Dams on Connecticut stem flow of history

Published on Wednesday, January 25, 2006 in the Holyoke Plus Section in The Republican. Go to www.masslive.com for more interesting stories.

In 1783, Titus Morgan was the first person on record to utilize the Connecticut River with a wing dam to power his mill. Morgan owned a 200-acre farm between the Connecticut River and County Road, now knows as Northampton Street in Holyoke, and bounded northerly by the then Northampton town line, near the entrance to the now defunct Mountain Park. His sons were Titus and Joseph II. Joseph was the father of Joseph Morgan III, whose son, Junius, born in what is now Holyoke, became an international financier and was known as the founder of the House of Morgan. He was the father of the great industrialist J. P. Moran, according to “The History of Holyoke Water Power Company” by Robert E. Barrett, a copy of which is available at the Holyoke Public Library.

During the period from 1795 to 1806, the proprietors of locks and canals benefited from the innovative inclined-plane canal system in the South Hadley. The South Hadley canal system was unique because it used this ingenious system, until 1805 when five locks were constructed, eliminating the need for the device, according to Ted Belsky a member of the South Hadley Canal Park Committee.

Belsky’s group “believes that the historic importance of the Connecticut River Valley to all of the communities in Western New England remains true even today.” He believes it is interesting to note that South Hadley became the home of our nation’s first successful navigational canal that would someday connect to the first planned city of America.

John Stephen, Warren Chapin and Alfred Smith established in 1827, the first Hadley Falls Co. The Chapin’s built a wing dam, “floom,” and grist mill for their card factory. It would later be converted into a cotton mill that became known as the “old Smith cotton mill.”

Other wing dams were utilized by small companies before a wooden dam was built in 1847.

In 1847, the second Hadley Falls Co. built the first dam that went from bank to bank on the Connecticut River. On November 4, 1848, it burst three hours after it was filled. They built another wooden dam that held for 50 years, according to Barrett’s work.

On June 15, 1859, at a public auction, the Hadley Falls Co. was sold to Alfred Smith, an attorney, for $325,000. Smith named his new company the Holyoke Water Power Co. The Hadley Falls Co. failed due to lack of sufficient capital to borrow and spend funds, the panic of 1857 and the difficulty of managing the company from Boston.

The existing wooden dam was the first problem with which Smith had to deal with. Being 10 years old, the water falling over the face of the dam had eroded the ledge at its base. The situation was so bad by 1885 after years of patching and filling holes, they constructed portable coffer dams that could be put in place on the dam and stop the flow of water in certain section of the dam while they repaired it. The old planking was removed, the body of the dam filled with gravel, and new planking installed. When a section of the dam was complete, the coffer dams were moved to adjacent sections until the entire dam was repaired. It took about a year to finish.

Clemens Herschel, a hydraulic engineer for the company, spoke about two divers who lost their lives repairing the dam. One diver was stuck on the apron of the dam by his life line, though the air–hose coupling pulled out. He finally figured out a way to slide into the pool at the foot of the apron and was able to get ashore only to be drowned.

The second diver was lowered down a rope directly into a hole in the dam, under 20 feet of water. As he was called up to see what happened to the first diver, he was taken by a current. He was never to be seen again. Herschel believed his body became wedged in the center of the dam between the timbers and gravel, according to Barrett’s work.

The years from 1890 to 1910 were an exciting and prosperous time for the Holyoke Water Power Co. Major events happened in this time.

A stone dam was finally built across the Connecticut River, a hydroelectric and steam electric plant was constructed on the first and second level canals to supply electricity in Holyoke and legislation permitted the return of Holyoke Water Power to the electric businesses in Holyoke and South Hadley under restricted conditions.

In the next issue you can read about the building of the stone dam and the mills it powered.

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