

This is a ten mile, fifty-five minute round trip on track that once was a New Haven branch line that once went from Fenwick on the Sound to Hartford. The traveler can make a connection at Deep River with a river boat that takes passengers back down the Connecticut River to Essex. The train continues to Chester, and then returns to Essex. On the east bank of the Connecticut River is the Gillette Castle, once the home of actor William Gillette, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes on Broadway. (The mansion is open for tours.)

The outdoor railway museum here has a large number of New England railroad locomotives and rolling stock. It opened in 1871 as the Connecticut Valley Railroad. In 1879 it was reorganized as the Hartford and Connecticut Valley Railroad. The New Haven Railroad took over the line in 1887.

Housatonic Railroad
Union Station (junction of routes 7 and 44), Canaan, CT (Open weekends, 10-4:45, summer months)

In 1836 the Housatonic Railroad Company received a charter to build from the Massachusetts state line at Ashley Falls down the Housatonic River valley to Bridgeport, Connecticut. The line allowed the railroad to tap the upstate marble and granite business, the iron-mine industry around Salisbury, the lime business of Canaan, the porcelain clay of New Milford, and the iron industry of Litchfield County.

The railroad ride itself parallels the Housatonic River from Canaan to Cornwall Bridge. The trip is a very scenic one.

Berkshire Scenic Railway
Lee, MA (Open weekends 10-3, Memorial Day-Oct)

The Housatonic Railroad wanted to extend its lines into the Berkshires, so trains would eventually travel from Ashley Falls to West Stockbridge and to Albany. In 1850 the line leased the twenty-three mile long Stockbridge and Pittsfield Railroad running from Van Deusenville to Pittsfield via Lenox and Lee.

The trip available here is a long one, taking two and one- half hours and covering a round trip distance of some thirty miles. The trip starts at the Sullivan Station in Lee and goes to Great Barrington and back. A stop at Stockbridge is also made. The railroad crosses the Housatonic River three times, making the trip a lovely one indeed.

Old Colony and Newport Railways
America's Cup Avenue and Long Wharf, Newport, Rhode Island (Open daily 1:30, May 1-Labor Day; weekends 1:30, Labor Day-mid-Oct)

This is a sixteen mile round trip on former Old Colony and Newport/New Haven track from Newport to Melville Marina and Green Animals Topiary Gardens at Portsmouth.

Shore Line Trolley Museum
Follow signs from Frontage Road to 17 River Street, East Haven, CT (Open Sun 11-5, Apr-Nov, and Sat 11-5, May-Oct; daily 11-5, Memorial Day-Labor Day)

This is the best trolley museum in the area. Here the visitors take a three-mile round trip trolley ride along the Connecticut shore. Also here is an extensive collection of trolley cars. Notice the 1888 "Derby locomotive" by Van Depoele, the oldest existing electric engine car in the United States. Also note the 1936 PCC (Presidents' Conference Committee) car. (In order to combat the onslaught of motorized buses, a meeting of the Electric Railway Presidents' Conference Committee was held in 1929. This conference designed a streamline trolley that looks today like a bus, because the buses actually copied the design.) The pride of the collection is #500, a 1904 parlor car used by the president of the Connecticut Company when he inspected the lines.

Connecticut Trolley Museum
58 North Road, Warehouse Point, CT, a few miles north of Hartford (Open weekdays 10-4, Sat 12-5, Sun 10-6, Memorial Day-Labor Day; weekends 12-5, Labor Day-Memorial Day)

Take a three-mile, seventeen-minute round trip ride. The line once was part of the old Rockville branch of the Hartford and Springfield Street Railway. The museum owns over fifty pieces of rolling stock, much of it being restored.


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