Farmington Valley Trails Council

Farmington Canal Heritage Trail & Farmington River Trail

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History FVTC


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INTRODUCTION

The over Eighty miles of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (FCHT) and the eighteen miles of the Farmington River Trail constitute one of the most picturesque and historic greenways in New England. The Connecticut section from New Haven to Suffield runs fifty four miles through eleven towns and connects with many more biking and walking trails. The FCHT has been designated a Community Millennium Trail under the federal Millennium Trails Initiative based upon its special value to the communities it serves.  

THE CANAL

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 which 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.

THE RAILROADS

While many factors led to the demise of the Farmington Canal, none was more important than the invention of the steam engine.  In 1831 an English built locomotive named the John Bull established once and for all that the steam engine would provide the next enduring development in the transportation evolution.  By the mid-1800's, more than one hundred separate railroad companies operated in Connecticut.  The New Haven and Northampton Railroad Co. was chartered in 1846.  Dubbed the “Canal Line”, the first section from New Haven to Plainville was completed in 1847, mostly along the route of the canal.  By 1850 the line had been completed from Plainville to the Massachusetts border with branches out to Tariffville, Unionville and Collinsville.  By the late 1800s, the small private lines were merging with larger companies.  In 1872, the Canal Line was consolidated with the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.  The New York, New Haven & Hartford operated until 1969 when it was consolidated with the Penn Central.

In 1869 another railroad broke ground in Winsted, CT.  The Central New England Railroad, as it came to be known, ran in an easterly to westerly direction.  In a concession to Avon Mountain however, the line ran from Hartford north to Tariffville then turned south through West Simsbury and Stratton Brook to Collinsville where it turned northwest for its run out to Winsted and Lakeville.

Over the years the railroad operated under many names, most notably the New York, New Haven & Hartford. 
          
RAILS TO TRAILS

Just as surely as the locomotive replaced the canal boat, trucks and automobiles increasingly took over freight and passenger service and rail service over most of the Canal Line and Central New England ended by the late 1980s. As rail lines around the country fell into disrepair groups of creative individuals explored the idea of converting abandoned rail beds and canal towpath into recreational trail and the “rails-to-trails” movement was born. Congress provided funding through the Transportation Enhancement (TE) portion of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and the FVTC was formed soon after in 1992 to promote and support the conversion. Six town governments cooperated in the creation of the trail development committee and in providing the 20% of funds not supplied by ISTEA. The first sections of the “Farmington Valley Greenway” were paved in Simsbury and Farmington beginning in 1993/4. Much of the trail system is complete with the exception of a nine-mile piece running south from southern Farmington, through all of Plainville into northern Southington. As the railroad abandons use of the rails south of Farmington, it is expected that we will be joined to trails already paved in Southington, Cheshire and Hamden. Southwick, Massachusetts is completed, with only the 3.2 miles of Westfield (much of which will be elevated) and Southampton. with a few smaller gaps to complete for the entire eighty-mile length of the Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway to be paved.

 


 

History FCRTTA

 

THE CANAL 

Encouraged by the success of the Erie Canal and looking for ways to more effectively compete with the Connecticut River port of Hartford, a group of New Haven businessmen met in January 1822 to discuss the idea of a canal route from New Haven through the Farmington River Valley to the Massachusetts border. At about the same time, the Hampshire and Hampden Canal Company was formed in Massachusetts to extend the canal from the Connecticut border to the Connecticut River in Northampton, MA.

In 1828 the first commercial canal boat, the James Hillhouse, left New Haven bound for Simsbury.  In 1835, the canal was finally completed from New Haven to Northampton, a distance of 84 miles. 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. For more information on the history and operation of the Farmington Canal, visit: fvgreenway.org

THE RAILROAD

While many factors led to the demise of the Farmington Canal, none was more important than the invention of the steam engine.  By the mid-1800's, more than one hundred separate railroad companies operated in Connecticut.  The New Haven and Northampton Railroad Co., known as the “Canal Line”, was chartered in 1846.  The first section from New Haven to Plainville was completed in 1847.  By 1850 the line had been completed from there to the Massachusetts border with branches out to Tariffville, Unionville and Collinsville.  

In 1869 another railroad broke ground in Winsted, CT.  The Central New England Railroad, as it came to be known, ran generally east to west.  For more information on the history of these rail lines, visit: fvgreenway.org

 RAILS TO TRAILS

Just as surely as the locomotive replaced the canal boat, trucks and automobiles increasingly took over freight and passenger service and rail service over most of the Canal Line and Central New England ended by the late 1980s. As rail lines around the country fell into disrepair groups of creative individuals explored the idea of converting abandoned rail beds and canal towpaths into recreational trails and the “rails-to-trails” movement was born. In 1984, trail advocates began to get more organized, and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was formed.

 In 1987, the Interstate Commerce Commission was ready to permit abandonment and sale of the old CanalLine to private developers, when a group of individuals from Hamden and Cheshire successfully petitioned to allow the right-of-way to be rebuilt as a recreational trail. The Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association (FCRTTA) was born from this core of volunteers.

 The first six miles of trail were opened in 1996. In a few areas, the imprint of the original canal can still be seen, along with retaining walls, canal locks and other features. In Cheshire, the only restored lock along the original canal has been incorporated into the Lock 12 Historical park, which comprises a small museum, as well as blacksmith and carpenter shops, lockkeepers house, and a picnic area.

 In 1992, the Farmington Valley Trails Council (FVTC) was founded primarily to increase public support and awareness of rails-to-trails projects and to work with town governments to facilitate their completion.

 Since its founding, the FCRTTA has grown to nearly 500 members. Each new member gives the association a stronger voice before state, federal and municipal boards and commissions in its efforts to complete and maintain the trails. If you are not already a member of FCRTTA, please consider lending your support by contacting us on that tab of this webpage.

THE TRAIL SYSTEM

The 84 miles of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (FCHT) from New Haven to Northampton, and the 18 miles of the Farmington River Trail (FRT) loop, constitute one of the most picturesque and historic greenways in New England. The maps included on this website cover the 54 miles of the Connecticut section of the FCHT from New Haven to Suffield. The FRT loop trail runs from Unionville along the beautiful Farmington Rive, reconnecting with the FCHT in Simsbury.

 


 

More About FCRTTA

 

On the heels of the completion of the Erie Canal in New York State, a group of New Haven businessmen met in 1821 with the goal of constructing a canal in Connecticut to facilitate trade. Ground was first broken on July 4, 1825. It was completed in 1835.

The canal was not cheap to build, and the finances of the construction and upkeep of the canal were always precarious. Railroads put an end to the use of the canal. Just 12 years after the canal was completed, a rail bed was laid to cover the same route the canal had traversed.

The Canal Railroad remained in use until the early 1980's, when floods damaged the rail line to the point that it could no longer be used.

Although there is still a small portion of the original rail line in use in Plainville, CT, the track was largely removed by 1987, and large portions of what had been the rail line were sold. 

During the 1990's, construction on a trail, following the route of the original rail line was begun.  The first sections were completed in northern Hamden and southern Cheshire, followed by extension southward in Hamden and northward in Cheshire.  Around the same time, in the northern part of the state, efforts led to construction of a paved surface for recreation along the route of the old canal and rail road in Farmington, Avon, and Simsbury.

Today, the Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway covers a route of approximately 84 miles from 

New Haven, CT to Northampton, MA. Over half has been developed as a paved trail for non-motorized recreation and commuting.

 


 

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