The Connecticut River flows 405 miles from northern New Hampshire, along the Vermont-New Hampshire border, through western Massachusetts and the center of Connecticut before emptying into Long Island Sound near Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
For centuries, Native American peoples flourished in the area, fishing, trading, and cultivating the fertile soil. The river served as a major highway, connecting different Native American tribes.
In 1636 William Pynchon, an ambitious Puritan businessman, purchased land from the Agawam nation and founded Springfield, the first English town on the Massachusetts side of the Connecticut. Over the course of the seventeenth century, colonists settled farther and farther up river, founding Northampton in 1654, Hadley in 1661, and Deerfield and Northfield in 1673. The Indians were driven ever further north.
English colonists used the Connecticut River as their primary transportation route just as the native people had, but there were problems. A vessel leaving Long Island Sound could navigate only the first 60 miles. Beginning at the rapids in Enfield, Connecticut, it would encounter a series of natural barriers. The most daunting were the Great Falls in South Hadley. Draft horses or oxen could pull flat-bottomed boats over the Enfield rapids, but the 50-foot drop at South Hadley was a different matter. There, and again upriver at Turners Falls, cargo had to be removed from the boats, loaded onto wagons, driven around the falls, and re-loaded onto the boats a time-consuming and expensive proposition.
In the decades after the Revolution, some of the country's first industrial ventures, such as the federal armory at Springfield, were built along the Connecticut. Determined to improve their access to distant markets, in 1792 local merchants, politicians, and public officials in western Massachusetts launched a canal-building project at South Hadley. Three years later, the first boat used the new canal to bypass the Great Falls.
The engineering involved was impressive. A sloping 275-foot stone ramp led from the river into the canal. Boats were loaded onto a huge cart with rear wheels that were taller than the front ones, making it possible for the boat to sit level. Then heavy chains attached to massive waterwheels, powered by the river, pulled the cart and boat up the ramp to the canal. The sight was so novel that crowds gathered to watch.
A system of five locks replaced the stone ramp in 1805, and traffic continued to increase. The canal at South Hadley and the one that opened at Turners Falls in 1798 stimulated the local economy so much that by 1810 the population of the Connecticut River Valley had doubled. In 1826 the 75-foot, steam-powered Barnet ushered in a new era. For the next 15 years, fleets of steamboats transported thousands of tons of freight and hundreds of passengers up and down the Connecticut. Even when railroads became a more cost effective alternative to water transport, the river remained a keystone of the region's economy.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a variety of factories, including cotton and paper mills and a plant that manufactured textile machinery, lined the banks of the Connecticut. Industrialists used the Connecticut as they did other rivers, like the Blackstone to dispose of waste products. The water became so polluted that most fish could not survive.
This began to change in the late 1960s and 1970s when many companies closed or relocated their factories. The passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1965 brought about a slow but steady improvement in the water quality of the Connecticut River. Stocks of American shad, eel, and sea lamprey have rebounded. The building of structures that allow fish to bypass dams has helped the Atlantic salmon return to the river after an absence of 200 years.
An historically important transportation route that turned into a polluted waterway, the Connecticut River is now one of the state's premier recreational areas, and the electric plants along its length continue to be a major provider of power for the region.
The Connecticut, by Walter Hard (Massachusetts Audubon Society, 1998).
Springfield 1636-1986, ed. by Michael F. Konig and Martin Kaufman (Springfield Library and Museums Association, 1987).