Connecticut River

Connecticut River
Connecticut River
Looking north from the French King Bridge at the Erving-Gill town line in western Massachusetts
Country United States
States Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire
 - left Chicopee River
 - right White River
Cities Springfield, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut
Source Fourth Connecticut Lake
 - elevation 2,660 ft (811 m)
 - coordinates 45°14′53″N 71°12′51″W / 45.24806°N 71.21417°W / 45.24806; -71.21417
Mouth Long Island Sound
 - location Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, Connecticut[1]
 - coordinates 41°16′20″N 72°20′03″W / 41.27222°N 72.33417°W / 41.27222; -72.33417
Length 407 mi (655 km)
Basin 11,250 sq mi (29,137 km2)
Discharge for Thompsonville, CT
 - average 17,070 cu ft/s (483 m3/s)
 - max 282,000 cu ft/s (7,985 m3/s)
 - min 968 cu ft/s (27 m3/s)
Discharge elsewhere (average)
 - West Lebanon, NH 6,600 cu ft/s (187 m3/s)
River map, with major tributaries and selected dams.

The Connecticut River is the largest and longest river in New England, and also an American Heritage River. It flows roughly south, starting from the Fourth Connecticut Lake in New Hampshire. After flowing through the remaining Connecticut Lakes and Lake Francis, it defines the border between the states of New Hampshire and Vermont. The river then flows through the fertile Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts and past Springfield, the most populous city on the river.[2] 4 miles (6 km) south of Springfield, the river enters Connecticut, where it spurred the growth of Hartford, the second largest city (and only state capital) along the river, situated just 24 miles (39 km) miles south of Springfield. From Hartford, the Connecticut River veers southeastward and ultimately discharges into the Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, Connecticut. The Connecticut River has a total length of 407 miles (655 km), and a drainage basin extending over 11,250 square miles (29,100 km2). The mean freshwater discharge into Long Island Sound is 19,600 cubic feet (560 m3) per second.

The Connecticut River is tidal up to Windsor Locks, Connecticut, approximately 60 miles (100 km) from the mouth. Major tributaries include the Ashuelot, West, Miller's, Deerfield, White, and Chicopee rivers. The Swift River, a tributary of the Chicopee, has been dammed and largely replaced by the Quabbin Reservoir which provides water to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority district in eastern Massachusetts.

The river carries a heavy amount of silt, especially during the spring snow melt, from as far north as Quebec. The heavy silt concentration of the river forms a large sandbar near its mouth on Long Island Sound and has historically provided a formidable obstacle to navigation. The difficulty of navigation on the river is the primary reason that it is one of the few important rivers in the United States without a major city at its mouth. The Connecticut River estuary and tidal wetlands complex is listed as one of the 1,759 wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Satellite image of the Connecticut River spewing muddy sediment into Long Island Sound.



The Oxbow, Connecticut River near Northampton, 1836, by Thomas Cole
The Memorial Bridge across the Connecticut River to Springfield, Massachusetts, the river's most populous city

The Connecticut River's name is a French corruption of the Algonquian word quinetucket, which means "long tidal river". The first European to see the Connecticut River was the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block in 1614. As a result of this exploration, the Dutch named the Connecticut River the "Fresh River", and it became the northeastern location of the New Netherland colony. In 1623, the Dutch built a fortified trading post called the Fort Huys de Goede Hoop (Fort House of Good Hope) on the site that would grow to be modern Hartford.

The formation of the Connecticut Colony

The first English colonist to record his visit to the Connecticut River was Edward Winslow from the Plymouth Colony, in 1632. In 1633, the English built their first settlement and trading post at the site of present-day Windsor, Connecticut (then called Matianuck). In 1634, a group of settlers from Watertown, Massachusetts, seeking to practice religion more strictly than it was being practiced near Boston, founded Wethersfield, Connecticut. The following year, in 1635, the renowned Reverend Thomas Hooker led settlers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Hooker had been having religious disagreements with that settlement's Reverend John Cotton, and founded the more liberal Hartford (then called Newtowne). Immediately, Newtowne annexed Matianuck, i.e. Hartford annexed Windsor, based on laws supposedly articulated in Connecticut's original settlement charter, the Warwick Patent; however, the "patent" had been physically lost and the annexation was most certainly illegal.[3] In 1636, after the previous year sending out a scouting party to determine the Connecticut River Valley's most valuable land for trading and agricultural businesses, Puritan iconoclast William Pynchon founded Springfield, Massachusetts. Springfield is located on fertile farmland just above the Connecticut River's first large falls, the Enfield Falls. A savvy businessman, Pynchon realized that all northern riverboat trade would necessarily have to change ships in Springfield. Also, the Connecticut River's largest falls at 58 feet (18 m) is located 8 miles (13 km) north of Springfield in present-day Holyoke, so Pynchon realized that he had, for lack of a better term, a 'captive audience' in Springfield.

History during colonial times

In 1640 and 1641, two events took place that would forever change the political boundaries of the Connecticut River Valley. From its founding until that time, Springfield had been administered by Connecticut, along with Connecticut's three other settlements - at Wethersfield, Hartford, and Windsor. In the spring of 1640, grain was very scarce; cattle were dying of starvation. The Connecticut River Valley settlements of Windsor (then called "Matianuck") and Hartford (then called "Newtown") gave power to William Pynchon to buy corn for all three English settlements. If the Natives would not sell their corn at market prices, then Pynchon was authorized to offer more money. The Natives refused to sell their corn at market prices, and then later refused to sell it at "reasonable" prices. Pynchon refused to buy it, believing it best not to broadcast the English colonists' weaknesses, and also wanting to keep market values steady for the benefit of the colonists in the future.[4]

Leading citizens of (what would become) Hartford were furious with Pynchon. With Windsor's and Wethersfield's consent, the three southerly settlements commissioned the famed Native American-conqueror Captain John Mason to travel to Springfield with "money in one hand and a sword in the other."[5] On reaching (what would become) Springfield, Mason threatened the Natives with war if they did not sell their corn at a "reasonable price." The Natives capitulated and ultimately sold the colonists' corn; however, Mason's violent approach led to the Natives' deepening distrust of the English colonists. Pynchon, an avowed "man of peace," believed in cooperation with the Natives, whereas Mason – a hero of the Pequot War and conqueror of Connecticut – believed in using force. This philosophical difference led to Mason using "hard words" against Pynchon. Pynchon's settlement, however, agreed with him and that same year voted to separate from the Connecticut Colony. While this local controversy was heating up, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to reassert its jurisdiction over land bordering the Connecticut River, believing it to be very valuable. When the dust finally settled, William Pynchon was named magistrate of Agawam by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and, in honor of his importance, the settlement was renamed Springfield after the village of Springfield near Chelmsford, Essex, in England, where William Pynchon was raised.[4]

The philosophical differences between Springfield and Connecticut were exacerbated by one final confrontation in 1641. Hartford had been keeping a fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook, for protection against the Natives and the New Netherland Colony. After Springfield sided with the Massachusetts Bay Colony over the Connecticut Colony, Connecticut demanded that Springfield's boats pay a toll when passing the fort. Pynchon would have been agreeable to this if Springfield could have had representation at the fort (like Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor did); however, Pynchon did not agree with the idea of taxation without representation. Connecticut refused to allow Springfield representation at the fort, so Pynchon refused to pay Connecticut's toll. The Massachusetts Bay Colony took Pynchon's side, and in response, required a toll on Connecticut ships entering Boston Harbor. Connecticut, which was then largely dependent on trade with Boston, immediately dropped the tax on Springfield.[4]

Only within the first decade of the new millennium have Hartford and Springfield, the two great cities on the Connecticut River, started to work collaboratively again (i.e. with the Knowledge Corridor Partnership).[6]

As the number of English colonists increased, the Dutch position became untenable, and in 1654 a treaty was negotiated between New Netherland and the New England colonies relocating the boundary between them significantly to the west, near present-day Greenwich, Connecticut. Significantly, the treaty allowed the Dutch to maintain their trading post at Foot Huys de Goede Hoop, which they did until the 1664 British takeover of New Netherland. The Fort at Number 4, now Charlestown, New Hampshire, was the northernmost English settlement on the river until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

After the American Revolution and through the 19th century

In the Treaty of Paris (1783), ending the American Revolutionary War, the new border between New Hampshire and what was to become the Province of Canada was defined to include the "northwesternmost headwaters of the Connecticut" . Because there are several streams that could fit that description, a boundary dispute led to the short-lived Indian Stream Republic, which existed from 1832 to 1835. At the time, the river also represented the border between New Hampshire and New York, Vermont having not yet been created.

At first the broad, fertile Connecticut River valley attracted agricultural colonists and colonial traders, but later the high volume and fall of the river led to the rise of manufacturing. During the Industrial Revolution, the cities of Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut, in particular, became centers of innovation and "intense and concentrated prosperity."[7] The greatest single drop on the Connecticut, of 58 feet (18 m), is at Holyoke, Massachusetts. 8 miles (13 km) south of Holyoke sits the river's most populous city, Springfield. The second-most populous city on the river is Hartford, the capital of Connecticut. Springfield and Hartford sit only 24 miles (39 km) apart, with Bradley International Airport halfway between them in the town of Windsor Locks, Connecticut. The Hartford-Springfield Knowledge Corridor is New England's second-most populous region, with approximately 1.9 million residents, including 160,000 university students.[8] Other important centers on the Connecticut River include Northampton, Massachusetts, Middletown, Connecticut, and Brattleboro, Vermont.

In 1829 the Enfield Falls Canal was opened to circumvent shallows near the Connecticut's first falls, the Enfield Falls. The locks built for this canal gave their name to the town of Windsor Locks, Connecticut.[9]

In the late 19th century the river was used for massive logging drives from the far north, particularly the Nulhegan River basin in Essex County, Vermont. These spring drives were stopped after 1915, when pleasure boat owners complained about the hazards to navigation.[10]

Flood of 1936

In March 1936, due to a winter with heavy snowfall, an early spring thaw and torrential rains, the Connecticut River flooded, overflowing its banks, destroying numerous bridges and isolating hundreds of people who had to be rescued by boat. The dam at Vernon, Vermont was topped by 19 feet (5.8 m). Sandbagging by the National Guard and local volunteers helped prevent the dam's powerhouse from being overwhelmed, despite blocks of ice breaking through the upstream walls.[11]

In Northampton, Massachusetts, looting during the flood became a problem, causing the mayor of the city to deputize citizen patrols to protect flooded areas. Over 3000 refugees from the area were housed in Amherst College and the Massachusetts State Agricultural College (now UMass Amherst).

Unprecedented accumulated ice jams compounded the problems created by the flood, diverting water into unusual channels and damming the river, raising water levels even further. When the jam at Hadley, Massachusetts gave way, the water crest overflowed the dam at Holyoke overwhelming the sandbagging there. The town of South Hadley Falls was essentially destroyed, and the southern parts of Holyoke were severely damaged, with 500 refugees.

Downtown Hartford, Connecticut during the 1936 flood

In Springfield, Massachusetts, 5 sq mi (13 km2), and 18 miles (29 km) of streets, were flooded, and 20,000 people lost their homes. The city lost power, and nighttime looting caused the police to issue a "shoot on sight" edict; 800 National Guard troops were brought in to help maintain order. Rescue efforts using a flotilla of boats saved people trapped in upper stories of buildings, bringing them to local fraternal lodges, schools, churches and monasteries for lodging, medical care, and food. The American Red Cross and local, state and Federal agencies, including the WPA and the CCC, contributed aid and manpower to the effort. Flooding of roads isolated the city for a time. When the water receded, it left behind silt-caused mud which in places was 3 feet (1 m) thick; the recovery effort in Springfield, at the height of the American Great Depression, took approximately a decade.

Overall, the flood caused 171 deaths and $500 million in damages in 1936 dollars. Across the northeast, over 430,000 people were made homeless or destitute by flooding that year.[12]

The Connecticut River Flood Control Compact between the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont was established in 1953 to help prevent serious flooding.[13]

Diversion for drinking water

The creation of the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s diverted the Swift River, which feeds the Chicopee River, a tributary of the Connecticut. This resulted in an unsuccessful lawsuit by the state of Connecticut against the diversion of its riparian waters.[14]

Demand for drinking water in eastern Massachusetts passed the sustainable supply from the existing system in 1969. Diverting water from the Connecticut River was considered several times,[15] but in 1986 the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority instead undertook a campaign of water conservation. Demand was reduced to sustainable levels by 1989, reaching approximately a 25% margin of safety by 2009.[16]

Pollution and cleanup

The Water Quality Act of 1965 has had a major impact on controlling water pollution in the Connecticut River and its tributaries. Since then, the river has been restored from Class D to Class B (fishable and swimable).[clarification needed (Class D & B)] It was designated as one of the American Heritage Rivers in 1997. The towns along the lower end of the river have enacted a cap on further development along the banks, so that no buildings may be constructed except on existing foundations.

There is now a website which provides water quality reports twice a week, indicating whether various portions of the river are safe for swimming, boating and fishing.[17][18]



The mouth of the river up to Essex is thought to be one of the busiest stretches of waterway in Connecticut. Some local police departments and the state Environmental Conservation Police patrol the area a few times a week. Some towns keep boats available if needed.[19] In Massachusetts, the most active stretch of the Connecticut River is centered on The Oxbow, 14 miles (23 km) north of Springfield in the college town of Northampton.[20]


Drift boat fishing guide working the river near Colebrook, New Hampshire

The Connecticut River is a habitat to several species of anadromous and catadromous fish, including the American shad, American eel, striped bass and the sea lamprey. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is undertaking an effort to repopulate the river with another species of migratory fish, the Atlantic salmon. For more than 200 years,[citation needed] Atlantic salmon have been extinct from the river due to damming. Several fish ladders and fish elevators have been built to allow fish to resume their natural migration upriver each spring.

The headwaters of the Connecticut River are at the northern tip of New Hampshire, near the Canadian border. Much of the beginning of the river's course in the town of Pittsburg is occupied by the Connecticut Lakes, a chain of deep, cold water lakes that are home to lake trout and landlocked salmon.

The river itself holds native brook trout, rainbow trout, large brown trout, shad, smallmouth bass, striped bass, carp, catfish, American eel, and several other species of game fish. Landlocked salmon make their way into the river during spring spawning runs of bait fish and during their fall spawn. The river has fly-fishing-only regulations on 5 miles (8.0 km) of river. Most of the river from Lake Francis south is open to lure and bait as well. Two tail-water dams provide cold river water for miles downstream making summer fishing on the Connecticut River excellent.


The river near its mouth
Founders Bridge with a view of the Bulkeley Bridge upstream
Mist upstream of the Bissell Bridge

Listed from south to north by location of mouth:


The Connecticut River is a significant barrier to travel between western and eastern New England. Several major transportation corridors cross the river including Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, Interstate 95 (Connecticut Turnpike), Interstate 90 (Massachusetts Turnpike), Interstate 89, and Interstate 84. In addition, Interstate 91, whose route largely follows the river north-south, crosses it twice - once in Connecticut and once in Massachusetts.

Sites of interest

See also

  • Lake Hitchcock, post-glacial predecessor to the Connecticut River
  • Lake Connecticut, post-glacial predecessor to Lake Hitchcock
  • History of Connecticut
  • List of Connecticut rivers
  • List of Massachusetts rivers
  • List of New Hampshire rivers
  • List of Vermont rivers
  • The Great Attack - the burning of American ships on the Connecticut River at Essex in 1814



  1. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Connecticut River
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Barrows, Charles Henry (1911). The history of Springfield in Massachusetts for the young: being also in some part the history of other towns and cities in the county of Hampden. The Connecticut Valley Historical Society. doi:pgs. 46–48. ISBN US 13459.5.7. 
  5. ^ name="Barrows 1911"
  6. ^ 375 years of changing business and work landscape help define Springfield |
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Connecticut Heritage (Dorothy A. DeBisschop). "The Canal at Windsor Locks.". Retrieved January 20, 2006.
  10. ^ Wheeler, Scott (September 2002). The History of Logging in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. The Kingdom Historical. 
  11. ^ Klekowski, Ed; Wilda, Elizabeth; Klekowski, Libby (2003). The Great Flood of 1936: The Connecticut River Story (DVD). Springfield, Massachusetts: WGBY. Event occurs at 02:10. OCLC 58055715. Retrieved 16 November 2011. 
  12. ^ Klelowski, Ed. The Great Flood of 1936: The Connecticut River Valley Story WGBY (2003)
  13. ^ Connecticut River Valley Flood Control Commission. Greenfield, MA. "Connecticut River Flood Control Compact." Effective September 8, 1953.
  14. ^ U.S. Supreme Court, Connecticut v. Massachusetts, 282 U.S. 660 (1931)
  15. ^ "History, Connecticut River Watershed Council". Retrieved 2011-08-28. 
  16. ^ "MWRA Water System Demand, 1989-2009". Retrieved 2011-08-28. 
  17. ^ Daily Hampshire Gazette ( "The Connecticut River: A sewer runs through it." September 15, 2008.
  18. ^ Massachusetts Water Watch Partnership (University of Massachusetts, Amherst). "Tri-State Connecticut River Targeted Watershed Initiative."
  19. ^ Kaplan, Thomas, "River Watchers, Tackling Speeders and Thin Budgets." New York Times, Metro section, August 30, 2007, accessed same day.
  20. ^

Additional reading

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