Imagine digging a trench 84 miles long with picks and shovels. That’s what I was trying to do (no, not the digging, just the imagining part) as my husband, my dog, and I walked along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail in Suffield and Granby, Connecticut. Nearly 200 years ago, this shade-dappled bike path was a major commercial waterway running from New Haven, Connecticut to Northampton, Massachusetts. And it was all dug by hand.
In the days before railroads and automobiles, transporting goods by water was cheaper and quicker than hauling it overland with teams of horses or oxen over pothole- and rut-filled dirt roads that could be impassable after heavy rains. Boating your goods up and down river is great when you have a nice broad, deep river with a gentle current. But what do you do when your rivers won’t cooperate—when rapids, shallows, and waterfalls obstruct the way? Build a canal, of course. The Erie Canal, running from Albany to Buffalo, New York, is perhaps the most famous and successful canal system in the United States. But there were other canal projects that attempted to imitate the Erie’s success.
The Farmington Canal (a.k.a. the New Haven and Northampton Canal) was one of those projects. The investors who built it broke ground in 1825, and had the canal completed by 1835—ten years of digging and grading and lock-building—all by hand. Most of the laborers were Irish immigrants recruited by the canal’s investors. (In the 1820s and 1830s, thousands of Irishmen came to New England seeking their fortunes by working on canals, dams, factories, and, eventually, railroads. In A Difficult Boy, Daniel’s father was one of those immigrants, and in Mending Horses, one of the characters works on building the railroad in western Massachusetts. Yes, that would be working on the railroad all the live-long day.)
The Farmington Canal’s investors couldn’t have had worse timing. By the late 1830s, railroads were beginning to crisscross New England, making the canal obsolete not long after it was opened. In 1848, the New Haven and Northampton Company filled in the canal and built a railroad along the route.
Much of the rail line was abandoned in the 1980s, so now, like many old railroad lines, the New Haven and Northampton has become a series of bike paths from New Haven, Connecticut, to Southwick, Massachusetts. In Connecticut, 54 miles of the canal/railroad route have been converted to bikeways.
As we walked the portion of the trail that runs from Suffield to East Granby, we saw remnants of the old rail line—tracks that hadn’t yet been taken up, an old railroad station converted to a law office. In one section of the trail, what looked like an abandoned dirt road paralleled the trail for some distance, leading us to wonder if that was part of the towpath along which horses or oxen would have hauled barges from Long Island Sound up to Massachusetts and back.
On other parts of the trail, remains of locks and retaining walls are visible, and one lock in Cheshire has been restored as part of the Lock 12 Historical Park. (You can find photos of Lock 12 on Joanna Kaplan’s “The Size of Connecticut” blog.) One of these days, maybe we’ll make it down to Cheshire to check it out. It definitely looks like some wicked cool history stuff.
Even if you can’t get to Connecticut, you’re likely to find lots of wicked cool history stuff on a rail trail near you. You can check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy web site to find out if there’s a rail-trail near you.
You can find more information on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail here: