Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Walking the Shelton Canal & Locks

New map (click to enlarge)
Take a walk with me along Shelton's historic canal & locks to an overlook of the Derby-Shelton Dam. It's an easy half-mile round trip. This is not something the Trails Committee maintains, but it's open to the public and most people have no idea it's there, or what the canal was all about. 
Back in the day, the canal supplied water power
to the factories on the right. This was all filled in.

Start by driving north up Canal Street as far as you can go. Notice all the old factory buildings like "the Birmingham" on the right, now being reinvented as apartments or condos. They used to stretch south all the way to Route 8. Those factories were why the dam, canal, and locks were constructed back in 1867 before electricity was a thing, so remember them. The canal powered the factories.  It was mostly filled in over the years, but it used to run along Canal Street (that's why it's call Canal Street, of course) for a long ways. You'll get past the refurbished part and come to a more gritty part of the street that is slated for redevelopment....eventually. Park at the end of the road (#300 Canal Street) and walk through (or around) the gate. It's open to the public. 

The locks are right there at the entrance. Check it out. They are in disrepair and the old wooden gates are rotting away, but they used to allow boats to get around the dam. 

Locks: The old wooden lock gate is rotting away 

How a lock works. Shelton's was a series of three locks.

The Shelton Locks

Kayaking the lower lock at high tide

There used to be a good water flow from above the dam into the canal and locks, but that was blocked at some point when it was no longer needed. Now the water you see cascading down the locks is from Curtiss Brook, the same brook that flows out of Pine Lake at the beginning of the Rec Path. 

Post card showing the locks in working order

When you're done gawking at the locks, walk north along what's left of the Shelton Canal up the hydroelectric access drive towards the dam. It's about a quarter mile to the end. As you walk, notice how much higher in elevation the canal is compared to the Housatonic River down below. That difference in height was the source of water power for the factories you drove past. Each factory had a canal sluice they could open or shut to allow water to power a turbine as the water flowed downhill to the river. 

A walk along the hydroelectric access drive towards the dam

Typical factory showing a water turbine
By 1867, efficient steel turbines had replaced wooden waterwheels as the Industrial Revolution gained speed.  But it was still the same concept as a water wheel.  In the above sketch, the canal would be on the right of the building and the Housatonic River would be on the left. Water would fall from the canal to the river, running through a spinning turbine located under the building. The turbine was connected to a complex set of belts that turned factory equipment.

Stairs provide shoreline fishing access near the base of the dam

Keep walking along the canal and the Derby-Shelton Dam (more properly called the Ousatonic Dam, but no one actually calls it that) and as you get closer to the dam, you'll come to a  wood staircase leading steeply down to the river. This provides good fishing access (use caution on the stairs). The river is tidal here, and fish such as stripers (striped bass) come up the river and stack up at the base of the dam. People often fish from boats there, but if you don't have a boat, this is one way to get near the action. 

Near the dam

There's a fence at the end of the public area, and beyond that is the hydroelectric facility owned and operated by McCallum Enterprises. So the dam was built to generate power and it still does. The turbines are now located at the dam, however, instead of beneath factories, and the power generated is converted into electricity instead of being used to turn factory belts. Either way, it's pretty impressive.

On the way back, notice the hillside on the other side of the canal. That's Riverview Park, Shelton's first park. It was donated by the canal company in the 1880s, and the Bluff Walk was the first trail (more of a carriage path at the time). 

The land you've been walking is open to the public under McCallum's federal license to operate their hydroelectric facilities. The City of Shelton also purchased a conservation and recreation easement over the property which allows the city to extend the Shelton Riverwalk to the canal and to stabilize or refurbish the historic locks. 

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