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Relic Of A Bygone Age

Relic Of A Bygone Age


Much of Cheshire is shut down at the moment, in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. However, what remains open for use are the numerous hiking trails around town.

As the weather warms, residents stuck inside at the moment may want to take advantage of these natural resources, which provide not only much-needed exercise but a chance to escape into nature for a while.

In the summer of 2018, The Cheshire Herald ran a series of articles detailing the different trails and parks around town. We thought now would be a good time to revisit those experiences, sharing with you what we saw. 

It’s important to remember that all social distancing protocols should be adhered to while hiking, and that reports of mass gatherings at these or any other open space areas of town could force their closure.

 

Cheshire loves its history.

That was evident last year when the town celebrated its 325th anniversary, commemorating the first time settlers from a little community called Wallingford stepped onto Cheshire land and decided to call it home. It’s obvious to anyone who sets foot inside the Hitchcock-Phillips House — a historic structure in its own right and the current home to the Cheshire Historical Society.

It’s apparent in the tireless work put in by residents, young and old alike, who volunteer their time to research this community’s past and bring it alive through a series of events, from the popular tours of local cemeteries in the fall to historically significant demonstrations and presentations offered in the spring and summer.

And it’s clear how much the town cares for its history when one strolls through the Historic District — an area of Cheshire where old homes are preserved and current owners are obliged to keep the original structures intact.

But one place in town helps to celebrate not only Cheshire’s history, but also that of the entire state.

Lock 12 is one of the few remaining canal locks left in the state, and arguably the best preserved of those that do remain. It is a throwback to an era when the horse and buggy ruled what passed for roads, and the quickest way to and from a place wasn’t by air or over train tracks, but by water.

Lock 12 Historical Park shows in near-perfect detail the extraordinary ingenuity of 19th century engineers who determined that, in order to make travel and the transportation of goods and services more available, they would bring the water to areas of the state that were not next to a particular waterway.

Locks were one of the great feats of its time, allowing for boats to travel along canals at different elevations of water. The way a lock worked was simple in idea, difficult in execution: A boat traveling along the canal — in Cheshire, on the Farmington Canal — would pull into the lock and the gates, both front and back, would be closed. If the boat was traveling upstream, the lock would be filled with water until the boat rose to the appropriate water level. For downstream travel, the opposite was done.

Then, once the boat was ready, the gates would be opened and she, her crew and her cargo — whether people or materials, or both — would be on their way.

According to the book “Landmarks of Old Cheshire,” there were originally four locks in Cheshire, of which Lock 12 is the only survivor.

“At Hitchcock Basin (Milldale) goods were trans-shipped from and to Waterbury and Meriden,” the book explains. “Beachport did a thriving business for Prospect and Nagautuck as well as serving Cheshire Center. Just south of Beachport, Locks 10 and 11 were known as Lockport, with a Mr. Newell as lockkeeper. Here Edward Cornwall built a shop to make coffee grinders, an enterprise later taken over by John Mix, who also made a host of other items, including britannia spoons and gimlets [a tool used for drilling holes in wood without splitting it]. Barytes from the Jinny Hill mines was loaded on barges at Higgins Road for transport to the New Haven mills. Lock 12 was tended by Sylvester Towsley and Lock 13 by Enos Brooks. Undoubtedly, both these sites received the oyster kegs made in the several Brooksvale shops for shipment to Fair Haven.”

Visitors to Lock 12 today can see some of those oyster kegs, and many of the other tools and equipment used by the lockkeeper, inside a small museum set up in a facility that was constructed out of two separate buildings that sat on the site. In 2018, The Cheshire Herald had the chance to take a look inside the museum and get a tour from Ron Gagliardi, the museum director: 

One side is referred to as the “blacksmith’s shop,” with its large brick forge in the middle of the room, while the larger portion of the building is a “carpenter’s area.”

... There is a host of interesting artifacts to view, such as an ice harvesting saw used to remove ice from waterways; a shingle bench utilized by farmers in the winter to make roof shingles for personal use or sale; a large, heavy earth-moving device used by canal workers that attached by rope to horses to dig up large swaths of dirt at once; and an old water pump that had been donated to the Cheshire Historical Society and then to Lock 12 “on extended loan.” 

Barrels, which may have been used to transport oysters, kept cool with ice, from New Haven to hungry patrons, are positioned on shelves and a replica of the first shovel used on the canal hangs on a wall to the right. 

Yet, it is undoubtedly the lock itself that attracts the most attention, as The Herald noted during our 2018 tour:

Some of the wood and metal framing has been replaced on the lock doors, but much remains as it was when the canal was in full operation between 1828 and 1848. The long handles can still be used to push the doors together or apart, and metal keys control the locking devices that secure the doors in place.

Vegetation has intruded, with vines scaling up the sides of the lock walls and two trees growing out of openings in the granite. However, Lock 12 still provides an impressive example of what this waystation was like when the canal was in full operation.

At one time, there were 28 locks in all of Connecticut, connecting New Haven to Massachusetts. Eventually, as railroads began to spring up across the country, canals became obsolete, as did the incredible engineering that made all of it possible.

But Lock 12 still offers that most unique of opportunities — a chance to actually touch history. 



 

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