Since the early days of Colonial New England the river had served as a means of transporting raw materials and finished goods back and forth from Vermont, New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts to Hartford, Conn. and beyond.
In the age of sail, a long flat boat was used. It carried a single mast with a square main sail down low, a smaller sail above that for lighter winds and another topsail for when wind was extremely light. The boats carried tons of cargo.
River Men called spike-pole men worked the boats. When the wind was insufficient to propel the boat against the current – which it frequently was – the spike-pole men stepped in. Using poles of 12 to 20 feet in length, they would literally drag the boat forward by planting the spike end of their pole into the river bed and walking from forward to aft on the boat.
The age of steam put an end to the spike-pole men as boats were fitted with steam engines in the early 1800s that could do the job faster. A single steam-powered river boat could tow one or more barges up river and back.
By 1840, however, there was a new threat to the River Men – trains. The same steam power that could power a boat could also pull a train, and the trains could carry more material and were growing ever more reliable.
For River Men, the race was on. Stockbridge, Allen, Root & Co. had been formed in Greenfield, Mass. by combining two smaller concerns. The company’s business was groceries and freight hauling. One Monday in May of 1840, it sent its steam vessel Greenfield on a journey up river from Hartford to points in Massachusetts.
The steamer was hauling four barges, and planning to connect a fifth. The vessel was a new one, an investment of $5,000 to $10,000 for the company in an effort to speed up shipping and become more competitive. The boat was narrow and drew little water to help it navigate canal locks. The engineer who built the vessel, with its twin boilers, was aboard to oversee how the new boilers would operate under the extreme load.
Just south of Northampton, Mass. the boilers exploded. The safety of boilers was a major concern in the day. Some 14 percent of all steamship boilers exploded in the 1830s. Congress had passed laws, albeit weak ones, to improve their safety. But the explosions kept on.
The explosion aboard the Greenfield was calamitous. The exploding boilers blew holes in the ship that sent it immediately to the bottom. Portions of the boilers were found in the fields on the side of the river.
Capt. John D. Crawford, of South Hadley Falls in Massachusetts; engineer Alanson D. Wood, of Brattleboro, Vt., and William Lancey, the designer of the vessel, from Springfield, Mass., were all killed – blown apart by the explosion.
In all, some 30 men were manning the barges and the ship. Most escaped injury. Ebenezer Morse of Northampton had the good fortune to be standing directly beside one of the boilers when it blew. The explosion threw him high into the air. He splashed down into the river with barely a scratch.
Captain Crawford was a highly regarded River Man with ten years’ experience, but he and the company couldn’t escape all criticism.
“Perhaps no blame should be attached to anybody,” the Northampton Gazette noted, “but we cannot refrain from believing from the best information we can obtain, that the boat was pushed harder than prudence and safety would warrant. It was a new boat, and there was an ambition to establish its reputation for speed.”
Reputation for speed or no, the race was soon lost to the railroads as they expanded in the years ahead. The freight firm Stockbridge, Allen, Root & Co. would go out of business when it was sold to the Connecticut Railroad Co.