South Hadley Falls, or South Hadley Canal, as it was then known, was, before the railroad entered the region, a larger and brisker village than Holyoke. A wing dam had been built out into the river, extending perhaps one third of the way across the stream, and here were tow wooden paper mills and a low, black, stone gristmill. The stages running up and down the river changed horses at the old brick hotel which still stands at the head of the main street of the village. This is at present painted white and is used as a tenement. Then it was unpainted and was known as “The Falls House.”
Supplies for several of the back country towns were landed at the village by the river boats, and there was an immense amount of business going through the canal from the time navigation opened in the spring to late in the year when the ice closed it again. Boats loaded with merchandise were going through the locks most of the times, and large quantities of logs and timber were floated through on their way down stream. These rafts were made up in “boxes” or divisions, each “box” being as long and wide as would go through the locks. Once again on the open stream these boxes were tackles together and many of the rafts had little shanties on them with bunks inside where the men slept. A box of sand served as a fireplace for such cooking as they chose to do. As many as 5,000 tons have passed through the canal in a single year, paying tolls amounting to $13,000.
When a boat coming up the rive came opposite the Willimansett landing, in case the wind was unfavorable, it was drawn upstream by a long rope attached to a windlass some distance above on the Holyoke shore. From there is was towed, as the need was, by one to four yoke of oxen hitched to a heavy pair of wheels, along shore up to the ferry landing. If a propitious gale was blowing, sail was then boisted and the boat crossed the stream and drew up along side the Public Landing at South Hadley Falls. But if there was no land to speak of, or such a wind as the mariners would speak ill of in their rough boatman fashion, nothing remained but a hard push with pole athwart the swift current, which brought them to land some rods, more or less, below the eastern ferry landing. There a pair or more of stout oxen would be attached to the craft and it would make its sluggish way up to the landing, which was built about where the bridge now is. Here the cargoes for the village and the several back country towns surrounding were landed.
If the boat was bound still farther up the river it was poled in at the mouth of the canal, which entered the river close above, having risen higher and higher, the upper level was reached. This last lock was at about the spot now spanned by the extension of the Hampshire paper mill. Having poled on beyond the hill which lifted a steep rocky wall east of the canal here, Harvey Rice took the boat in tow with his horse, for the remaining mile to the upper end, where Day’s tavern afforded the rivermen solace for dangers past, and strength for trials to come.
When unlocked from the placid canal, the boats again entered the headstrong current of the river. But up stream a hundred rods, where the smooth Connecticut first breaks over the long descent of rapids, stands Pulpit rock, and to this rock was fastened a rope whose down-stream end was wound around a huge drum on a large flatboat. At each end of the axle of this drum, projecting over the sides of the boat, was a paddle wheel which could be raised or lowered at will. When lowered the current caused the paddle wheels to revolve—the drum wound up the rope, and the craft with a boat or two in tow moved up stream.
A raft coming down, when it reached this point and struck the swift current, was often an unwieldy thing to manage and get properly started in the canal. Once in a while a raft would get the better of the boatmen and go down over the falls. On one such occasion several men were drowned. They were afterwards buried on the Whiting Street farm opposite. A few years later a little steamboat, which was used for towing boats between the canal and Greenfield, blew up just as it was starting from the canal with two boats in tow. Four men were killed in this accident and three of them were buried across the river beside those two who lost their lives in the previous accident.
At the upper end of the canal, a rough log dam had been built across the stream, but with a gap a hundred feet in width in the center, to allow the passing of shad, and the shooting of timber. The dam served to turn the water into the canal and kept it navigable. Through the gap in the dam logs were sent down, sometimes singly, sometimes in “coons.” A coon was made up of a half-dozen logs fastened together with withes side by side.