Town Historian: Elizabeth Clark
The peacefulness of Canaan, the second smallest town in Connecticut, belies a history that is anything but quiet. For it was here, beginning in the early 18th century, peaking in the 19th and ending in the early 20th, that stone blast furnaces poured forth red-hot, high quality Salisbury iron. Mountains and valleys were stripped bare of trees to make charcoal to feed the hungry furnaces. A huge factory once stood at the Great Falls and employed hundreds of men to manufacture cannons, war materiel and huge railroad tires from the famed Salisbury iron. One hundred years ago the center of town, now so quiet, was a beehive of commercial activity, a boomtown, and early entrepreneurs dreamed of channeling the power of the falls to fuel an industrial empire.
Thankfully, the iron industry moved to the easily accessible surface iron mines of the Midwest, the plans for empire collapsed, the ravaged mountains and valleys reclaimed their natural splendor, and the peaceful life of a small town returned. Today, the stunning and unspoiled natural beauty of Falls Village remains its most prized and closely guarded asset, and its rich New England heritage remains firmly in place and guides its future.
The Institute of American Indian Studies, headquartered in Washington, CT, has conducted a number of archaeological surveys in Falls Village and North Canaan, including sites along the Housatonic River and around Robbins Swamp in Falls Village. The latter revealed sites dating back thousands of years, indicating that Falls Village was settled very early by Native American societies, probably in early post-Pleistocene times soon after deglaciation.
When people of European stock arrived in the Falls Village area in the early 1700’s, much if not all appears to have been Weantinock tribal territory. A well-worn Indian trail along the banks of the Housatonic connected the Schaghticoke tribe in Kent with the Stockbridge Indian community in western Massachusetts to the north and with the Weantinock, Pootatuck and Paugussett tribal communities to the south as far as Stratford on Long Island Sound. It was known as the Berkshire Path.
The Indians on the whole were friendly to the newcomers, although some bitter arguments broke out over land sales and rights to natural resources, such as tree bark for wood splint basket making and rights to frequent Indian fishing and planting grounds. Most Indians thought of land rights as that of occupancy only, not of outright ownership. Representatives of Connecticut’s General Court were called in to settle disputes, which the Indians usually lost.
Connecticut Assembly records report that about 1,000 Indians were left in the state by 1756, most considered friendly. Eventually the Indians in the northwest corner were pushed out, except for the Schaghticokes in Kent, whose village became a major Indian refuge for members of other tribal groups attempting to continue their traditional way of life.
For almost a century, white people, mostly of European stock, especially English, had gradually claimed or bought and settled much of the rugged territory in the colony of Connecticut. Nearly twice as many towns were settled in the 30 years after 1690 as in the 30 years before. The estimated population of the Colony of Connecticut in 1730 was 60,000 and growing rapidly. But there was one last section of the Colony, the northwest corner or the so-called Western Lands, that was still mostly virgin wilderness.
In the early 1700’s high-grade iron ore had been discovered in Salisbury. White men, many of Dutch descent migrating from the Hudson River area, began buying up land and water rights from the Indians and a few received grants from the Connecticut General Assembly. By 1735, Thomas Lamb was smelting iron in Lime Rock. The General Assembly considered it illegal for anyone to buy property in the Western Lands without its express approval and consent. The “persons who have encroached and unjustly entered” the territory caused great concern.
The Western Lands, with their beautiful vistas, rich soils, abundant waterpower, exceptional iron ore, limestone and vast stands of virgin timber were ripe for settlement. Pressure was put on the Assembly to open up the Western Lands to development.
In 1731 the General Assembly accepted the report of three men who had been sent to the northwest corner to survey the land and lay out the townships. Word spread about the potential and beauty of the rugged territory. Disagreement about the method of selling the land broke out and complicated the process. The Assembly finally decided to auction off the land to the highest bidders. The money from the sales was to be used for the support of schools in the settled towns in Connecticut. Those who had “encroached and unjustly entered” the Western Lands were told to leave. In 1738 and in subsequent years land in Canaan, Kent, Cornwall, Sharon, Salisbury, Goshen and other towns, in what would become Litchfield County in 1751, was sold, organized, and settled.
On January 3, 1738, at 1:00 o’clock in the afternoon, Town “C” was sold at auction in New London in 53 rights, or shares. The first fifty shares were sold outright with the remaining three shares set apart: one for the benefit of the first “gospel minister settled”, one to be sequestered for the use of the ministry forever, and one for the use of a school in such town. Since Town “C” at that time enclosed about fifty square miles, each share covered a large piece of land. The purchasers, known as proprietors, agreed to settle their land within two years, build a house of at least 18 feet square and seven feet stud, and subdue and fence at least six acres of land and pay their taxes and financial obligations. The occupants had to remain on the land for another successive three years. If these conditions were not met, the property would be forfeited. Proprietors asked the Assembly committee supervising the undertaking to be particularly watchful to see that non-resident proprietors did not send any settlers who would likely become a burden on the town. Strong backs and willing hands were required.
Town “C” was formally named Canaan by the Assembly in May 1738. It is interesting to note that the land in Canaan and Goshen was considered the most attractive, and bids started at 60 pounds for each share. So rapid was the influx of population that the Assembly incorporated Canaan in 1739. Perhaps the biblical name of Canaan attracted the attention of these staunch, church-going Christians. Some towns in the northwest corner would take years to be incorporated.
The names of some of the early settlers—Lawrence (Tavern/homestead), Beebe (Hill road and school), Belden (Street), Hollenbeck (River), Holcomb (farm), Hogoboom (farm) and Dutcher (bridge) are still familiar in the area more than two and a half centuries later.
After many days of difficult travel through wilderness to reach the Western Lands, the early settlers set about providing for the basic necessities. Protection from the elements and wild animals was secured, cropland cleared and planted, and a place of worship and town government established. It was important to these settlers that the earliest roads would take them to their place of worship, the tax-supported Congregational Church, the official religion of the Colony.
The winter of 1740-41 was especially severe, and many settlers suffered from the extreme cold, deep snow and “extra-ordinary sickness.” Many farm animals froze to death. The sturdy pioneers petitioned the General Assembly for financial relief.
Bears, wolves and rattlesnakes were plentiful in the northwest corner. In their earliest action, Canaan selectmen offered bounties for the tails of dead rattlesnakes. Blackbirds, jays and squirrels were on their hit list too. Old records tell of hunting parties organized in the area. Five bears were reported killed on the same day in one hunt, and five wolves met the same fate in another hunt in 1765. Connecticut offered a bounty of 40 shillings for “catamounts or panthers.”
From early town and other written records we know that slaves once lived in the town of Canaan. Owning slaves at that time was not uncommon. Slavery as it developed in Connecticut was an outcome of the heritage, customs and religion of the people of the colony. A census in 1774 tallied 5,101 slaves in the colony; by 1790 the United States census recorded 2,759 slaves and 2,801 free Negroes. Emancipation in Connecticut came slowly in measured legal steps until the stain of slavery ended in 1848, except for those slaves aged 64 or older.
Certainly the slaves who came with the earliest settlers must have participated in the backbreaking and dangerous work of taming the wilderness. On small farms in New England slaves usually worked side by side with their masters. Their forced participation in the settling of Canaan and her sister towns has not been adequately disclosed in historical records, diaries or journals. There are a few recorded histories of slaves who lived in the northwest corner, and most of those African-Americans lie in unmarked graves, their personal histories unknown. Their silent, important contributions should be respected and gratefully acknowledged.
From the time of the first white settlers to the present, the water power of the Housatonic River and the Great Falls has played an important role in the economy of Falls Village.
It seems reasonable to assume that the driving water force of the Great Falls and the Little Falls (located at that time a short distance above the main falls) attracted early settlers. The hardy pioneers were wholly dependent upon the land to provide their vital needs. In 1738 the proprietors voted that Humphrey Avery, chief surveyor of the town, should have choice land adjoining “Ye Grate Falls” provided he would build a sawmill by the end of that year. A bridge over the river was reportedly built in 1744 and businesses were established near the falls on both sides. In those founding years, the harnessed water powered grist, bolting, fulling and paper mills, ironworks, and a blacksmith shop.
In 1833 the Ames Iron Works opened on the Salisbury side of the falls in what is now known as Amesville. Mr. Ames hired hundreds of employees who worked in multiple shifts in the huge factory that manufactured wheels and axles for locomotives, steamboat shafts, anchors, and cannons and cannon balls for the Civil War. Stores, inns, taverns, banks and other businesses flourished on both sides of the river. The center of town was a beehive of activity.
The settlement around the falls was known as “Canaan Falls” until the Housatonic railroad was built along the east side of the river. The first train came steaming into town in 1841, greeted by a festive crowd. The new station was called “Falls Village,” and the name stuck. The first stationmaster was listed as D. M. Hunt, strongly suggesting the David M. Hunt for whom the town library is named.
In 1845 a plan to build a manufacturing empire rivaling Pittsburgh or Holyoke was launched by iron masters Messrs. Robbins and Canfield. They launched “The Water Power Company” and envisioned a three-level mile-long canal below the Great Falls impounding water to turn the wheels of various industries. The canal’s stonewalls, 20 feet high in some places and 10 feet wide at the base were built without cement. Town lore has it that at the grand opening, when the gates opened, water squirted from leaks all along the canal and sank the enterprise.
Part of the sturdy, dry walls of the canal still stand today as a monument to a failed dream of empire. In 1914 a hydro-electric power plant, still in use today, was built by The Connecticut Power Company. The company lined about 1,900 feet of the original canal with cement and used it to guide water to a gatehouse, where it falls 90 feet, spins the turbines and flows back into the Housatonic River.
During the 1750’s, the North American colonies of England were engaged in a struggle, called the French and Indian War (in Europe it was known as The Seven Years War) against the North American colonies of France and their Indian allies. Conflicting territorial claims, long-standing national animosities, and Catholic/Protestant prejudices fueled the hostilities. Of most concern to the residents of Connecticut were the series of battles that took place in the Lake George-Lake Champlain region. In the days when overland travel was difficult, the French had forts guarding these major waterways to Canada, including Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and to its south, Fort Ticonderoga.
Several thousand Connecticut men, including many from Canaan and her sister towns, took part in several campaigns to dislodge the French from the forts in the lakes area mentioned above. In 1760 Canaan men participated in a successful siege against Montreal. After two more years of war, the French surrendered by treaty in 1763 and lost most of her possessions in North America. (In an ironic twist—after helping the British take Fort Ticonderoga, Montreal and Quebec from the French, Canaan men would fight to take the same forts and cities away from the British in the Revolutionary War.)
Four veterans of the French and Indian War are buried in Falls Village in the Haskins (Undermountain) Cemetery.
The Connecticut Courant reported in its issue of July 12, 1774:
We hear from Canaan, that on the 21st of June last, a large Number of the most respectable Inhabitants of that and neighboring Towns, assembled together, at the Sign of the Brazen Ball and raised a Standard for Liberty, 78 Feet high, and fixed a Scarlet Flag on the Top, 15 Feet in Length, with the Words LIBERTY and PROPERTY inscribed on it in large Capitals. After which they retired to Capt. Lawrence’s Tavern, where a Number of loyal and constitutional toasts were drank….
On that memorable day in June when a group of local patriots raised the LIBERTY AND PROPERTY flag, they were, like many other patriots in Connecticut, reacting to the rising tensions between England and her American colonies. News of the extreme measures the mother country was taking to punish the Colony of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party had spread throughout the colonies. Enraged patriots were uniting in organized protest. Nine months after the flag raising in Canaan, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord.
LIBERTY AND PROPERTY were understood to be fundamental rights, and the patriots of Canaan intended to guard fiercely these two pillars of English law. “LIBERTY AND PROPERTY” would become a popular, bonding cry shared by New England patriots. Canaan men, as well as men from sister towns, enlisted of their own free will and served with bravery and distinction as volunteers in Continental Line regiments or in their local militia.
Canaan men were involved in the Revolutionary War on many fronts, including: the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the ill-fated trek to capture Montreal and Quebec, Valley Forge (two died there), the battles at Stony Point, Long Island, Monmouth, Saratoga, Trenton, Princeton and Yorktown. Some served under Generals Washington, Clinton, Putnam and Benedict Arnold. Two Canaan men signed up as Minutemen, and a town official served as an express rider carrying messages between commanders and government officials. A Canaan fifer and a drummer volunteered for duty.
In addition, all through the Revolution Canaan provided many necessities such as made-for-war iron goods, guns and their accoutrements, blankets, clothing, shoes, meat, flour and hundreds of bushels of grains and charcoal. Heavy taxation provided money for the cause.
On the home front, a Committee of Safety took care of the families of absent soldiers and made sure they had the necessities of life. Women wove cloth and sewed clothing for the soldiers and with their older children, kept the farms going.
Connecticut would become known as The Arsenal of the Revolution, and Canaan earned its share of that proud title. The town honorably defended the fledgling idea of democracy and freedom for the common man and helped launch a new nation based on those principles.
Seventeen veterans of the Revolutionary War are buried in Canaan, many of them officers.
When the town of Canaan was first settled in 1738 it comprised about 52 square miles. The mountains that formed a natural barrier between the northern and the southern parts of the town caused communication problems right from the start.
The Congregational Church was the state-sponsored religion in Connecticut and by law was supported through local taxation until 1818. Church attendance was mandatory, and the difficulty of getting to church services over long distances, rough roads and in inclement weather caused the first split in the town. In 1769 the Ecclesiastical Society that had encompassed the whole town split, and two Congregational churches, north and south, accommodated the faithful. It is reasonable to assume that the two congregations slowly developed their own distinct identities.
For the next 89 years the subject of splitting Canaan in two came up again and again in official meetings. A petition to the State to divide the town would be voted, and then another vote would recall the petition. This on-again, off-again dance ended in 1858, when the Legislature of the State passed in their May session official authorization to divide the town into North Canaan and Canaan.
At the time of the division two committee reports perhaps best spell out the frustrations that led to the split. “It is believed that there are few Towns in our State that nature has done so much to divide as it has to this Town,” a committee report stated. Another committee reported “…the Town is naturally divided from the east line nearly to the west line by an impassable mountain thus making two distinct communities with little intercourse and but few interests in common that we have no common center for the transaction of Town business and cannot have except at such a distance from the actual centre as to make the distance to be traveled so great as to prevent many of the Inhabitants from attending Town Meeting, thus leaving the whole business to be done by a few and the majority remaining ignorant of the condition of the affairs of the Town that the wants and conditions of neither division of the Town are properly understood or appreciated by the other.”
Dividing the town was not an easy task. Who would own the town records up to 1858? Who would take care of paupers? How should the town funds be divided? Where exactly is the division line? These questions and many, many more were figured out and the separation was completed in a friendly manner. Questions about the boundary line, however, were not permanently settled until 1879. The final act of separation came in 1890 when the David M. Hunt Library was being built in Falls Village. Falls Village’s support of the Douglas Library in North Canaan, which both towns had equally supported since the split, officially ended.
The Civil War affected every hamlet, town and city in this country. Before it ended, 600,000 men from both sides would die defending their deeply held beliefs. When war commenced, the men from Canaan immediately answered Abraham Lincoln’s call to defend the Union. Many were members of The Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery Company. At the beginning of the war the Second Connecticut defended Washington, D.C., but later the Company was transferred to the infantry when Ulysses S. Grant became the General-In-Chief of the Union Army. Many Canaan men participated in some of the major, bloodiest battles of the war: Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Fisher’s Hill, Cedar Creek, Newport News, Antietam, Fredicksburg, Bull Run, and the siege of Petersburg. Some Canaan men who fell in battle were buried where they fell in the South.
Fifty-one veterans of the Civil War are buried in Falls Village. Ten of them gave their lives for their country.
For the next hundred years after the Revolutionary War, the iron industry in the northwest corner was in its heyday. Iron furnaces were built in both the northern part of Canaan and in the Falls Village section. High-grade Salisbury iron ore was transported to the brightly burning furnaces, and the processed pig iron was used to manufacture everything from common pots to huge anchors. Hundreds of acres of timber were clear-cut to make charcoal to feed the iron furnaces, and the night skies in the northwest area were lit up from the red hot fires of numerous iron furnaces running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Smoke and soot were regarded as acceptable signs of economic progress, and the destruction of the local forests to make charcoal did not seem to raise many concerns, if the lack of protests reported in the local newspaper is any measure.
Iron fueled a robust economy in Falls Village for decades. Across the Housatonic River, at the site of the old Ames Iron Works (which closed after the Civil War), a mighty trip hammer, named for Thor, the God of Thunder, pounded away at the Housatonic Railroad shops. Hundreds of workers toiled to refurbish, repair and make parts for locomotives and railroad cars. The town’s population grew and the center of town bustled with activity. The Housatonic Railroad shops were closed down shortly after that company merged with the N.Y.N.H & H.R.R. in 1898 and many businesses in the Falls Village center collapsed and many families moved out of town.
Several factors doomed the local iron industry: Among them, the Bessemer steel process, invented in 1855 in England, made it possible to manufacture steel economically from molten iron ore, but it required a continuous, enormous amount of water for the process that was not locally available. Also, as the country moved west, the discovery of large iron deposits and the availability of open-pit mining in the Lake Superior area contributed to the collapse of the local iron industry. In 1923, in East Canaan, the last working iron furnace shut down.
The impact on the environment of the charcoal industry is still with us. Many hillside forests lack a variety of ancient hardwood trees and instead are dotted with uniform-sized trees that grew after clear-cutting.
Today, contrary to its industrial past, the Town of Canaan is a quiet, peaceful town. There is some noise, however, that Villagers still love to hear--the thunder of the Great Falls in the spring, when the rushing waters of the Housatonic River, the second largest river in the State, swollen with spring rains and melting snow and ice, spill over the dam. Huge plumes of mist float in the air as the water tumbles sixty feet over rocks and ledge. It is a beautiful, awe-inspiring sight that draws visitors from distant miles.
The quiet and beauty of Falls Village makes it a place where people come to enjoy life in a New England country setting, neighbor still helps neighbor, the virtues of small-town life exist, and the town’s long, colorful history is cherished and preserved.
I would like to acknowledge the historians whose excellent works were a great help to me in writing this history: The writings of Faith Campbell, George Farnsworth, Winton B. Rodgers, Allyn Fuller, Edward Kirby, Harold W. Felton, Marie Collins Graham, Nellie M. Rodgers and Lucianne Lavin, Director of Research at The Institute of American Indian Studies.
Information was also culled from the Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut and the Public Records of the State of Connecticut, The Connecticut Western News, Town of Canaan records, the First Census of the United States (1790), the files in the Connecticut Room at the David M. Hunt Library and The Falls Village-Canaan Historical Society, The Historical Statistical and Industrial Review, State of Connecticut (1884) The Civil War Archives of the State of Connecticut, publications by the Tercentenary Commission of the State of Connecticut (1933), Complicity-How Connecticut Chained itself to Slavery (The Hartford Courant 2002) The Lure of the Litchfield Hill, The Lakeville Journal and several websites.
I would like to thank Jack Mahoney, Ellery and Mary Lu Sinclair, Faye Lawson and Judy Jacobs, Town of Canaan Historian, for their valuable suggestions, encouragement and help in writing this history.
Researched and written by Betty Tyburski.