President Thomas Jefferson knew that to bind the fledgling country together a dependable national transportation system was needed. The country had doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. With this in mind, he turned to his Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin and asked him to develop a plan that would connect east coast ports with farmers and merchants west of the Appalachians. Soon Gallatin presented a plan consisting of a cohesive system of waterborne transportation and turnpikes and the “canal craze” began. Throughout the United States, from Cleveland to Akron, from Richmond to the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Albany to Buffalo, canals with their sophisticated lock systems were being constructed in order to facilitate trade between the interior of the United States and its coastal ports.
Encouraged by the success of the 363-mile Erie Canal and looking for ways to more effectively compete with the port of Hartford, a group of New Haven businessmen met to discuss the idea of a canal route from New Haven to the Massachusetts border and beyond. Led by New Haven lawyer, James Hillhouse, representatives from seventeen towns met in Farmington, CT in January 1822 and persuaded the legislature to issue a charter for the formation of the Farmington Canal Company. At about the same time the Hampshire and Hampden Canal Company was formed in Massachusetts to extend the canal from Southwick, MA north to the Connecticut River in Northampton.
On July 4, 1825, ground-breaking ceremonies were held at Salmon Brook Village in Granby, CT. Governor Oliver Wolcott had the honor of turning the first shovelful of dirt. The shovel broke – an ominous sign of things to come.
The Canal Corporation was beset by problems at the outset. Chronically under-capitalized and receiving no financial support from the State of Connecticut, the Corporation was forced to employ construction shortcuts with the predictably disastrous results. The canal leaked at many points, the banks collapsed and aqueducts were washed away. In addition, farmers, unhappy that the canal encroached on their land, sabotaged the work.
Nevertheless, the company persevered and in 1828 the first commercial canal boat, the James Hillhouse, left New Haven bound for Simsbury, CT. In 1835, the canal was finally completed from New Haven to Northampton, a distance of 84 miles. A series of 28 locks in Connecticut provided a drop of 220 feet from the Massachusetts border to New Haven. On average the Farmington Canal was 36 feet wide and four feet deep with a 10 foot wide towpath. The canal boats themselves were 85 feet long and were pulled along by horses or mules. During its heyday the canal carried a variety of cargo through the Farmington Valley, but was never able to turn a profit. Bowing to the inevitable, the shareholders of the Farmington Canal Co. petitioned the legislature for authority to build a railroad. In 1848 commercial operations on the Canal ceased.