Innovations marked Conn. River canal

Published Wednesday, December 28, 2005 in the Holyoke Plus Section in The Republican. Go to www.masslive.com for more interesting stories.

In 1793, the proprietors of the Locks and Canals, a predecessor of the Hadley Falls Co., built a navigational canal system that allowed boats to move up and down the Connecticut River freely. The canal dam extended from Northampton to Springfield. It used the inclined plane method. It crossed the river in an oblique fashion as it extended southeasterly and paralleled the river for 2½ miles.

A boat would enter the system through guard locks, which would keep the river at constant level. A car was built somewhat in the form of a wagon with three pairs of wheels that assisted the boat down the canal.

Engineer Prescott solved the 50-foot descent problem with stone covered with plank in a structure called an inclined plane, which was used to raise and lower boats from the canal to the river. At the foot of the inclined plane was another canal extending about half a mile that emptied into the river.

They were finally able to get around the intense rapids in the Hadley Falls area. It incorporated two unique features: an inclined plane to move boats above and below the rapids and an overshot water wheel, turned by the waters of the river to raise and lower the boats. No longer would their goods have to be transferred to wagons to be transported around the rapids of the river. This was the first canal system established in the United States, according to “The Roots of Holyoke Water Power Company” by Robert E. Barrett.

In 1791, the state Legislature was petitioned to incorporate this enterprise but opposition developed based on the argument that the project would facilitate communication between the upper Connecticut River and New York thus diverting trade from Boston. This opposition was overcome by 1792 and the proprietors became a legal entity that spring.

Gov. John Hancock approved the Act of Incorporation by the state Legislature on Feb. 23rd in 1792, of the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals Co. The act incorporated “The Honorable John Worthington Esquire, and others therein named, for the purpose of rendering Connecticut River passable, for Boats and other Things, from the Mouth of Chickapee River, northward throughout this Commonwealth, by the Name of the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on Connecticut River,” according to Barrett’s work.

John Worthington, Caleb Strong, Justin Ely, Samuel Fowler, Theodore Sedgwick and Simeon Strong were all lawyers. John Worthington was the president of this very resourceful and capable group of men. He held that most prestigious position until his death in 1800. He served on the General Assembly for the town of Springfield before the Revolution and founded the town of Worthington.

Records show he was the only man in Springfield with the title “Honorable” in the first U.S. Census, taken in 1790. As a lawyer, he was “nervous, brilliant and effective, an able speaker, polished and sociable.” (I find it interesting to learn why the names of streets were named after citizens. You can understand why they named Worthington Street in Springfield after the impressive Colonel John Worthington.)

The proprietors of the Locks and Canals were a prosperous group of men with many prestigious occupations. Jonathan Dwight was a merchant, Thomas Dwight was a lawyer, Levi Shepard was small business owner and Ebenezer Hunt was a prominent physician. Some of these men also served on the Governors Council.

In a March meeting, the proprietors were approached by men from Amsterdam, Holland, to purchase stock in the canal system. They were sold their shares by April 12, 1793. These four Dutch Houses were, “N&I Vanstaphorst and Hubbard, Stadnitski and Son, P&C Van Eeghen and Ten Cate and Vollenhoven. It is believed that the purchase by the Amsterdam investors made it possible for the canal to be built.

The proprietors of Locks and Canals charged a minimum fee for using their clever transportation canal system. This system worked splendidly until other forms of transportation were invented and the river was harnessed for its hydropower.

In the next issue, she will travel through a moment in time to explain how the Holyoke Water Power Company built the dam we all know and love today.

© 2006 The Republican. All rights reserved. Used with permission