By the early 1820s, as the Erie Canal stretched across western New York, communities all around the United States became infatuated with the idea of canals, and Cornwall was no exception. Deep within the Cornwall Historical Society vault are several documents related to the short-lived Ousatonic Canal Company. Despite the enthusiasm of the company’s supporters, the proposed canal never advanced beyond its early planning stages, in spite of having the official support of several respected Cornwall residents. Even though the much-anticipated canal through the Valley never materialized, the arguments in favor of its construction were successfully reused a decade later during the region’s courting of the Housatonic Railroad.
In May 1822, the Ousatonic Canal Company was organized with the goal of digging a canal alongside the Housatonic (or, Ousatonic) River from Long Island Sound to the Massachusetts border. For decades, entrepreneurs along the river had desired a way to move goods by water to Connecticut’s coastal cities, but shallow depths, waterfalls, and ubiquitous stones rendered much of the Housatonic impassible. Finally, businessmen from along the Housatonic River Valley seized upon the popular fascination caused by the construction of the Erie Canal and were able to incorporate their company.
According to the project’s promoters, the canal was essential to the economic growth of the Valley. Once the canal opened, businessmen from communities like Cornwall would have profited handsomely from their new abilities to ship items like slate, lumber, and iron to coastal cities, and receive luxury items from urban areas in return. As an added bonus, company executives also claimed that the region’s abundant lime and cinder (a waste product from the charcoal industry) could be mixed into a cheap and effective type of cement. Theoretically, the canal would have been dug on the western side of the river, lined with lime-cinder cement, dotted with various locks to control the water level, and flanked by a towpath where animals could tug along barges laden with goods. The estimated cost of the project was put at $599,400.
Despite the backing of some of Cornwall’s most influential residents, such as Philo Swift, John Calhoun, and Oliver Burnham, the canal was never attempted. According to Yale professor Robert B. Gordon, after the initial survey of the area revealed that the project would not be as easy to construct or inexpensive as early estimates indicated, support for the plan was abandoned. Ironically, fourteen years later, petitioners from the Valley used nearly identical language about their need for a connection to coastal markets to successfully bring about the construction of the Housatonic Railroad. Only in 1842, upon the railway’s completion, would Cornwall residents have a fast and relatively inexpensive way to ship items to the Connecticut coast.