Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Chatfield Hollow

There is no logical reason why Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth is one of my favorite places in Connecticut.

I'm not into rock-climbing.

I don't fish.

I don't mountain bike; in fact, I don't bike at all.

I don't swim in ponds.

I'm slightly disconcerted by beaches that freeze in winter, and sand surrounded by pine trees seems to me a sort of alien landscape.

I don't picnic very often - in fact I picnic so infrequently that I'm now questioning whether or not picnic is actually a verb.

I do love to walk and hike, but I typically prefer trails designed for lazy people, not the kind where you suddenly find yourself at the top of a massive rock formation with no idea how to get down. 

But despite all that, there is something I love about this park.

It could be the way every view looks different in every season.

Or the way the man-made structures, like the covered bridge and the dam, blend so nicely into the natural environment, almost as if they were here all along.

Maybe it's that this park has history, and by that I mean 1930s history, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built a dam across Chatfield Hollow Brook, and 1630s history, when the Chatfield brothers came from England and built what is believed to have been a gristmill. And then there's the history before that, when what is now the main park road was an Indian trail.

Perhaps it's that you can feel alone here, but you're never really too far from another person walking a dog or pushing a stroller or admiring the way the boardwalk winds above the swamp. 

Of course, you don't need a good reason to like a place. You can like it simply because it has a water wheel, or because there's a stairway carved into the forest floor.

If you go to Chatfield Hollow, be aware that in-season, you can drive through the park and leave your car in one of several lots close to most trail-heads and points of interest; off-season, you have to park near the entrance and walk in.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Nutmeg Poisoning

My list of Connecticut-y things I want to share with the world is rapidly growing, so I thought today I'd post another (rather Hartford-heavy) installment of Nutmeg Poisoning.

-First, here's a new podcast. The Raduis Project, from WNPR, chooses one Hartford location per episode and explores the area one half-mile around that spot. And it's fascinating.

-Second, here's another new podcast. This one comes from the editors of Connecticut Explored and State Historian Walt Woodward. It's about Connecticut history, because what else would it be about, and it's called Grating the Nutmeg, because what else would it be called.

-Third, here are a few Connecticut-based blogs and Instagram accounts. I just recently learned about Books and Baubles (bookstores and other fun places to shop and explore near Middletown) and The Rustic Life (lifestyle, decor, and more, from Glastonbury.) The Front Door Project has been on my radar for a long time, but after West Hartford blogger Deb Cohen kindly recommended The Size of Connecticut in a post about New England Blogs to Follow I realized I had never featured her here. Her blog and very popular Instagram does what it says on the tin, with an added focus on preservation.

-Fourth, in November, CSPAN's Cities Tour came to Hartford to "visit literary and historic sites" and interview "local historians, authors, and civic leaders." The footage recently aired on Book TV on CSPAN2  and American History TV on CSPAN3

-Fifth, Mental Floss published an article called 25 Things You Should Know About Hartford, Connecticut; one is a reminder that in 2006, a promotional campaign for the city "included a highway billboard that read: 'Come to Hartford. I Swear, It’s Fun.'"

-And finally, a little bit of Connecticut (indirectly, of course) in a pretty hilarious New Yorker cartoon.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Snow and Books, 18

This being a pleasantly yet disturbingly snow-free winter so far (I pause here to knock frantically on all the wood I can find), I did not read book number 18 during a storm. Instead, I picked this one up on a cold, dry day as meteorologists gleefully anticipated a potential blizzard in the days ahead. For this edition of Snow and Books I chose On This Day in Connecticut History by Gregg Mangan. It's not a Connecticut guidebook but, as you may have guessed, a desk-calendar-esque take on local history.

The concept is simple: the book starts with January 1 and ends with December 31, and each day of the year gets its own very short essay about a historical event that took place on that date.

There is Ye Olde Historie here (on April 20, 1640, Daniel Patrick purchased Norwalk from local Norwake and Makentouh leaders for "three hatchets, three hoes, six glasses, twelve tobacco pipes, three knives, ten drills, ten needles and ten fathoms...of wampum"; next time you're stuck in traffic at exit 16, you can debate whether this was worth it) and recent history too (the Yale "Grade Strike" of January 16,  1995.)

There are plenty of horrific accidents chronicled in these 300-odd pages, as well as lots of crime, corruption, and very disconcerting weather. (I know, residents of Connecticut, you are shocked.) Also unsurprisingly, many days' events deal with the military and manufacturing. Of course there are firsts, like America's First Mass Murder, February 3, 1780 (#soproud), and a few lasts, like Connecticut's Last Whaling Voyage, September 24, 1908. There are also inventions, such as the first can opener, patented in Waterbury on January 5, 1858, 48 years after people began selling food in cans. (This was not the pathetic little can opener we know today, it was a hardcore, badass can opener that involved a bayonet and a sickle blade.)  OTDICH mentions famous visitors to Connecticut (Charles Dickens was mobbed by fans in New Haven on February 11, 1842), and pieces of Connecticut that famously found their way out (a slab of pink granite from Guilford became the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty on August 5, 1884.)

A book like this could easily have ended up reading like a compilation of seventh grade social studies assignments, but it doesn't, thank goodness. One nice effect of the daily diary format is that events are thrown completely out of chronological order. Usually I love me a timeline, but jumping from the Civil War era on one day to the 1960s on the next frames Connecticut's past in a fresh way. It also allows for the option of opening pages at random or looking up, say, your birthday - on mine, November 14, Paul Sperry patented the Top-Sider in New Haven in 1939. (I'm not quite sure how I feel about that.)

If I wanted to nitpick, I'd complain that this book is not indexed, making it hard to check whether one's own favorite Connecticut towns, milestones, or individuals are included. (Presumably there was no budget for that; indexing this book would be quite a task.) I wish, too, that the format was more impressive - flipping through this paperback with its few black and white photos, I kept imagining it transformed into a glossy coffee table book complete with cute illustrations. Of course, that would only happen in a publishing industry that no longer exists, and in Connecticut, described in OTDICH's introduction as "a state with a well-publicized identity crisis," probably no one would buy it anyway. Curiously, there's no entry for February 29, and I found myself wondering whether Leap Day was ignored because it wasn't in whatever template Mangan used to compile his data, or if indeed nothing ever transpired in Connecticut on February 29, like those faux-historic plaques you see affixed to buildings around the country that read ON THIS SITE IN 1897, NOTHING HAPPENED.

By the time you read this post, it might be snowing, a perfect day to stay inside with a book after all. Hopefully it will be nothing like the Great White Hurricane of March 12, 1888, which resulted in death, destruction, and a 38-foot snow drift in Cheshire.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hartford | The Long Tidal River

FOUNDERS BRIDGE, ROUTE 2

Sometimes the Connecticut River simply flows. Sometimes it splits itself into icy slabs that tumble along with the tide. Sometimes it breaks free from the boundaries we have imposed on it and rises up in protest. Sometimes it freezes solid.

One of my favorite places to observe the constant shifts of the Connecticut is at Mortensen Riverfront Plaza and Riverside Park in Hartford, and the connected Great River Park in East Hartford. The paved path that stretches out along the water here is part walking trail, part art gallery, and part tour of the city's infrastructure.

When it's time for one of the several annual festivals held here, the area fills with vibrant crowds. But on other days, depending on the time and weather, this place where wild nature meets concrete can be nearly empty. On the cold, windy morning when I took these pictures, I had the walk - and the river - almost all to myself.

In other places, this riverfront would be heavily marketed and developed for the purpose of drawing tourists (as much as possible on a river that floods regularly; that's at least one reason why Hartford is not San Antonio.) But in Hartford, and Connecticut, we don't publicize our assets. I'd bet that most people who cross the river on the Bulkeley Bridge (aka I-84), or follow its path on I-91, give little thought to what's below them. The next time you're traveling on the highway and you pass the river that lent its name to our state, take an hour to stop and see it, walk beside it, and check whether it's moving or standing still.

"LINCOLN MEETS STOWE"
FOUNDERS BRIDGE, ROUTE 2
BULKELEY BRIDGE, I-84

"TOWARD UNION LINES"
THE BLUE SIGNS TO THE LEFT MARK HISTORIC FLOOD LEVELS

CONNECTICUT SOUTHERN RAILROAD BRIDGE
"JACK"



Riverfront.org has directions and parking information as well as details about special events.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park, MA

On New Years Day, I drove up to Uxbridge, MA, to join my friend from Lowell on a First Day Hike at the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park. If you know the history of one 19th century American canal (including the Farmington River Canal and others in Connecticut), you pretty much know the history of them all: after a rush of excitement and a brief period of success, mules and barges became obsolete as railroad companies extended their tracks across the country and people began to transport materials and goods by train. The downfall of the canals created an abandoned network of footpaths and waterways just waiting to be converted to walking trails, and many, including the Blackstone, are now linear parks.

We walked for two miles along the old towpath, past relics of the canal's heyday. It was not much of a hike - more like a leisurely walk - but it provided the perfect New Year's reminder to visit more new places in 2016. Even if those places are just a few miles over the state line.












Friday, January 1, 2016

5 Underrated Small Connecticut Cities

"PEACOCK ALLEY," NORWICH

Happy New Year, and welcome to a new type of post I've been wanting to incorporate into The Size of Connecticut. I had the idea to do a little series of "Top Fives," grouping five similar destinations, in the hope that it might help people looking for a particular type of place to go.

This first one is about some of the small (population-wise, though some are tiny in area as well) Connecticut cities that often fly under the radar of people in the Nutmeg State and outside of it. For the purposes of this post I'm defining city as a municipality that is incorporated as a city (in Connecticut, you can't always tell what's a city and what's a town without looking it up) and one that feels urban: these places are walkable, they're relatively densely populated and built up, they've historically been centers of industry (not just farmland), and they offer plenty of things to do, places to eat, and sights to see.


Norwich

Population: 40,493

The so-called Rose of New England, at the confluence of the Thames, Shetucket, and Yantic Rivers, is the place to go if you like to be surprised by dramatic architecture and topography. From the downtown area, with its hilly, one-way streets and unpretentious waterfront, to Norwichtown, where 18th and 19th century homes surround the town green, to the time-warped old mill village of Taftville, Norwich is as unexpected as its new peacock mural - painted on a set of alley stairs - would suggest. This city can seem a bit abandoned at times, but that's what lets visitors pretend they're the first to have discovered it.

Some other Norwich attractions are the Slater Memorial Museum at the Norwich Free Academy, the Leffingwell House Museum, the Veterans Memorial Rose Garden in Mohegan Park, the Spa at Norwich Inn, and several history-centered walking tours, including one dedicated to local hero-turned-villain Benedict Arnold.

New London

Population: 27,620

With only about five and a half square miles of land to its name, New London is tiny. But the Whaling City, located where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound, makes up for that by being saturated with what feels like more history per square inch than any other place in the state. It's also got more than its fair share of art galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants. Here, old-fashioned beaches and lighthouses meet military pride and an eclectic, artistic, diverse downtown. New London seems to constantly swing between downturn and revitalization, but you could say it's impressive the city exists at all, given that the aforementioned Benedict Arnold burned most of it down in 1781.

A few of New London's highlights include the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, the Custom House Maritime Museum, the Hempsted Houses, the United States Coast Guard Academy, Fort Trumbull State Park, the Old Town Mill, Monte Cristo Cottage, the Connecticut College Arboretum, Ocean Beach Park, the Historic Waterfront District Heritage Trail, and Whale Oil Row.

Middletown

Population: 47,648

Within Connecticut, Middletown's appeal is no secret (though residents of the state's corners who are less familiar with its center can be quite surprised the first time they stumble across this charming city.) But elsewhere, aside from the occasional "Most Romantic Main Street" award, Middletown is relatively unknown. Which is too bad, because this place - funky college town meets plucky New England city in a spot geographically fortunate enough to offer a plethora of activities for sporty outdoor types - should be on more people's "to visit" lists. The main attraction is the downtown area, situated along the Connecticut River. It's full of interesting places to eat, drink, and shop, and it looks like the set of a wholesome Midwestern musical with a Northeastern edge.

A handful of places to go in Middletown are Harbor Park, Wesleyan University, NoRa Cupcakes, and the Parklands at Long Hill. With children, try the Kidcity Children's Museum, Adventure Rooms, and Oddfellows Playhouse.

Winsted

Population: 7,321

Winsted - an incorporated city for Connecticut's purposes but technically a part of Winchester, the larger town that almost completely surrounds it - looks like no other place in the state. Its most unusual feature, a wide Main Street with buildings lining just one side, gives this New England town a feeling of the Old West. The design is the reaction to a catastrophe. In 1955, the floods that deluged many Connecticut towns flattened much of Winsted's downtown. After that, Main Street was rebuilt to give the Mad River, which usually flows happily beside it, room to go mad again. Winsted, called the Laurel City, is one of Connecticut's earliest mill towns, and old brick factory buildings still loom large in its landscape. Now some of these mills are being put to new uses, and the city might just transform itself yet again.

Here's a selection of Winsted points of interest: the Soldiers' Monument and Memorial Park, Whiting Mills, the Gilson Cinema and Cafe, and Ralph Nader's American Museum of Tort Law.

Derby 

Population: 12,830

Derby is Connecticut's smallest city (its motto is literally "Connecticut's Smallest City") which makes it worth visiting simply as a curiosity. (How did those early settlers cram a whole city into such a small space, and why did they bother?) But although this industrious little city with a very small-town vibe is not exactly bustling with activity, there's more to this tiny municipality than a superlative. The Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers converge here, making for some lovely waterfront walks and views. (There are also six bridges.) Preserved 19th century buildings surround Derby Green, where the road signs bear the names of female relatives of the private developers who convinced the local government to lay out the streets. And Derby is very proud of its very weird history, including this Revolutionary War story about pork.

If you go to Derby, places to check out include the Derby Greenway, the Sterling Opera House, the General David Humphreys House, and Books by the Falls

Friday, December 25, 2015

Nutmeg Poisoning

This post makes the 23rd Nutmeg Poisoning, i.e., overdoses of the Connecticut-related tidbits I seem to collect without really trying from various expected and unexpected places around the Internet. It's also Christmas Day today, so Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating, and Happy New Year to everyone - see you in 2016!

-It seems the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation still has this dilapidated old schoolhouse up for sale. If buyers didn't have to "demonstrate ability to remove structure from the site and reconstruct it on a new site," I'd be so tempted. And if you like that kind of thing, browse the rest of their Historic Properties Exchange.

-A few Connecticut destinations have made their way to the AFAR website.

-Did you know that the first cookbook written by an American was published in Hartford?

-A rare sighting of a Pink-footed Goose was reported in Avon.

-The Colin McEnroe Show explored the "other Connecticut," or what many would call the real Connecticut, the lesser-traveled eastern half of the state.

-The Telegraph, on the trail of Mark Twain, found Hartford to be a "pleasant New England town."

-And finally, Cute Overload featured this adorable holiday video from UConn. Make sure you watch all the way to the end, because that's the best part, and don't miss the behind-the-scenes video.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Hill-Stead

The name means "a homestead on a hill."

The homestead is a museum, a 1901 Colonial Revival-style mansion in Farmington filled with impressionist art as well as the original furnishings chosen by its builders, the Pope family of Ohio.

But although I intend to, some day, I didn't go to Hill-Stead to take a tour and see the collections.

Nor did I go to hike the three miles of trails that traverse the estate's 152 acres, winding around ponds and wetlands, past apple and oak trees, through the habitats of owls and foxes.

I, being lazy, went simply to wander around the exterior of the country house and farm buildings, through the sunken garden (they host a poetry festival there in the summer), and to stare out past the stone walls at the green fields blurred by fog.

Hill-Stead was designed by Theodate Pope, the only child of wealthy industrialist Alfred A. Pope and his wife, society hostess Ada Brooks Pope. Theodate was born in 1867 and came to Connecticut to attend Miss Porter's School. She fell in love with Farmington and the country life it offered, quite different from her upbringing in bustling Cleveland.

Theodate would become one of the first registered female architects in America, licensed in both New York and Connecticut. She began planning her future home long before that, on a family tour of Europe, taking notes on architectural inspirations while her father accumulated Monets and Cassatts. At 22, when she officially presented her plans for Hill-Stead to New York architects McKim, Mead & White, she told the firm that "as it is my plan, I expect to decide on all the details as well as all the more important questions of plan that may arise. That must be clearly understood at the outset, so as to save unnecessary friction in the future. In other words, it will be a Pope house instead of a McKim, Mead, and White."

Her personal life was as fascinating as her professional one. She traveled the world, survived the sinking of the Lusitania, and married diplomat John Wallace Riddle (they had met over a decade earlier through President Theodore Roosevelt's sister) when she was 49. The couple took in three orphaned boys, one of whom died of polio at just four years old.

Theodate Pope Riddle lived at Hill-Stead until her death in 1946. Her will stipulated that the estate where she had lived with her parents, then her husband and the children they took in, be preserved and opened to the public.

Today, Farmington is a busy Hartford suburb, but all signs of that disappear when you turn up the driveway to Hill-Stead.

Here, even the laziest visitor can imagine how this rural landscape captivated an inspiring woman over 100 years ago.

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