They say that when Gov. Oliver Wolcott Jr. officially broke ground on the Farmington Canal in 1825, the spade broke. An ill omen, the newspapers wrote. Today, on a pale October evening spent wandering down the Farmington Canal Trail, I can imagine the scene: the governor leaning sheepishly on his broken spade, the leading citizens of New Haven waving from a mock “canal boat” covered by a white awning and drawn by four horses.
The optimism of the investors that day was not unfounded. The canal was an engine of economic prosperity, they thought: in time, it would change the world. Investors imagined a vast waterway stretching 84 miles from New Haven to Northampton, Mass., facilitating trade across the state and offering a much-needed commercial route to northern New England. “Let us bind the Republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals,” said John Calhoun in an 1816 speech. “Let us conquer space.”
In 1826, the one-year-old canal project that the Hartford Courant deemed “a little ditch” was already plagued by financial woes and internal squabbles. Stock sold poorly. The Connecticut General Assembly was unsupportive. Disaffected landowners were suspected of sabotaging the construction sites. Though operational by the 1830s, the canal’s finances were careening towards disaster; in total, it was thought to have lost shareholders more than $1 million.
In the end, the death knell for the Farmington Canal was not financial calamity, recalcitrant lawmakers, or malicious landlords, but the coming of the railroad. The train was comparatively cheap, safe, and fast; the route from New Haven to Plainville cost just $186,000 to build, in contrast with the $1,089,425 sunk into the ill-fated canal project. For the beleaguered investors of New Haven, the railroad was a blessed relief. Barely a decade elapsed between the construction of the Farmington Canal and the ascension of the railroad as a dominant method of transportation in the United States.
In 1848, the last remnants of the canal were paved over with railroad track.
The Farmington Canal Trail is no longer a canal. Nor is it a railroad, although cargo trains ran down the so-called “Canal Line” from the mid-19th century until the 1980s, when commercial shipping dried up and the line fell into disrepair. The abandoned canal and rail line has been converted into a multi-use greenway, a transformation originated by the nonprofit Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association. Today, along the path where barges and cargo trains once ran, one can find pedestrians like Anthony Chiorazzi, a professor at the Divinity School who I meet by the Prospect Street Bridge, and Eric Epstein, a New Haven resident taking his dog for an evening walk. “It’s great,” says Epstein. “I walk, I bike, I use [it] as a base to explore other trails.” Now that the 84-mile route is almost entirely complete, one can cycle from New Haven all the way to Northampton, or use the downtown section around Science Park to commute within the Elm City.
“The Farmington Canal Trail was envisioned as part of an ‘urban Appalachian Trail’ of continuous, linear parks connecting cities and towns in the region,” wrote Mark Abraham ’04 in an email. Abraham is a board member of the Rail-to-Trail Association. “It is known that trails like these improve surrounding property values and are seen as a major community asset.” According to Abraham, other benefits of the project include environmental conservation, reduced dependence on automobiles, and the creation of a communal recreational space for physical activity.
The Farmington Canal Trail Rail-to-Trail Association has affected a remarkable transformation. But, when walking down the trail, one can’t entirely escape the legacy of industrialization and post-industrialization, the decades of abuse and neglect after the railroad fell fallow in the 1980s. Manicured lawns and orderly rows of trees give way to chain-link fences, sodden bags of dried leaves, and overgrown patches of grass. You might find a tunnel with scarred insides, or a no man’s land of yellow weeds. Many sections of the Farmington Canal Trail still display traces of the land’s past: feeder canals, retaining walls, industrial buildings. Perhaps the trail’s most important legacy remains the network of communities that sprung up along the route to support the small industries clustered around the canal and railroad, including the Newhallville neighborhood in New Haven.
Evening. Color fades from the land as I walk, passing under bridges and through fields of tall grasses, past paved roads and playgrounds. The trail isn’t always beautiful, but to me there is something comforting about the occasional imperfections in the landscape: as if for the first time in two centuries of industrial use and misuse, the land is finally free to grow in its own way, for community rather than commerce.
“The terrain is favorably formed for a great work of this kind …” These were the confident words of Benjamin Wright, the Erie Canal engineer brought to New Haven to assess the suitability of the land for the canal project. But as night falls, it occurs to me that this trail is no longer a failed project, a cautionary tale, a broken spade. If all land tells a story, the Farmington Canal Trail has more to tell than most. It has been a canal, a railroad, a forgotten scar of industry: and now an act and symbol of revitalization, a little green path winding its way across the state, leading straight to the heart of New Haven.