For a brief moment in the 19th century, American goods traversed the nation in slim boats, pulled by mules and horses along narrow man-made waterways. The so-called “canal craze,” which began in the early 1800s, centered on the vision of connecting the young country’s seaports to its interior farmlands. Soon, canals with complex systems of locks were springing up across the land.
Many of these endeavors were inspired by the success of the Erie Canal, including one that brought prominent New Haveners together to develop a water route between the Elm City and points north. In 1822, representatives from 17 towns petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly to grant a charter for the new Farmington Canal Company.
Ground was broken for the Farmington Canal in 1825 in Granby, with Governor Oliver Wolcott ceremoniously hoisting the first shovel – which broke. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, it would be pointed out that this was a portent of the canal’s fate. But construction continued. The project, facing financial and structural problems from the start, was also opposed by local farmers. Nevertheless, it opened in 1828 and was completed – 84 miles stretching from New Haven to Northampton, MA – in 1835. For a short time, commodities ranging from liquor to lumber to produce to clocks were transported via the canal, but it was never truly profitable. By 1848 it had closed, steamrolled by the railroad.
Today, there are few remnants of the 28 locks built along Connecticut’s portion of the canal. But one site stands nearly intact, and offers a glimpse into this nearly-forgotten chapter of local history. Lock 12 Historical Park in Cheshire is a highlight of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, a greenway that follows the route of the defunct canal and train tracks. (The Connecticut section of the trail runs for fifty-four miles through eleven towns from New Haven to Suffield.)
Lock 12 is a small park, but a captivating one. A shaded picnic pavilion and benches placed at scenic overlooks provide places to rest. The original lockkeeper’s house stands beside the canal, which was constructed by local workmen and Irish immigrants using traditional masonry and carpentry techniques and basic excavation equipment like shovels and wheelbarrows. A picturesque old barn houses a small museum (open by appointment) that showcases some tools from the period.
Over the years, the canal has filled with lush leaves and vines. The shallow water languishes beneath a wooden bridge and passes through two massive wooden gates. Once upon a time, these opened and shut to enable the canal boats, pulled by horses walking on the parallel towpath, to be raised or lowered before continuing on their journey. In this way they navigated, in increments, the 220-foot drop between Massachusetts and New Haven.
At the park’s edge, the water dips under a stone arch bridge beside a winding little track that connects to the paved Farmington Canal Linear Trail.
For many, Lock 12 is simply a quick pit stop on a long run or bike ride along this route, which is Cheshire’s section of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. But the spot is worth a visit on its own merits, simply for its significance and its serenity. Connecticut, with its rich industrial history, is full of sites that formerly buzzed with commercial activity and are now better suited to quiet contemplation. Lock 12, with its small scale and rustic setting, is among the prettiest reminders of the state’s erstwhile enterprises.
Address: 487 North Brooksvale Road, Cheshire, CT
From the large parking lot right off North Brooksvale Road, it’s about a 500-foot walk up the paved road to reach the park.