It is not primarily a river valley, but a broad basin occupied in part by the present course of the Connecticut river. The stream, however, leaves the valley near Middletown, Conn., and has cut a steep-sided gorge through the eastern highlands. The rocks of the Connecticut basin differ from those of a majority of the other sections of New England in that they consist of bedded sand-stones and shales, with intrusions and sheets of the basaltic rocks which form the mountain ranges within the valley proper. The sandstones and shales are generally red and give a distinct color to the later deposits into which they have been re-worked. The Connecticut river is itself bordered by long, narrow stretches of meadow land throughout the greater part of its course. The meadows are overflowed from time to time, but are tilled and used for the production of farm crops.
In Massachusetts the Connecticut flows through a basin of weaker Triassic shales and sandstones, and the valley broadens out, forming a part of the finest agricultural region of large extent in New England. In places, hills of harder trap rock rise so high that they are called mountains,Mt. Tom, Mt. Holyoke. For the most part the river winds among the alluvial lowlands which it has created, and the valley rises in a series of the most perfect steps or terraces in the country. These have been cut by the river in its work of removing the heavy deposits of gravel, sand, and clay that were laid down in this lowland during the closing stages of the glacial period, when great volumes of water heavily laden with sediment were poured into this valley from the receding ice front. In the course of this excavation of glacial deposit spurs of rock have been uncovered, over which the water falls and tumbles, as at South Hadley, Turners Falls, and Vernon. The river now has a scant summer traffic as far as Hartford, forty miles from its mouth, but formerly the commerce it carried was considerable. In 1816 we read, “The Connecticut river is navigable two hundred miles above Hartford for boats above fifteen tons and fifty miles higher for floats and pine timber.” Large quantities of potash were carried down river even from the Canada line, and most of the supplies for the upriver settlements were carried up in flat-boats.
William Pynchon of Springfield was the first to establish systematic river transportation. To facilitate movement of freight around the Enfield Rapids he built a great storage warehouse below the falls at Warehouse Point. The earliest traffic was in dug-out canoes made from the trunks of single pine trees. These huge “canoe trees” were protected by a heavy penalty from those who ruthlessly cut them. We hear of a fleet of fifty Indian canoes coming from Pocumtuck (Deerfield) in the spring of 1638 heaped with Indian corn to relieve the famine down-river which followed the Pequot War. Later flat-boats came into use, which were propelled along shore by “snubbing” with “setting poles.” In the eighteenth century the flat-boat traffic in the much-needed commodities of the timeiron, salt, and much rumhad reached considerable proportions. Before the middle of the seventeenth century the Connecticut river towns as far north as Hartford had become seaports, building and sending vessels with their wares to the Barbadoes and the Madeiras.
The first quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of great activity in improving the means of transportation, both by turnpikes and canals. The companies formed for their establishment were the popular means for the investment of capital at that time. Many ambitious projects were formed for increasing the navigability of the Connecticut by building lock canals around the falls and rapids. The initial enterprise was a canal built at South Hadley in 1795. It was cut for two and a half miles from solid rock and made possible the transportation of boats or rafts forty feet long and twenty feet wide. The boats, placed on a cradle, were pulled up along an inclined plane by a cable. The Turners Falls canal was opened for service in x800, and that of Bellows Falls in 1802. The Enfield canal was not opened until 1829, but was wisely planned to utilize the waterpower, so that, though the railroads a decade later put the boat-canals out of business, this is still in use. In the early part of the nineteenth century the type of boat was a flat-boat of stout oak about seventy feet in length and fifteen feet in width, fitted with a mast and sails. These boats had a capacity of thirty to forty tons. The uptrip from Hartford to Wells River took about twenty days, but sometimes the return trip would be made in five. The round trip between Hartford and Bellows Falls averaged about two weeks. The canals brought good dividends for a time, and there was much wildcat promotion. In 1816 a survey was made for a canal from the Merrimack to the Connecticut by way of the Contoocook and Sugar rivers. In 1825 a canal was opened, joining New Haven with the Connecticut by way of the Farmington river. In June, 1827, Governor Clinton of New York, the ` Great Mogul of canal matters,’ who had just finished the Erie Canal, made a tour up the Connecticut river with a view to forming canal companies in New England.