Exploring the historical Connecticut River

by Town Reminder

River A

Leo Labonte details South Hadley’s connection

By William Pead
Turley Correspondent

SOUTH HADLEY – Historian Leo Labonte grew up on North Main Street with a historic perspective from the start.
“Every wall in my mom’s house has some sort of old photo or map of South Hadley, and apparently I must have been dreaming about this my whole life, and decided to start researching,” he said. “I started researching her house.”
Labonte is no stranger to the Connecticut River.
“I spent my whole life on the river, fishing,” Labonte said. “My dad and I, we fished the river up and down.” He said his father knew all the hot spots.
Labonte presented a program to the South Hadley Historical Society last week about the three-and-a-half mile curving stretch of the Connecticut River that extends South from Brunelle’s Marina.
Among the historic sites were Smith Ferry, San Souci Point, the remnants of the canal and lock system, and the incline plane down to the Beachgrounds.
Labonte has even found metal rings dating back to the late 1700s in rocks along the river.
Doing research like this is never easy.
“I was amazed how much wasn’t out there,” Labonte said, adding, “There’s so much information available in pieces. I’ve been trying to pull all together. I just did a little project for the Historic Committee and I pulled 440 houses together and dated all the houses so they can have an idea of what’s old, what’s new in the town.”
Based on that research, a historic district is being defined in the Falls neighborhood once known as Canal Village.
Canal Park serves as a historic memorial, preserving the remnants of the canal.
Labonte, who spent three years researching the river’s history, said there was a time when there were 12 dams on the river. Today, only one is left.
There were 31 camps on the South Hadley side, 26 of which he’s found traveling the river. Labonte said the research has been challenging, wondering if you’re in the right spot.
Labonte said he traveled down the river with Mark Brunelle of Brunelle’s Marina and with Paul Meyer, who maps the river every two years for boaters.
He said, “Between us we figured out where some log cribs were, and where some mills were.” Chopping through the brush and finding the metal rings leaded in the rocks was among his most exciting discoveries.
During his slide presentation to the Historical Society, Labonte said the Connecticut River was a busy place, bringing passengers to and from Hartford, and commercial boat traffic up and down the waterway.
In fact, South Hadley became the home of the nation’s first successful navigable canal beginning in 1795. Remnants of which can still be found in the stretch featured in Labonte’s show. The canal historic district has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
An “Inclined Plane” for almost ten years was used to raise up to a ten-ton flat boat and its 30-ton cargo 53 feet over the Great Falls, replaced in 1805 by a set of five locks.
In the 1830s and 1840s, steamboats were a regular sight on the Connecticut River simultaneously pulling a number of flatboats between canals.
The South Hadley Canal continued to operate through 1862 when the last tolls were collected. A model is on view inside South Hadley’s Old Firehouse Museum on North Main Street. Today, Canal Park serves as a historic memorial, preserving the remnants of the historic South Hadley canal.