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The "Agawam"

by Elizabeth Hoff, LHS Board Member
October 22. 2020


The "Dexter", another Connecticut River steamboat

The frequently shallow waters of the Enfield Falls challenged boats traveling on the Connecticut River. Moderately-sized vessels could not reliably ascend the rapids and William Pynchon and early Springfield settlers found it easier to transport goods by trail or small flat-bottomed boat to a storage facility south of Enfield (known then and now as “Warehouse Point”) where they could be loaded on a larger ship. But, the Enfield Falls is also one of the reasons that George Washington chose Springfield as the location for the federal armory; since the Enfield Falls could not be navigated by ocean-going vessels, Springfield was safe from naval attack.


Windsor Locks Canal showing rapids to the left
[click image to enlarge]

The Windsor Locks Canal, which opened in 1829, enabled boats to move up and down the river in sufficient water, bypassing the Enfield rapids. Barring a frozen river or a hurricane, daily ferry service between Hartford and Springfield was possible.
 
If the water was high, river traffic sometimes skipped the canal and rode over the falls instead. In 1837, Frink, Chapin & Co. of Springfield launched a new steamboat (the “Agawam”) to ferry persons over the Enfield Falls between Hartford and Springfield. The “Massachusetts”, which had come online around 1833, was too large for practical service through the Windsor Locks Canal and the smaller “Agawam” was designed for service when the water was too low for the “Massachusetts”.

Erastus Reed, a mechanic who lived in Longmeadow, built the hull of the “Agawam”. The “Agawam” had a flat bottom and was very shallow – drawing a mere 13” of water – and it had a promenade which extended the full length of the boat. The center-fired boiler was similar to that which was used in a locomotive. There were two cabins on either side of the boiler – the aft cabin was for ladies and the forward cabin was for gentlemen. Both were neatly finished with panel-work. Unfortunately, we do not have an image of the “Agawam”; the image above is another Connecticut River steamboat, the “Dexter”.


The trial run of the “Agawam” down the river from Springfield occurred on July 20, 1837. Captain Peck steered the boat and “old Pilot Allen” navigated. It traveled 14 miles to Windsor Locks with 48 persons on board and it ran the falls at Enfield easily so that no polemen were needed to get it off of the rocks – a great achievement! The “Agawam” returned to Springfield before dark.

 
Charles Dickens

In 1842, Charles Dickens traveled throughout the United States, visiting the eastern seaboard, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia. One of the most popular authors of the century, Mr. Dickens received the full celebrity treatment. He was feted and feasted wherever he went, and his every move was chronicled in newspapers throughout the country.


Springfield Republican February 5, 1842

On February 7, Mr. Dickens traveled from Springfield to Hartford on a Connecticut River steamer and he wrote about his journey in his book American Notes. Dickens does not identify the name of the ship but, according to W. DeLoss Love, Dickens traveled on the “Agawam”.
 

Springfield Republican February 5, 1842

Traveling by water in the winter was an adventure! This is what Charles Dickens wrote about his excursion down the Connecticut River:
 
“Fortunately, however, the winter having been unusually mild, the Connecticut River was ‘open,’ or, in other words, not frozen.  The captain of a small steamboat was going to make his first trip for the season that day (the second February trip, I believe, within the memory of man), and only waited for us to go on board.  Accordingly, we went on board, with as little delay as might be.  He was as good as his word, and started directly.
It certainly was not called a small steamboat without reason.  I omitted to ask the question, but I should think it must have been of about half a pony power.  Mr. Paap, the celebrated Dwarf, might have lived and died happily in the cabin, which was fitted with common sash-windows like an ordinary dwelling-house.  These windows had bright-red curtains, too, hung on slack strings across the lower panes; so that it looked like the parlour of a Lilliputian public-house, which had got afloat in a flood or some other water accident, and was drifting nobody knew where.  But even in this chamber there was a rocking-chair.  It would be impossible to get on anywhere, in America, without a rocking-chair.  I am afraid to tell how many feet short this vessel was, or how many feet narrow: to apply the words length and width to such measurement would be a contradiction in terms.  But I may state that we all kept the middle of the deck, lest the boat should unexpectedly tip over; and that the machinery, by some surprising process of condensation, worked between it and the keel: the whole forming a warm sandwich, about three feet thick.
It rained all day as I once thought it never did rain anywhere, but in the Highlands of Scotland.  The river was full of floating blocks of ice, which were constantly crunching and cracking under us; and the depth of water, in the course we took to avoid the larger masses, carried down the middle of the river by the current, did not exceed a few inches.  Nevertheless, we moved onward, dexterously; and being well wrapped up, bade defiance to the weather, and enjoyed the journey.  The Connecticut River is a fine stream; and the banks in summer-time are, I have no doubt, beautiful; at all events, I was told so by a young lady in the cabin; and she should be a judge of beauty, if the possession of a quality include the appreciation of it, for a more beautiful creature I never looked upon.
 
After two hours and a half of this odd travelling (including a stoppage at a small town, where we were saluted by a gun considerably bigger than our own chimney), we reached Hartford.”

While Charles Dickens enjoyed his journey down the Connecticut River, he was not complimentary about many parts of the United States. He was appalled by both the rampant materialism and greed that he found in the north and the institution of slavery that he found in the south. To learn more about Charles Dickens’s visit to America, you might want to listen to this podcast.

The towpath of the Windsor Locks Canal connects Suffield and Windsor Locks. It is now the Windsor Locks State Park Canal Trail and you can hike the 4.5 mile path while enjoying scenic vistas of the Connecticut River. The canal, which is privately owned, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For more information about the park, read this article.

Sources
1865 Massachusetts Census
Springfield Republican: July 22, 1837; Feb. 5, 1842
Agawam Weekly Messenger, Aug. 3, 1937
W. DeLoss Love, The Navigation of the Connecticut River
Charles Dickens, American Notes
National Register of Historic Places
Karen Carlson, image of The Dexter


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Longmeadow Historical Society

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