For inquiries contact Ted Belsky, South Hadley Canal Committee, South Hadley, Massachusetts

It usually takes local residents by surprise to realize that America's canal era began along the banks of the Connecticut River at South Hadley, Massachusetts.

The canal era in the United States is generally considered to be a phenomena of the first half of the 19th century. The Middlesex Canal, Boston's attempt to extend the area of its economic interests, was completed in 1803. The Erie Canal, a complex water system 636 miles long, was built to open the Midwest to commerical development. It was so successful, it captured the imagination of the American public from the time it was finished in 1825 right down to the present and became the prototype of that era.

But it was really during Washington's first term as President that the need to exploit and populate our vast land holdings in the interior was first addressed. Up to that point only seacoast communities, or those located on rivers that supported ocean going craft, could aspire to become major economic centers. If ever the nation hoped effectively to utilize its vast interior holdings then a far better system of transportation would have to be developed.

The reason was not hard to identify. The cost of overland transportation was ruinously expensive as well as immensely labor intensive to maintain. Our young country was in short supply of both these valuable commodities.

As a rule of thumb, overland transportation costs were ten times more expensive than moving goods over water. It cost more to move bulk shipments of goods from Westfield to Worcester than to ship the same goods from London to New London.

George Washington was among the first to understand the important role a network of river and canal ways could play on this continent. Even before he became president of the United States, he argued passionately that such a system could integrate the Ohio and Mississippi systems into the United States economy before the Canadian economy captured the region for their own benefit. For that reason he actively participated in the formation of canal companies along both the James and Potomac Rivers in Virginia.

To understand why South Hadley became the home of our nation's first successful navigational canal one has to be somewhat familiar with both the terrain of the Connecticut River and the history of the Connecticut Valley.

The Connecticut River, which the historian Edwin Bacon called the Mississippi of New England, runs about 400 miles from its source some 2,000 feet above sea level in the Connecticut Lakes of northern New Hampshire to its mouth at Saybrook, Connecticut. Its valley drains a watershed area of over 11,000 square miles. All the major rivers in that watershed area drain into the Connecticut on its way to the ocean. Every major city in Western New England sits on the banks of the Connecticut or one or its major tributaries.

The first sixty miles of the river are navigable to small ocean going craft, which accounts for Hartford's early development as a major seaport. Beginning with the Enfield rapids however, a series of natural barriers prevented colonial and early federalist period river traffic with easy access to upstream destinations.

Although flat boats could, with the help of draft horses, oxen and in some cases human effort, be pulled over the Enfield and Willimansett rapids, no craft could overcome the more than 50 foot drop in the river bed known as the Great Falls at South Hadley. All upstream river cargo were off loaded at the Beech Grounds located at the southern tip of that community, carried two and a half miles upstream by wagon and reloaded on flatboats to continue their voyage north. Downstream river traffic had to undergo a similar portage in reverse order.

Wooden Scow Discovered Near The Canal

The economic consequence was that the cost of the portage required to circumvent the Great Falls made it twice as expensive to ship a bushel of wheat from Northampton, Massachusetts to Windsor, Connecticut than to move the same bushel of wheat, via boat, from Hartford to Boston.

Similar portages were required to overcome the falls at Turners Falls in Massachusetts and at Bellows Falls, Harland and Wilder (just above White River Junction), Vermont. But since the major population centers along the Connecticut River in the 1790s were still located in Massachusetts, by far the major bottleneck to upriver traffic was the Great Falls at South Hadley.

Fortunately, the economy of the upriver communities in the Northampton-Springfield area had moved from that of minimal importation of goods to one of expanding trade with the rest of the country and the West Indies. The cost of the portage was a needless tax on their economy.

In February of 1792 the leading merchants, lawyers and political leaders of Western Massachusetts launched, what was for that time, an audacious business project. They would build a navigational canal to circumvent the great falls and allow river traffic to move goods both up and downstream in a continuous voyage.

John Hancock, then Governor of Massachusetts, signed the charter which incorporated the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on the Connecticut River while spelling out the details of their responsibility.

The Proprietors were just one of a number of canal companies formed during the decade of the 1790s in cities along the Atlantic seacoast. What distinguished this company from the others was their success in carrying out their objectives well within the time frame they set for themselves and a cost within their means.

It was no easy task. Since they were the first, there were no prior models for them to examine and learn from, mney was tight and the art of canal construction was primitive indeed.

It took time, energy and ingenuity to overcome each of these challenges. For instance, they were able to obtain the services of Christopher Colles, one of only three engineers in the country with the professional background properly to advise them regarding the appropriate layout for their canal.

Funds for the project were solicited both locally and, when that proved insufficient, overseas. Before construction was completed four Dutch investment houses collectively came to own slightly over 50 % of the outstanding stock, although they eventually sold out their interest within a ten year period.

Underwater Dam Remains And A Log Crib Discovered At The Canal Site

But it was especially in the area of canal construction that the Proprietors and their agents proved adept as innovators. They met the challenge of creating a two and one half mile canal bed out of shale rock with brute labor supplied by some 240 local laborers.

The Seal of the Canal Company Showing the Inclined Plane

To raise and lower the boats over the great falls however, rather than build the customary locks, they devised an "ingenious device" known as the "inclined plane." The "inclined plane" was strong enough to raise a ten ton flat boat and its thirty ton cargo 53 feet over the falls and so efficient that the total operation of drawing it into the lower canal, lifting it up and discharging is into the upper basin was accomplished in about 15 minutes!

To accomplish that task, they built a cart large enough and strong enough to carry a 20 foot by 60 foot flatboat and its cargo. Each upriver corner of the craft was attached by chains to one of the two water wheels used to pull this strange vehicle up a 275 foot stone ramp elevated at a thirteen and one half degree angle. The wheels of this wagon were of unequal size ( the wheels in the rear larger than those in front) so that the bed of the wagon remained level during its ascent. No wonder it quickly became one of the wonders of the area, attracting visitors from throughout the region to see it operate with their own eyes.

No one knows who designed that innovation or even who first suggested it. The design drawn on the corporate seal significantly deviates from the actual working model. But we do know a local citizen, Benjamin Prescott, was responsible for its successful construction; the first inclined plane used on American canals. An innovation so effective that the strategy of using inclined planes (later engineered as marine railways) rather than a series of locks to raise and lower boats over natural barriers was repeatedly copied, most especially by the Morris Canal located in New Jersey.

The Inclined Plane functioned for almost ten years. However, in 1805, for a variety of reasons, a set of five locks were constructed, eliminating the need for that "ingenious device" which distinguished the South Hadley Canal from all others.

Remains of a Lock

By April of 1795 the South Hadley Canal was opened to commerical traffic and its first tolls collected. It proved an economic success to both its stockholders and the inhabitants of all those upriver communities regularly serviced by the flatboats.

One measure of that success was the rapid growth in population of Connecticut Valley communities. Within 15 years of its opening that population more than doubled.

A second measure of the canals success was the rising toll receipts which reflected the increasing volume of traffic through the canal facilities. Tolls of $3,109 were collected in its first year of operation which at 75 cents per ton represented over 4,000 tons or over 8,000,000 pounds of merchandise. By 1816 the tolls received came to over $16,000 or over 42,000,000 pounds. Robert Barrett, in his authoritative essay o the history of the South Hadley Canal, from which the above data is taken, notes that from the very first, boats servicing all of the major upriver communities used the canal facilities.

The peak of those "good years" ran from the early 1830s through the early 1840s. They were also years of revolution in transportation technology. Steamboats were now a regular sight on the Connecticut River simultaneously pulling a number of flatboats between canals.

This Large Anchor May Have Come from a Steamboat; It Was Found at the Canal Site

Then, by 1843, trade dropped off as competition from the railroads made itself felt. Although the South Hadley Canal continued to operate through 1862 when the last tolls were collected, it was by that time a shadow of its previous operation.

What was the canal's legacy?

Before its demise it became one of the more important links in an integrated river system that opened up western New England to settlement and economic development. The degree to which that river system raised the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of upriver inhabitants who moved into the area can almost be measured by the newspaper advertisements seeking their patronage. One has only to compare the advertisements announcing the arrival of a flatboat before 1800 which offered only a handful of basic staples with the variety and cosmopolitan nature of goods which moved upstream after 1820. Although river traffic was not new, what was different was the frequency, the cost and the variety of the goods carried.

It was not the South Hadley Canal, but the geologic forces that created the Connecticut River Valley that determined the importance of that river system to all of western New England. But it was the South Hadley Canal that led the way in integrating that river valley into a viable economic unit. The prosperity of Hartford as a seaport and merchandising center was as much dependent on its upriver neighbors as they were on Hartford.


Barrett, Robert. 1985. Proprietors of the Locks and Canals: A History of the South Hadley
Canal.2nd edition. Holyoke, Massachusetts: Holyoke Water Power Company.

Martin, Margaret. 1939. Merchants and Trade of the Connecticut River Valley: 1750-1820.
Northampton, Massachusetts: Smith College.

Raber, Michael and Patrick Malone. 1991. Final Report: Hitorical Documentation, River Canal

Center Feasibility Study and Master Plan, Windson Locks Canal Heritage State Park.
Unpub manuscript, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.