In November 1829, one of four hundred Irish immigrant laborers emptied his last wheelbarrow of earth on an embankment in the Connecticut River near Suffield, thereby completing what is now known as the Windsor Locks Canal. During the first fifteen years of operation, the Connecticut River Company, the operator of the canal, enjoyed a monopoly on upper Connecticut River transportation. The benefits of that monopoly were not long-lasting. In 1844, the Hartford and Springfield Railroad was completed and began operations in the Connecticut River Valley.
Canal transportation, heralded as the long-term answer to a growing nation’s transportation needs just fifteen years earlier, was no match for the speed and efficiency of the emerging railroads. But while it is undisputed that the arrival of the railroad signaled the eventual demise of the Windsor Locks Canal, the decline in shipping on the canal was far more gradual than historians have previously supposed. One product in particular, gunpowder, was shipped through the canal for several decades after the railroad appeared.
On March 16, 1875, the Windsor Locks Board of Selectmen enacted an ordinance regulating the transportation of gunpowder upon the canal. This action confirms that powder, most likely from the Hazard Powder Company of Enfield, was still being transported upon the canal in 1875, nearly thirty years after the introduction of railroads to the area. More significantly, when one considers the historic role the Hazard Powder Company played in the Civil War (by some estimates, as much as forty percent of all powder used by the Union Army and Navy was produced in Hazardville), it becomes apparent that the Windsor Locks Canal served a vital role during that terrible conflict.
A review of the Hazard Powder Company’s holdings confirms its reliance on river transportation to distribute its products. Tax Assessor’s records from 1856 and 1862 reveal among the company’s many holdings, two dwelling houses on the Connecticut River, a magazine and store house at the river, and three acres of land upon the river. These holdings suggest an elaborate shipping complex upon the banks of the river allowing for the storage, loading and shipment of powder products from the site.
These records confirm the transportation of Hazard Powder Company products upon the canal well after the assumed “demise” of the canal, but they also raise two significant questions. The first, “Why did transportation by boat remain the preferred method of powder transportation for decades after the introduction of railroads?” The answer lies in the fact that boat transportation was considered a less dangerous means of transporting powder. Transportation by rail often meant a turbulent, steamy and spark-filled ride, none of which boded well for the safe shipment of gunpowder.
Conversely, transportation by boat promised a smooth ride, with plenty of water available in the event of an emergency.
The second question raised is, “Why did the residents of Windsor Locks wait until 1875 to express and act upon their concerns relative to the transportation of powder?” The citizens of Windsor Locks were responding to recent catastrophic events nearly half a world away.
On October 10, 1874 a barge carrying three barrels of petroleum and five tons of gunpowder exploded upon the Regents Park Canal in London, England. The barge, named the Tilbury, was the third in a line of five barges being towed by a steam tug. Just as the barge went under the MacClesfield Bridge, the barge caught fire and exploded in what was described as the largest explosion in the history of London. The blast destroyed the bridge, several nearby homes, and broke windows as far as one mile distant. The four-man crew upon the barge was killed instantly. Several of the connected barges were sunk. The horrific catastrophe was prominently reported in the newspapers of the day. The Illustrated London News carried a dramatic drawing and detailed article recreating the explosion. There is little doubt that word of the explosion reached the United States swiftly. It is with the memory of the Regents Park Canal Explosion fresh in their minds that the Windsor Locks Board of Selectmen took up the cause of regulating the transportation of gunpowder upon the canal. Those regulations, along with the evidence of Hazard Powder Company’s extensive riverside shipping complex, confirm that the Windsor Locks Canal served a vital role in commercial transportation well into the latter half of the nineteenth century.
By Chris Kervick. Originally published in 2012.
Chris Kervick, an attorney and former probate judge, was born and raised in Windsor Locks. Ten years ago, it dawned on him that despite his lifelong proximity to the canal, he knew very little about its history. Since then, his passion for the canal and its history has taken him to archives all over the country. On October 9, 2012, he spoke before a standing-room-only crowd at the Society. His article is drawn from his research.