The town center of North Canaan is locally known as Canaan. Canaan was built around where the former Central New England Railroad east-west tracks connecting Hartford, Connecticut and Poughkeepsie, NY cross the active Housatonic Railroad north-south tracks connecting Danbury, Connecticut and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The Canaan Union Depot, completed in 1872, was build adjacent to this railroad intersection. The Canaan Union Depot is the largest Victorian railroad station in the United States. It has been restored after a fire in 2001 and is now open to the public.
The eastern portion of North Canaan is locally known as East Canaan. East Canaan is historically known for its iron industry and is today known for its dairy farm operations, limestone mines and bucolic character. The Beckley Furnace, built in 1847, is one of the few remaining iron blast furnaces that once operated in the tri-state area of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. The Beckley Furnace was restored in the late-1990s and is now open to the public as the State of Connecticut’s only Industrial Monument.
It is always tempting to begin the history of a town with its political organization. For Canaan, that would have begun in a New London, Connecticut courthouse on a cold Tuesday in January 1737/38 when the town was sold at auction as per the instructions of the General Assembly of the colony.
Samuel Lynde, Esqr, John Griswold and John Richards were charged by the Assembly to sell the “northwest town, bounding west by ye Ousatunnuck river,” in the largely unoccupied “western lands” of Connecticut . The land was to be disposed of “to the highest bider” at a minimum cost of £60 per right. Each of the 50 rights sold were to be of equal quantity and quality and to comprise at least 30 acres.
The sale proceeded briskly and it was not many months before settlers began to trickle into the new township, which had been named Canaan during a proprietors' meeting held February 22, 1738. The name was confirmed by an act of the legislature in 1739, at the same time the town was incorporated. The proprietors' meeting also designated a committee of three to lay out parcels and the highways in the fledgling town.
But to begin the history of Canaan with its sale by Connecticut Colony would be to ignore centuries of occupation by Native Americans and the settlement of Dutch pioneers who had already established homes along the Housatonic River on modern-day Belden Street. Comparatively little study has been done about the Indians who called Canaan home, but archaeological work done in Robbins Swamp in the 1980s uncovered evidence of occupation dating back 8000 years. Over the centuries, farmers have also turned up stone artifacts in their fields that point to regular occupation by Mohicans, Schaghticokes driven north from Kent, and possibly Tunxis Indians uprooted from the Simsbury area.
As for the Dutch, they were independent souls escaping the domination of the Patroons of New York State. Rather than remaining tenants on huge holdings held by Great Proprietors, they struck out into Indian land, purchasing tracts along the river from the Mohicans and establishing their homes.
Within 50 years of the English settlement of Canaan, virtually all the Indians had fled, moving further north to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where they became part of the mission settlement there, or moving westward. The Dutch were assimilated into the new community where their memory lingers on today in family names such as VanDeusen, Knickerbocker, Hollenbeck, Hoogeboom, and Dutcher.
With the coming of the English, settlement of the western town proceeded in earnest. Early population centers grew up in East Canaan , where industry developed along the Blackberry River, and in modern-day Falls Village, where the “Grate Falls” supplied abundant waterpower. Canaan had little iron of its own, but neighboring Salisbury began mining high-grade ore almost as soon as the town was settled. Salisbury's ore was refined and cast into many useful products in furnaces along Canaan's Blackberry River.
Samuel Forbes, who came to Canaan from Taunton, Massachusetts, was a renowned ironmaster who brought many innovations to the industry, establishing his own iron dynasty in the Northwest Corner. The iron industry thrived in Northwest Connecticut for almost 200 years, playing a major role in arming the Continental Army during the American Revolution and helping in the development of railroads in the 19th century. The last furnace in the region, located on the Blackberry near the site of Squire Forbes' earlier forge, did not go cold until 1923.
The Town of North Canaan, known locally as Canaan, did not separate from the parent town of Canaan until 1858. The Town of Canaan, known by many today as Falls Village, kept the original name, and confusion over the two municipal entities has plagued visitors and state officials ever since.
A less formal division between the two towns occurred with the formation of the Second Ecclesiastical District in 1769. The first meetinghouse, which served the entire town, was located on the present-day Sand Road, approximately equidistant between the population centers in the southern and eastern portions of the town. Despite this attempt at fairness, the distance for worshippers proved difficult and in 1769 worshippers in East Canaan received the right to form a new church there. The first church, built soon after the Second Ecclesiastical District was approved, was abandoned in 1822 when the present North Canaan Congregational Church was built about a quarter of a mile away.
In Falls Village, a new meetinghouse came in 1804 when a classical meetinghouse was built in South Canaan. Subsequently, additional churches of different denominations were constructed in the village of Canaan's business district and in Falls Village.
The current village of Canaan did not begin to develop until 1841 when the Housatonic Rail Road first chugged into town. The advent of the railroad brought people and trade into the area and a lively business district grew up around it. A hotel, the Warner House, was built in the 1840s to provide shelter for travelers and to act as a rail station. It served the growing town in that capacity until 1872 when the Canaan Union Depot was built across the street to serve the junction of the north-south and east-west rail lines. Until it was heavily damaged by fire in 2001, the depot had the distinction of being the oldest union depot in continuous use in the country. The depot is now being rebuilt to reflect its early glory.
As the iron industry faded, other industry developed. Lime quarries have been a major part of Canaan's economy for more than a century. Today, most of the mining is done by Mineral Technologies, which extracts product from a huge quarry located on Lower Road. Other mining operations include sand and gravel operations located throughout the town.
North Canaan has invited lighter industry within its borders as well and has a division of Becton Dickinson, as well as other firms such as Bicron, a maker of electronic components used in the automobile and aircraft industries.
During the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the dairy industry was active in North Canaan. Farmers brought their milk to the railhead in the center of town where the Borden Milk Factory was located. Milk was processed at the plant and shipped twice a day to New York City. Most of the small farms are now gone, as is the Borden plant, but five dairy farms continue to operate in Canaan, the highest such concentration in Litchfield County. One farm, the Jacquier farm, has more than 1,000 animals, reflecting the national trend to “industrial” farming.
The following names appear in Book I of the town as grantees of lands:
Daniel and Amos Andrus, James Adams, Charles Burrall, Augustin Bryan, James and John Beebe, Silas Belding, Samuel Bryan, Charles Bulkley, Abigail Belding, Joshua Belding, James Brower, Elizabeth Burrows, Timothy Brown, Jonathan Bates, Jacob Bunce, Nathaniel Butler, David Bicknell, Joseph Beckley, Caleb Case, John Carrier [Currier?], Benjamin, Samuel, Joseph, Daniel and Isaac Cowles, Elijah and Josiah Cleveland, John Coon, John Camp, Simon Cook, Moses Copley, Josiah Dean, Zachariah Dibble, Zebulon Deming, Benjamin and Asa Douglass, Jonathan Dearox, Elizur Dickinson, H. Deming, Christopher Dutcher, Joseph Eaton, James Egleston, William Edminster, James Evens, Ephraim, William and Thomas Fellows, John Franklin, E. Freeman, John Forbes, Jacob and Elijah Griswold, John Gillett, David Holly, Abraham Hollenbeck, Samuel Hall, John Hart, Timothy, David and John Horsford, Abraham and Gideon Harris, Joseph Hinsdale, B. Hoogeboom, Peter Hoogeboom, P. Holcomb, Josiah Hurlburt, Nathaniel Howe, Ebenezer Hanchet, Samuel Holloway, Isaac and Jonathan Hinsdale, Daniel Hancox, David Holcomb, Charles Hewitt, Joseph Holabut, C. Hinman, Gideon Hunt, Samuel Jones, Isaac and Jacob Johnson, Joseph, Bey, Martin and Timothy Kellogg, Isaac, Daniel, Jeremiah and Daniel [Jr.] Lawrence, E. Mayo, Anthony D. Mills, Jonas March, John Morton, Jacob, Asa and Elisha Merrill, Jonathan and Samuel North, Ebenezer Norton, James Nichols, Thomas Orton, John, Abraham and Isaac Peck, Joseph, Joel and Samuel Prindle, Thomas Pierce, Daniel, Benjamin and Joseph Phelps, Amis Pierce, Daniel and George Porter, John Palmer, I. Palmer, William, Isaac and James Patison, Thomas Pattison, Samuel Robbins, Josiah Stodder, Lemuel William and Samuel Robbards, M[ariner?] Rood, Jonathan Russel, Z. Robbins, Andrew, Uriah, Thomas, Samuel, Simeon, Zebulon, and Benjamin Stevens, Isaac Sheldon, James Slauson, John Sutcliff, James Stymson, Z. Scott, Z. Seymour, P. Smith, Giles Slawter, Nathaniel Spaulding, Elias Slanterm Benjamin Sedgewick, E. Thomas, Samuel Priscott, Josiah and Eleazur Whittlesey, Josiah Walker, Elisha Webster, Elizur Wright, David, Joshua and William Whitney, William Warner, Aaron Webster, Thomas Weeks, David Waterbury, Joseph Wooster, Thomas Youngs.
The first deed in Canaan went to Daniel Lawrence, who purchased his land on Jan. 4, 1737/38.