Bob Madison did not know that a canal built in the 19th century had run near his childhood home in Westfield, Mass., until he became an adult. Yet he walked across what had once been a canal almost every day in high school.
Land spanning parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts has been home to the canal, a railroad, and now a paved pedestrian bike trail, the Farmington Canal trail Madison has made it his mission to disseminate the history of the canal across the two states.
Madison wrote New Haven and Northampton Canal Greenway, a biker’s guide infused with history to avoid what he feared could be a “boring” book. He spoke of the canal, railroad and trail Monday night at the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
“It’s a piece of forgotten history, and a lot of people, I find out, are not aware of it. So my goal is to make people aware of it,” said Madison.
Following construction of the Erie Canal, focus turned to a man-made waterway which would connect New Haven and Northampton. The result was an 86-mile canal completed in 1835 and functioning until 1847. A railroad replaced the canal, lasting until the early 1980s. In the 90’s, construction of a rail trail following alongside the line began, and has been gradually extended since then. (Read here about plans to finish the lsat piece in New Haven.)
Madison has already sold several hundred copies of the book, and he added 5 more copies to that tally following Monday’s lecture. He donates the money to the Southwick Historical Society in hopes that it will post canal crossing signs along the trail.
While he has raised enough money to raise signs in six towns, he says they still have not been posted.
“I don’t want to say anything ill against the Department of Public Works, but they have their own work cycle. These things are last on their agenda,” said Madison.
Many attendees of his talk Monday night were cyclists. Carol Nardini said she has always been interested in history and wanted to learn more about the trail itself.
“It certainly is a resource in terms of history, beauty, cycling for fitness, transportation or just plain meditatio. Just enjoyment of what the trail has to offer,” said Nardini.
Thomas Philips, a member of the Southern Connecticut Cycle Club, said he had never put much thought into the landscaping and history surrounding the trail. He said the name changes concerning the trail as well as the lack of continuity of the trail added to his lack of recognition of its roots.
“I did know about some of the trails because we’ve ridden them as a groups, so some of the locks that he talked about, we’ve actually seen and ridden by,” said Philips.
While Madison claims to not be an expert on the canal, railroad, or bicycle path, he easily fielded questions ranging from the height of the locks to the distance between Union Station and the start of the trail. He even knew what type of wood had been used for the aqueducts: “Anything they could get.”
Now, Madison said, he hopes to “ somehow, in 2025 to make everyone aware that the canal is two centuries old.”