The Beginning — Navigation
This canal was not only the first built in this country, but it used a unique method of transporting the loaded boats from the river below the rapids up to the navigation canal. It was an outstanding engineering accomplishment based upon the inclined plane. It was a structure built of solid stone, 30 feet wide and 275 feet long, covered with strong wood planks, and having a slope of 13.5 degrees.
A specially-designed car with three pairs of wheels, capable of carrying a loaded flatboat, was lowered into the river at the bottom of the incline. A boat was then floated onto the car which was hauled up the inclined plane to the navigation canal. It then entered the canal and then moved on upstream.
The power to lift the loaded car was supplied by two overshot waterwheels 16 feet in diameter, one on each side of the inclined plane. The wheels turned a shaft which by means of chains was connected to the car. These two waterwheels must have been the first on the Connecticut River which were devoted to a public service — in this case, transportation. The corporate seal of the Proprietors carried the words "SIC TRANSIT — Public & Private Good."
The first steamboat to use the river was the Barnet, which left Hartford, Connecticut, on November 28, 1826. On board was Alfred Smith, South Hadley native, Hartford lawyer, and president of the Connecticut River Company, which had financed the boat. The boat passed through the canal on December 1 and several days later reached Bellows Falls, Vermont, where it was met with much celebration. Steamboats used the South Hadley Canal frequently in the 1830s carrying passengers and freight from Hartford to Greenfield. Some were used as towboats, sometimes pulling as many as four flatboats.
One of the early industries in the area was the Hadley Falls Company, incorporated in 1827. It manufactured cotton cloth. This company was in the forefront of the industrial revolution, using water power supplied by a wing dam to run its looms. Its president was the previously mentioned Alfred Smith. It was the second root of HWP.
In 1848, a second Hadley Falls Company was incorporated for the purpose of developing the power potential of the river, at Holyoke and South Hadley, and creating a manufacturing community. Over a ten-year period it built a dam and canal system to make the power available to manufacturers. It constructed and operated two cotton mills and a plant which made textile machinery. It also laid out industrial, commercial, and residential areas on its 1,100 acres of land. All of it eventually came to completion as planned. It was the third root of HWP.
In 1859, the property of the Hadley Falls Company, which had gone into receivership in 1858, was sold at auction for $325,000 to Alfred Smith. The properties acquired by Smith were of three types. First was the hydraulic system, consisting of a dam across the Connecticut River, the gate houses, and 2.5 miles of power canals with a boat lock. Second was real estate — 1,100 acres of land in Holyoke, several mills, and other buildings. The last were public services, including a water supply reservoir and a gas plant, each with a distribution system. Smith reorganized the property as the Holyoke Water Power Company and sold stock to subscribers who wished to invest in an opportunity to bring together the power potential of the Connecticut River with a sizable land area to create an industrial city. He became its first president.
HWP's income during its first year was $20,934, derived largely from water power rentals, tenement house rentals, leases of manufacturing space in existing buildings, and sales of water and manufactured gas. That sufficed to pay investors a 5 percent dividend. The early life of the company also involved a variety of minor income-producing activities, such as rental of a grist mill, lease of a brickyard, ice cutting from the pond above its dam, rental of property to a shad fishing company, and lease of a quarry.
The first 30 years of the corporate life of HWP were a time of rapid growth for it, and for Holyoke. The energy produced from waterpower for industry was transmitted mechanically through gears, shafting, pulleys, and belts. Multistoried mills of three and four floors were built. The power from the waterwheels was transmitted vertically by belts to lines of main shafting which ran the length of the mills. Machines such as textile mill looms or paper mill beaters received their power by being connected with belts and pulleys to the main shafting.
By 1884, many of the mill sites along the canal system had been sold and industries using water-power, particularly manufacturers of paper and textiles, were in operation. As more and more sites were sold, it became evident that other land without waterpower would have to be developed if industry were going to continue to expand in Holyoke. Accordingly, industries with lesser power requirements than those needed by the paper or textile industries began to buy sites which were not in the canal system. They supplied their own power with steam engines.
The Present Canal System
The present canal system is 4.5 miles in length and has three different levels. Electricity is generated by the water falling from one canal level to another, or from a canal to the river, turning waterwheels and electric generators in the process.
The canals were dug by men with picks and shovels and horse-drawn teams. Begun in 1847, they were completed in 1892, 45 years later. One section of the canal banks has been developed as a park planted with a variety of shrubs. It looks out upon a group of five fountains with jets of water rising 50 feet high.
The first dam for power purposes spanning the 1,000-foot-wide Connecticut River was built in 1848 by the Hadley Falls Company. It was constructed of wood. In 1900, a granite-faced concrete dam superseded it. Designed by HWP engineers, the dam stands today, nearly 100 years later, as a tribute to their skills.
From Water Power to Electricity
"boys were playing marbles on the streets of Holyoke at nine o'clock in the evening under the illumination of the electric lights.placed about the streets by the water power company..Dark spots were as light as need be wished for the first night in the memory of inhabitants old or young..When the big machine [a new generator] gets here and the system is completed, Holyoke will be as safe a city after dark as it is before sunset for any lady to walk abroad, which has not been the case."
The electricity came from an electric generator connected to a water wheel-driven shafting in an HWP industrial building.
In 1871, Holyoke purchased the HWP domestic water supply system, which had been serving the community since prior to 1859.
In 1888, HWP built a combination hydro and steam electric power plant on the First Level canal to supply electricity to Holyoke. Not long thereafter-in 1897-the city set a course for municipal takeover of HWP's gas and electric plants. The issue of public versus private ownership was fought through the newspapers and the Legislature. In 1902, for a price of $706,000, the properties were transferred to the city of Holyoke. The following year, however, HWP was enabled, through legislation, to return to the business of generating electricity for sale only to municipal customers and to industrial customers with high usage. During 1905 and 1906, it built a combination hydro and steam electric power station located between its Second Level canal and the Connecticut River. It contained two 600-kW hydroelectric units and one 1,000-kW steam electric unit.
1920-1945: An Eventful Quarter Century
In 1936, a gigantic mile-long ice jam, 1,000 feet wide and 30 feet deep, blocked the river just upstream from Holyoke. When it broke up on March 16, with a tremendous roar, the worst was feared for physical structures downstream, including HWP's dam. However, the ice floes passed over it causing relatively little damage, although they did remove its top layer of granite blocks.
Following breakup of the ice jam, the river began to rise. On March 19 it reached its all-time record height of 16.8 feet of water over the dam. When the flood receded, HWP repaired the crest of the dam and strengthened the gatehouse which controls the water entering the canal system.
Other highlights of the period included major expansion of electric generating capacity and obtaining a long-term contract to supply the nearby city of Chicopee with its electric power.
In 1945, Robert E. Barrett died. During his tenure, the company had expanded greatly. Its electric sales had grown from $86,420 in 1921 to $1,239,000 in 1945. He saw that very few sites were left on the canal system for new waterpower users and that dependable flow of the river had all been allocated. He concentrated upon expanding the electric power capability of the company and aggressively marketing it for industrial and municipal use. He successfully converted HWP into a major supplier of electricity.
Expansion and Fish Conservation
In 1949, the company obtained from the Federal Power Commission (FPC) a 50-year license for its dam, canal system, and hydroelectric properties. This followed a vigorously contested licensing proceeding.
The FPC license contained a provision which required HWP to construct fish passage facilities at its dam across the Connecticut River. Ever since 1848, anadromous fish such as Atlantic salmon, shad, and blueback herring had been stopped by the dam in their upstream migration.
This fishway is the most successful one on the Atlantic seacoast. In 1990, more than three-quarters of a million anadromous fish passed through it. Of these, there were 187 Atlantic salmon which first started to return to the river in significant numbers in 1978. Visitors are welcome at the fishway during the fish migration. There they can see the fish being lifted in the elevators as well as observe them passing by the window of a glass-walled public viewing area. In 1987, the fish facility was named by NU as the Robert E. Barrett Fishway. Fishing for shad attracts thousands of people to Holyoke during the annual migration. HWP sponsors a Shad Derby on two successive weekends and prizes are awarded to the fishermen catching the heaviest shad in different categories.
The second was built in 1983. In 1960, the company built a 136,000-kW fossil-fuel electric generating plant, its Mt. Tom Station, in the northerly part of Holyoke. (Mt. Tom now has a higher rated capacity.) The physical expansion of the company during these years was reflected in its annual sales figures. Revenues increased from $1,776,000 in 1945 to $12,050,000 in 1967.
In the fall of 1966, the management of HWP began discussing with NU the possibility of an affiliation. Soon thereafter, the HWP stockholders and the SEC approved the merger. The affiliation became effective September 30, 1967. Thus came to a conclusion 108 years as an independent company. However, the corporate involvement of HWP with the Connecticut River, beginning in 1792, still continues.