State of the River
CONNECTICUTTING SOUTHERN NEW ENGLAND
THE CONNECTICUT RIVER IS THE Mississippi of New England, draining portions of five states and more than 11,000 square miles, twice the land area of Connecticut itself. Its headwaters is at the Fourth Connecticut Lake, a remote pond in New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the Canadian border.
From there it flows though a series of dams and reservoirs, hydro projects in northern New Hampshire. At the 45th parallel, it becomes the great divide between Vermont and New Hampshire, until it enters western Massachusetts at Satan’s Kingdom, a few miles downstream of Vermont Yankee’s nuclear power plant. After powering spent mill towns and happy valleys of western Massachusetts, the river picks up the last of Springfield’s effluent and enters Connecticut, its eponymous state.
The state of Connecticut was named after the river. A word that comes from the Mohegan/Pequot word quinetucket; it means (roughly) “long tidal river.” And though the river has 15 dams along its 400-mile run, the last one is in Holyoke, Massachusetts, so it is indeed still tidal in all of Connecticut.
The river flows through the state as a lugubrious brown mass. A drain for much of New England’s agricultural, industrial, and urban landscape, the river was so polluted by the 1950s that it was designated as class D water “suitable for transportation of sewage and industrial wastes and for power, navigation, and certain industrial uses.” Efforts to clean it up were given a boost by the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the water is mostly class B now, safe enough to swim in, though nitrogen remains high.
Let’s travel downstream through the state, looking at images and sites recently added to our Land Use Database, on the river that connects and cuts it—Connecticut.
On the shoreline at Suffield are abandoned locks at the northern end of the Enfield Canal, built on the west side of the river in 1829 to allow commercial shipping further up the river, around the Enfield Rapids, a shallows still visible in the river’s main channel. The canal runs for five miles to the town of Windsor Locks, at the Interstate 91 bridge. Though some of the towpath is operated as the public Windsor Locks Trail, the canal is off-limits, and controlled by Ahlstrom Nonwovens, a Scandinavian industrial fiber company that operates a mill complex at the southern end of the canal.
Windsor Locks is a town on the west side of the river, home of Bradley International Airport, the main airport for the Hartford area, and home of the New England Air Museum. UTC Aerospace Systems also has a major manufacturing plant here, making parts for military and civilian aircraft. The plant is a major and historic propeller factory, operated for years by Hamilton Standard, which through mergers and consolidations is now part of UTC Aerospace, which itself is a subsidiary of United Technologies, a major industrial conglomerate based in Farmington, Connecticut, with plants throughout the state.
Though only abandoned parking lots and building slabs remain visible today, this used to be a major nuclear training site for Knolls Labs. From 1957 until 1993, the Department of Energy operated a full-scale nuclear reactor prototype for testing and training of Navy personnel here, part of an industrial complex located along the Farmington River, in Windsor. The site was dismantled from 1995 to 2001, followed by environmental remediation which was completed in 2006, though some of the plant is buried in mounds, still off-limits to the public. The Farmington River runs south of the airport, and drains into the Connecticut River next to the lacrosse fields at the Loomis Chaffee Preparatory School.
The City of Hartford started burning trash here on the riverbank in 1940, and the site evolved into the main disposal site for the city. The incinerator operated here into the 1970s, and the landfill grew, becoming a highly visible mound next to the interstate north of downtown. It received its last load of waste in 2008, and efforts have been underway since then to isolate it from the environment, including covering it with plastic and a soil cap. There is also a smaller adjacent landfill for ash from the Mid-Connecticut Trash to Energy Facility, a newer and larger incinerator located on the river south of town.
Mark Twain Home
Like Albany, New York, Hartford is also an up-river state capitol, and was settled in the 17th century, at the most inland point for commercial navigation at the time. Like many other cities, too, modern Hartford ignored its river in the 20th century. After World War II, as its economy moved from machine tool industries to insurance companies, dumps and interstates were built along its waterfront. In the 1870s, though, Hartford was among the nation’s most affluent cities, and still a river town. This was asserted by the fact that America’s most famous riverman, Mark Twain, built his 25-room dream home here in 1874, where, over the following 17 years, he wrote his most famous novels about the Mississippi River. His next door neighbor was the famous abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose house is preserved along with his as a historic site.
The Colt Firearms Company built its main manufacturing plant on the river at Hartford in 1855. Known as the Colt Armory, the multi-building complex was one of the principal industrial villages of New England, manufacturing famous firearms over the span of American history, from capturing the West, to the Civil War, to the Gulf War, as well as providing guns for police, security, and the public. The company moved its operations to other places over the years, including to a plant in West Hartford, which it still operates, and moved entirely out of this complex in 1994. State and local developers are hoping to preserve and redevelop the historic site, including the original central building with its distinctive blue and gold onion dome. Connecticut historically has been a center for the manufacture of guns. Though some have left (Winchester, Marlin, PTR), some are still based or manufacturing here (Colt, Ruger, Mossburg, Stag Arms).
Pratt and Whitney East Hartford Plant
The headquarters and one of the principal testing and manufacturing locations for Pratt and Whitney is located in East Hartford, on the east side of the river. The company started as a local machine tool company, and evolved into one of the largest aircraft engine companies in the world. Pratt and Whitney is now part of the United Technologies Company, along with Otis elevators, UTC Aerospace Systems, and other military and industrial equipment manufacturers. United Technologies is based out of Farmington, near Hartford, and does more than $50 billion of business per year, and employs around 200,000 people worldwide. United Technologies’ principal R&D and test facility is located next to the Pratt and Whitney plant.
Portland Brownstone Quarries
The massive quarries at Middletown, located in the middle of the state, were a major source of brownstone for buildings all over the eastern USA, as early as the 18th century. Quarried stone was transported easily by boat from the riverside quarries. The pits filled with water in the great Connecticut River flood of 1936, ending most of the quarrying. Now owned by the city, the quarries have been leased to a company that has created a recreational water park at the site. Large fuel tanks line the strip of shore between the quarries and the river.
Pratt and Whitney Middletown Plant
This plant, isolated on a remote stretch of the Connecticut River, is one of the major aircraft engine plants in the nation. It was established initially as a secretive federal jet engine test facility in 1957, and was transferred to Pratt and Whitney in 1966. Engines developed and produced here are used on most contemporary fighter jets (F-15, F-16, F-117, F-22, F-35) as well as most commercial airliners (Boeing 707, 727, 747, 777, Airbus 310, 320, 330). Pratt and Whitney is one of two American jet engine companies supplying the airlines and military aircraft of the United States. The other is General Electric, one of the largest industrial conglomerates in the world, which starting in 1974 was based in Fairfield, Connecticut. GE moved its headquarters to Boston in 2016, and now United Technologies, the parent company for Pratt and Whitney, is the largest company based in Connecticut.
Gillette’s Castle is one of the more unusual private residences in the nation. It was built between 1914 and 1919 by William Gillette, an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage. He was involved in all aspects of its design, and it has a unique, hand-carved, rough-hewn texture throughout, evoking a fairytale hybrid of arts and crafts, Middle Ages castle, gothic church, and stage set. He lived there until 1937, and it was taken over by the state in 1943, which turned it into a park. In 2002 it reopened after a four-year $11 million renovation.
This is one of two active ferry crossings remaining on the Connecticut River. The Chester-Hadlyme ferry began here as a private ferry in 1769, and is now operated by the Connecticut Department of Transportation. The crossing closes for the winter, forcing people to cross on bridges at East Haddam, three miles north, or Old Lyme, ten miles south, for the season. The ferry has a capacity of around nine cars, and sees around 100 cars per day. The trip takes five minutes. The other ferry operating on the river is the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry, near Hartford, which is said to be the oldest continuously operating ferry service in the USA, starting in 1655. Both were going to be shut down by the state in 2011, but locals lobbied to keep them open—so far.
Connecticut River Museum in Essex
By the time the river gets to Essex, it has widened into tidal marshlands, some of which have been carved into to create marinas, filled in for palatial homes, or preserved as wildlife areas. The town of Essex is one of the only towns left that is really integrated with the river. Main Street ends at a boat ramp, next to the Connecticut River Museum. The museum is in a former steamboat warehouse building on the waterfront. It contains many remarkable displays and artifacts related to the river, including a continuous painting of the river, which runs through the stairwell, along with a hundred or so aerial photos of points of interest along the river, commissioned by the museum and taken by the photographer Tom Walsh in 2009.
Saybrook Outer Bar Channel
The Saybrook Outer Bar Channel is the end of the Connecticut River. It is maintained at sufficient depth to permit vessels into and out of the river from Long Island Sound. Otherwise the sediment from the river drops where it meets the ocean, and makes an extensive shallow bar. This obstacle to navigation is what kept the mouth of the Connecticut from developing a major port city, like at New Haven, New London, and Bridgeport. 70% of the fresh water coming into Long Island Sound comes out of the river here, along with the sediment and effluent from a watershed that extends to Canada. ♦