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.