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Click below to listen to Ted Belsky talk about the South Hadley Canal






Historic South Hadley canal model gets exhibit upgrade

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

By JUDY VAN HANDLE

South Hadley is a small town that has left a big mark on the history of travel by water in the United States.

Specifically, the first navigable canal went into use more than 200 years ago in South Hadley, highlighted by a novel system of raising boats for safe passage through the waterway.

The canal and attendant historical items will be in the spotlight beginning on Saturday when the town's Old Firehouse Museum opens its doors for the 2009 season.

The aptly named Canal Village Potpourri will serve as the backdrop for the unveiling of the Connecticut River/South Hadley Canal Room, the newest permanent display at the museum. The renovated room houses "lots of memorabilia," according to Ted Belsky, who served as a longtime Canal Park Committee co-chairman, and items related to the canal and the community that sprang up around it.

Models of boats from that era on the Connecticut River, maps of the canal area, and many other items are on display, along with a model of an innovational mode of transport for vessels on the river.

The canal began operations in 1795, predating such wonders as the Erie Canal in New York by several decades. It was constructed over a three-year span and was intended to allow vessels to bypass the Great Falls, which dropped 53 feet. To send the boats safely past the falls, the canal builders constructed the "inclined plane."

The first-of-its-kind invention raised boats attached to a large cart over a huge stone ramp, then lowered the vessels safely over the falls to continue their trip. The designer of the inclined plane is lost to history, though its construction was overseen by Benjamin Prescott, a local resident.

The inclined plane was in operation for about 10 years before it was replaced by the more common lock system, which was used by the canal until it ceased operations in 1862.

"People came for hundreds of miles to see the canal and inclined plane," said Belsky. "It was an amazing achievement."

Now patrons will have the chance to view all of the museum's materials relating to the canal's history in a permanent home. Since the museum closed for the season last September, historical society members Brian Duncan and Gerry Lacasse were instrumental in renovating the room, applying fresh paint and new rugs to the space, which had previously housed a children's exhibit.

Sure to be the most eye-catching exhibit-within-the-exhibit is the working replica of the inclined plane. The expansive model, which duplicates the trip a boat took over the falls, was built about a dozen years ago and has taken up residence in schools and the second floor of the museum before finding its permanent niche.

The seasonal exhibit at the museum, which changes each year, also reflects a canal theme. It represents day-to-day life in South Hadley when the canal was functioning. Period clothing, furniture and items found around a typical home of the era will be highlighted. Paper mills, other factories, businesses and homes sprouted up in the area that was known as Canal Village.

The Museum will be one of several organizations participating in the 30th annual Potpourri tag sale, to run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, concurrent with the Museum's opening.

The Old Firehouse Museum is located at 11 North Main St. and is open May through September on Sundays, adding Wednesdays in July and August, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. each day. Admission is free; donations are welcome. Judy Van Handle is a member of the South Hadley Historical Society.

© 2009 The Republican Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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