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LSS240: 2018 Student Guide: Canals: Paving the Way for Railroads

Created by students in LSS240 - Spring 2018

New Haven and Northampton Canal

Historic scene of the Mansion House at the corner of State and Main Streets in Northampton. In front of the building (what is now State Street) is a canal with a barge.

The Mansion House in Northampton, viewed from the East. This is now the site of the St. Mary's Church rectory at the corner of State and Main Streets. The Mansion House served the dual purpose of hotel and depot for people and goods traveling the New Haven and Northampton Canal.


Black and white Advertisement for the New Haven and Northampton Daily Canal Boat Line and Steamboat to Cheapside.

This advertisement shows what a big deal the canal really was. It was the primary mode of goods transport between towns located on it banks, and through railroad connections to locations such as Albany and Boston. This provided residents of inland towns like Northampton easy and convenient (three times a week!) access to the rest of the world. Image from Historic Northampton.

Construction and Engineering

Defunct locks in the dry canal, present day

Locks were used to get boats over the changes in elevation between Northampton and New Haven. Locks were easier to build and less intrusive than digging a flat canal through the topography. They were operated by two men standing at the handles walking back and forth to let water in and out of the lock, gently raising or lowering the level of the boat. Photo from

Bridge over the Framington Canal, present day

Bridges were built to allow roads and pathways to continue over the canal. This one on the Framington Canal has been poorly maintained but remains today. Photo from

Barge crosses an aqueduct, pulled by mules

Aqueducts were used whenever the canals needed to cross other bodies of water. Image from

Levee Failure in New Orleans, Louisiana

A levee failure on the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Levee failure did damage on smaller scales in New England, flooding towns and farmers' fields. Image from

The Golden Age of the Canal

After the construction of the Erie Canal in 1825, entrepreneurs across the Northeastern US saw its success and wanted a piece for themselves. New Canals cropped up all over Massachusetts and Connecticut, connecting inland towns to the commerce on the seas. Northampton was no exception, reaching the seaport of New Haven through the New Haven and Northampton Canal (the joint name of the Hampshire and Hampden Canal and the Farmington Canal), completed in 1835. 

Before the advent of the railroad, land transportation was inconvenient and often expensive. Canals helped solve this problem by bringing water transport inland. This allowed barges carrying large loads of goods to reach distant towns, and also to bring the goods produced in these towns out to New Haven's seaport.

A barge passes through a lock on a canal in a classic New England town.

A barge passes locks on the Farmington Canal. Image from

The Death of the American Canal

Canal bed surrounded by forest, filling in with sediment

The Hampshire and Hampden Canal in the present day. Without proper maintenance, sediment collects in the channel and will eventually fill it in completely. Photo from

Sign for the New Haven and Northampton Railroad Canal Line

In the mid-1800s, shortly after the canal boom of the 1820s and 30s, railroads came into mainstream use. This was great news for consumers and producers, since they now had access to even more parts of the country, but spelled the end of the popularity of canals for general transportation.

The New Haven and Northampton Canal continued operation until 1847, two years after the railroad came to Northampton. After the closing of the canal, it was replaced first by the New Haven and Northampton Railroad's aptly named Canal Line, which remained in service until it was run out of business by even more efficient modes of transport. Now, the New Haven and Northampton Canal Rail Trail has taken its place in a victory for recreation and outdoors enthusiasts of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. Image from

Where was the canal?

Map of the New Haven and Northampton Canal

Map of the New Haven and Northampton Canal, marked with stars.

Canals in Popular Culture

"Low Bridge" was written by Thomas Allen in 1905. Here is Dave Ruch performing the song in 2017.

Book cover of The Erie Canal by Peter Spier

Peter Spier illustrated the lyrics to the 1905 Thomas Allen song "Low Bridge" about running a barge on the Erie Canal. Cover art by Peter Spier.

Which one is this

1940s poster for the film Canal Zone. "drama hot f

This 1942 film centers drama and romance around the setting of the American-controlled Panama Canal. Poster from

How we remember the New Haven and Northampton Canal

Sign for the New Haven and Northampton Canal posted over an entrance to the rail trail

What was once the New Haven and Northampton Canal has since been built up to become first the railroad and then the rail trail. The name lives on, and is associated with greenways and natural spaces from New Haven all the way up to Northampton. Photo from Greenmon's Folly

Canal in disuse runs by a home

The Farmington Canal, part of the New Haven and Northampton Canal, still exists as a water feature in some locations. Image from Greenmon's Folly.