Saturday, December 6, 2014

South Hadley Falls Canal #2

>>>> South Hadley Falls Canal #2<<<<

Soon the question arose that there must be a better way to reach the Upper Connecticut River for use of the navigation for this long stretch of inland waterway.  The immediate idea was the South Hadley Falls Canal.  Obviously, it was to overcome these navigation concerns and provide comparative free passage to the upper river that a series of short, home made Yankee canals were built, most of them antedating the steamboat.

The first -- And it was New England’s oldest and second shortest man-made waterway -- was the South Hadley Falls Canal, a few miles downriver from the present city of Northhampton, Mass.  Work on it began in 1793 and it was completed in the following year.  Although the canal was no more than two miles long it was an important addition to the navigation of the Upper Connecticut River.

The canal was designed and constructed by men who from long experience with poling flats up that stream and portaging around the falls were well acquainted with the river’s tantrums.  However, no-one among those who labored there, had any engineering training, and so having no technical knowledge to assist them in devising a means to lift a canal boat from the Lower River, over the falls, a matter of some fifty feet, they had to depend upon their native ingenuity, which proved to be more than equal to the task.

In fact, upon completion, the canal was regarded as a very noteworthy achievement.  English visitors, familiar with the canals in their own country, where the topography of the land made deep cutting unnecessary, regarded with wonder the vertical cleft forty feet deep and three hundred feet long that had been cut through solid rock.  In 1926, Alvin F. Harlow wrote the following about this canal:

“The little South Hadley ditch was noteworthy also because it built the first inclined plane in America -- two hundred and thirty feet long with a vertical lift of fifty-three feet.  The face of the plane was stone, covered with heavy plank.  The body of the car (which was raised and lowered at will) was a watertight box with folding gates at each end.  Two water wheels sixteen feet in diameter on either side of the channel at the head of the plane were operated by water from the canal, and pulled the car up or let it down, according as the gears were shifted.  Boats floated directly into the car: the gates were then closed behind it and the car emptied the water through sluices at the sides.  The carriage was then pulled up or let down the plane on three sets of wheels, like big wagon wheels, graduated in size so as to hold the car exactly level.” (1)

The inclined planes used many years later on the important Morris Canal in New Jersey operated on the same principle although deriving their power from another source.

The canal was at once profitable, but soon became the target of fishermen saying the dam prevented the salmon and shad from reaching their spawning grounds in the upper river.  Farmers also complained that the dam was flooding their lowlands and causing outbreaks of malaria.  The town of Northhampton also opposed the company and in 1800 petitioned the legislature for the removal of the dam.  The canal company countered by offering to lower the dam and eliminate the inclined plane, in return for the privilege of conducting a lottery in the amount of $20,000.  This was done.  The remodeled dam was destroyed by a spring flood two years later.  A second was destroyed in like manner, and in 1823, a third dam was swept away.  Coupled with this latest disaster was the distressing fact the upper river business was declining due to the expansion of Springfield and many businesses upriver.  As a consequence, the canal company decided not to go to the expense of building still another dam, and restricted its operations to supplying water power to the small mills along its raceway and channel.

At Bellows Falls, Vermont, a canal only a mile long was cut around one of the meanest stretches of the Connecticut River.  Short as it was, its nine locks overcame a drop of fifty feet and opened navigation upriver for 120 miles.  This operation was very successful.


>> Harry Sinclair Drago, “Canal Days In America,” (New York, Bramhall House, MCMLLXXII)

See Alvin F. Harlow, Old Towpaths.

Respectfully Submitted;

Ian McKay, BG (by brevet), CS, CE, TE
Canals, Bridges and River Clearance Specialist

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