Digging Into Cheshire’s Past

Digging Into Cheshire’s Past

Throughout the summer, The Cheshire Herald will run a series of stories focused on Cheshire history. This week, we look at the the canal and barite mines in town:

The remnants of one can still be seen preserved as a historical site in the south end of Cheshire - its long and winding course having been filled in and replaced by, first, a railroad and then a trail long ago.

The second tunnels underneath portions of Cheshire, unseen by everyone other than a poor soul here or there who may have awoke one day to find a hole where their backyard had previously been.

Both left marks on Cheshire’s landscape, and the community is still trying to figure out how best to effectively blend in these marvels of the 19th century.

In the 1800s, Cheshire witnessed the construction of a canal and the excavation of barite mines, as Connecticut tried to figure out how best to use Mother Nature to its advantage. The canal has continued to play a part in Cheshire history, only now, instead of being an artery for ships running through the middle of the state, it’s path has been paved and made available to walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and just plain-old nature lovers in need of a stroll out in nature.

The barite mines comprised an intricate set of tunnels that ran underneath acres of Cheshire land in the late 1800s. From these mines, workers spent hours in near-blackness with only small - and many times dangerous - flames emitted from the tops of their caps to light the way. Their back-breaking labor was all in the name of extracting as much barite - a mineral, usually white in color, used primarily for the manufacturing of paints - as possible.

The mines were opened in 1835 in the Ginny Hill and Peck Mountain areas of town. According to “History of Cheshire, Connecticut from 1694 to 1840,” the company which owned the mines “opened over four miles of underground tunnels and sunk shafts to the depth of 480 feet, excavating a million and a half square feet of earth and rock.”

The total amount of barite excavated over the years equalled 160,000 tons, according to the book, which was then sold at market for $4.5 million. “This work gave employment to hundreds of native and foreign miners, who were paid more than $2 million for their labor. For 16 years the operations of the mine were most successfully managed by James Layton as superintendent,” the book continues.

The workers were, according to data from the time, primarily “Yankees” from Connecticut, but there were also more than 200 miners from Cornwall, England who made the journey to the “New World” in order to work below Cheshire’s surface.

And what work it was.

In the flickering light, the miners used pick axes to pry the barite from the rock, then carefully hoisted their bounty up narrow shafts using chains. The ore was then transported through narrow tramways to mine portals where it would be crushed by hand using sledges.

Once it was out of the mines, oxcarts were brought in to transport the ore to the canal, where it would be loaded up on barges, shipped to New Haven for processing, and then finally loaded onto rail cars and sent on its way to New York City.

Used to thicken paint, there are likely many historic New York homes that still have particles of Cheshire barite buried in the old wood planks.

While “History of Cheshire” estimates that the shafts likely went as deep as 480 feet, Lanyon and Hermann Credner, a consultant from Germany who helped map the tunnels, indicate that the deepest were actually closer to 600 feet. 

When the mines were eventually abandoned, modern-day environmental regulations were not in effect, so instead of the tunnels being properly filled in, so back in 2003 Cheshire faced questions from local residents as several caved-in shafts opened up gaping holes on local properties.

The mines were successful in large part due to another major project that carved out a portion of Cheshire for itself.

In April of 1822, a special meeting was held in town, where the following announcement was made: “It having been represented to this meeting that an application will be made to the next General Assembly … for the establishment of a Canal, from the tide waters in New Haven to the north line of this state, by Farmington and from Farmington to Berkshire County, through the town of New Hartford.”

The meeting concluded with those in attendance determining that “the laying out of said canal will be highly honourable to this state and great benefit to a large proportion of the people of the same,” and thus voted in favor of the canal.

By all accounts, Connecticut’s canal was in response to the Erie Canal and in hopes of spurring on more trade with New York State. A group of New Haven businessmen spearheaded the endeavor.

In 1822, around the time work on the canal began, transportation was done by land - specifically by using the state’s “highway system,” which bears no resemblance to the one that crisscrosses Connecticut today.

“(The systems were) sandy in summer, buried out of sight by snow drifts in winter, and when these began to melt in the spring, of unknown depths,” according to the book “Reflections on the Canal in Cheshire,” published by the Cheshire Historical Society in 1976.

“The traveler along these thoroughfares paid at the numerous toll gates, according to the style of his equipage, from 25 cents if in a four-wheeled pleasure carriage down to four cents if on horseback,” it continues.

The canal, however, would offer an innovative way for travelers, whether transporting themselves or valuable goods, a chance to move from one end of the state to another. 

The parameters of the canal were set. It would be no more than 20 feet in width at the bottom, 34 to 36 feet in width at the water surface, and 4-foot deep. Locks - areas along the canal where the water could be lowered in order to allow for easy passage, were erected along the canal, and one of the best preserved resides to this day in Cheshire off of South Brooksvale Road. 

Though the specifications were precise, the execution may not have been as there were several breaches of the canal banks, which called for different ways to enforce them.

Then came the question of water.

“The Connecticut canal was fortunate in the relation of the Farmington River,” according to “Reflections.” “A dam just below Unionville, and three miles of a feeder canal ,,, delivered what was supposed would be an abundance of water to what was almost the highest point.”

“Losses through the soil, particularly that of the Hamden plains, as well as evaporation, however, necessitated additional supplies, and all along the line such brooks as were at the proper elevation were led into the canal,” the book continues.

The work was strenuous. The labor force came from Connecticut, New England, even foreign countries, such as Ireland. It took years to complete.

Finally, in 1827, the canal was opened. It marked a cause for celebration in Cheshire.

And account of the canal’s opening can be found in an account from Ms. Horace G. Hitchcock, who was 6 years old at the time: “It was the Fourth of July, (and) at the canal assembled a crowd of people estimated by myself at that time at one million. I think my estimate was too large, but all of Cheshire was there and some from Wolcott, men from Hog Pound in Waterbury and all of Prospect which had lately been set off from Cheshire came over in two horse wagons. Two canal boats loaded with passengers came up from New Haven and one had a band of music … Hon. James Hillhouse was there and a good many other great men from New Haven, who looked as if they thought their names would be household words for a thousands years, and they have long been forgotten.”

The canal would prove successful but short-lived. In 1847, approximately 20 years after the waterway was opened, railroads had but canals out of business. The course was filled in and rail lines installed.

Now, only a few remains of the railroad even exists, as the Farmington Canal Linear Trail follows closely in the footsteps of the old canal and railroad lines. But a visit to Lock 12 serves as a great reminder of a time when important waters ran through Cheshire, carrying residents and barite up and down Connecticut.




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