Landscapes of the
River Connecticut, USA

The papers of Barrie B. Greenbie, including the unfinished ms.- Connecticut Riverscape
and related research materials, are housed in:
Special Collections and Archives,W.E.B.du Bois Library,
Manuscript Collections,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
http://www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/spec.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CONNECTICUT RIVERSCAPE...

 

Photographs and text by Barrie B. Greenbie © 1990

 

These color photographs were taken in a small airplane at an altitude of from 600 to 1,000 feet, following the Connecticut River for four hundred miles through four of America's six New England states -- from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, to the river's source near the Canadian border.

 

Like most other beautiful rivers in the United States, the Connecticut cannot be seen from much of the land along its banks In the older landscapes of Europe and elsewhere which were settled long before the industrial revolution, rivers were the highways of the world. Their banks became the focal points of cities and the cultivated land beyond, and generally rivers there remain important landscape features to this day. In cities like London, Paris, and Prague, the river embankments are still part of the urban center. Most of North America was settled after the coming of the railroads, which generally followed the river valleys to keep grades moderate, and thus the rivers came to be associated with industry, viewed as socially and aesthetically on "the wrong side of the tracks."

 

In Colonial New England -- the oldest part of the United States -- rivers were once also both a water highway and a cultural focal point. This was especially true of the Connecticut, which linked four of what became six separate states and served as a boundary between two of them. But when the railroads arrived and not only followed the river valley from north to south but also provided east-west connections to the urbanized coastal areas, the river lost much of its social importance. Meanwhile, industrialization polluted the river to the point where it became known as "the country's best landscaped sewer."

 

In the last twenty years, the pollution has been cleared up to a remarkable extent. Fish, human swimmers, and pleasure boats are back on the river, bringing new problems. Environmental conservation has focussed on preserving trees along the riverbanks, both as a means of preventing erosion and to screen development with the aim of keeping the scenery "natural." As a consequence, the greater portion of the Connecticut, like other American rivers, is overgrown along its banks. One can drive over 300 miles along Interstate Highway 91 from Hartford Connecticut to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and rarely see the river, although the highway parallels it most of the way. The view is not much better from the local roads that meander closer to the water. Not only can the river not be seen from most points on land, the many pleasure boaters who use the river cannot see the land beyond the endless fringe of trees. The fundamental relationship of water to topography is thus obscured.

 

Visually, the essence of a river experience is that of a flowing, continuously varied connected space defined by solid land. Under present conditions on the Connecticut, the only way to sense that from the ground is from a mountainside, such as the view that inspired 19th Century painters like Thomas Cole to immortalize the Oxbow as seen from Mount Holyoke in Hadley, Massachusetts. However, even quite splendid single viewpoints do not give the full sense of the sequential connectedness of a river as a whole to the countryside it passes through.. From a high flying commercial plane, one can get an extended view, but it is flat, lacking any sense of three dimensional space. Only a low flying plane or helicopter provides the full awareness of river-plus-valley in a continuous progression.

 

These photographs are presented with the hope that they can further awareness of the geographical continuity of American rivers like the Connecticut, together with their cultural, economic, and political linkages to the cities, towns, and rural landscapes past which they flow.

 

 

Note: The following codes do not yet link to those used in this presentation - they will be updated soon - however, the following notes include the text used in the presentation

View #1: Over much of its length, the Connecticut River meanders through broad "intervales" of rich alluvial soil lying between mountain ranges.

 

View #2: But for the sight-seeing traveller on land, this is the problem.

 

View #3: Even picturesque mills and dams are invisible at many points.

 

View #4: Covered bridges, so nostalgically ubiquitous on post cards, are invisible except from the local roads they carry.

 

View #5: This steel bridge at Orford, New Hampshire, midway between Massachusetts and Canada, is a familiar landmark to the traveller there, because, of course, a main road crosses it. We will later see this bridge from the air.

 

View #6: We start our aerial safari high over Long Island Sound, heading north toward Old Saybrook, Connecticut. (New York City lies on the left, 100 miles to the west.)

 

View #7: A lighthouse stands at the tip of a long sandbar, which encloses a mile- wide tidal estuary. The main channel requires constant dredging for the passage of ships. This kept Old Saybrook and Old Lyme from ever becoming major ports.

 

View #8: A causeway connects two points across a shallow, marshy lagoon.

 

View #9: The lower river, from where it bends eastward south of Hartford, is geologically a "middle aged" river, formed when the melting glacier of the last ice age blocked with rubble the original north-south course to what became New Haven, Connecticut.

 

View #10: Settlements were sparse and towns remain small on the rocky wooded hills of this section. Because there was no active port to the south, the river on the lower southeastern stretch has mostly retained its pristine state

 

View #11: Where flat land is cultivated, the fringe of trees on the river bank is like a curtain hiding field from stream.

 

View #12: At Hadlyme, the second oldest ferry on the river, cable operated, is one of two still in operation. On the eastern bank atop a high hill, the playwright and actor William Gillette In 1919 built a stage-set "castle." It is now a state park. The marina beyond testifies to renewed recreational use of the river (View #13).

 

View #14: Middletown, thirty miles upriver from the mouth of the river , became the first major port on the Connecticut River. In this view, the railroad drawbridge is open, while the highway bridge arches high below the tip of an island.

 

View #15: Middletown is an industrial city, as well as the home of Weslyan University.

 

View #16: From Hartford northward to Canada, the river is geologically "old." Tidal water ends about here. Hartford lies on the broad flood plain formed over eons of time by aluvial soil carried down from the mountains to the north. The wide area south of the city, known as the "Great Meadows," is increasingly filled by urban sprawl. The fertile valley continues on south to New Haven over the ancient riverbed, while the active "middle aged" river veers to the southeast at Middletown.

 

View #17: Hartford, which claims the oldest constitutional government in the United States, is the Capitol of the State of Connecticut and is also known as the "Insurance Capitol of the Country." As a major center of 18th and 19th Century shipbuilding and seafaring, with their attendant financial risks, it early got into the insurance business. The river was thus an important symbol to the city, and until the mid-Twentieth Century, the historic Old State House faced the waterfront. Since then, a network of Expressways have cut the river off from the city center, while Constitution Plaza, hemmed in by tall office towers, ignores the river entirely.

 

View #18: Now work is in progress to build a new waterfront plaza out over the highways and the water, reuniting Hartford with its river ancestry.

 

View #19: North of Hartford, here too, trees screen the river from planted fields.

 

View #20: Until recently, shade tobacco was the major crop. Now the starkly beautiful, windowless, tobacco barns lie empty as the farmers turn to vegetables and dairy products. But, even so, they are hard pressed by commercial and residential development.

 

View #21: The alluvial soil keeps moving, forming small islands which drift, like infinitely slow moving barges, downstream. But the islands, like the banks, are wooded, and from shore or river they cannot be seen as pieces of land surrounded by water.

 

View #22: Springfield, an important 19th and early 20th Century Industrial city where America's first gasoline-powered car was invented, also is cut off from the river by an Interstate Highway. The river can only rarely be glimpsed even from the highway itself, except where it crosses bridges, and on those the engineers do their best to block the view. On the West Springfield side, a state road runs through a pleasant greenway, but the river is not visible from most of that.

 

View #23: Ten miles north of Springfield, Holyoke was the first planned industrial city in America. To take advantage of a sixty-foot drop in the river at South Hadley Falls, the largest dam in the world up to that time was built there in 1848, but it lasted only six hours. The next year, a more substantial dam was built with a series of three canals to power paper mills, and later silk mills.

 

View #24: The major mills have been long abandoned, but many of the buildings are still in use for "cottage industries" and "start-up businesses," while the dam still generates electric power.

 

View #25: Holyoke has a "Heritage Park" and museum by one of the canals celebrating the city's industrial history, but the river itself remains mostly out of sight, and the center of town does not do justice to the potential beauty of the mill-river townscape.

 

View #26: The Holyoke Range, the only east-west mountain range in the continental United States, separates the town of Hadley from South Hadley, while the Connecticut and Interstate 91 thread through "The Notch" between Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom. The white building on top of Mount Holyoke is the "Summit House." In the 19th Century, it was a fashionable inn connected by a funicular railroad to a boat landing on the river below. Now it is a visitor center at Skinner State Park, which lies over the eastern part of the range.

 

View #27: Here the river meanders through the Hadley Meadows. The City of Northampton is on the left; the University of Massachusetts can be seen in the distance.

 

View #28: The Le Fleur Airport and the Three County Fair Grounds lie on the flood plain at Northampton.

 

View #29: The Town of Hadley fills a double bend in the river, like a peninsula. The green corridor in the center of the picture is the Town Common which stretches to the river banks at both ends. Hadley was inundated in the flood of 1938, and now is protected by a levee. The levee on the northern bank blocks the view of the river, but offers a spectacular scene from its top.

 

View #30: Plowed fields of Hadley cover another peninsula-like bend north of the town. The Berkshire Mountains rise to the west in the distance.

 

View #31: The flood plain narrows somewhat north of Sunderland, but remains green and fertile, though it is encroached upon by new developments.

 

View #32: Turner's Falls is an old mill town located where the river takes a sharp bend to the east and a dam widens the river basin.

 

View #33: Turner's Falls is one community where the river is part of the townscape, because its downtown is at the end of a long bridge crossing the water from a major highway, Route 2, leading west to New York State on the ancient Indian Mohawk Trail.

 

View #34: And the flood plain winds on northward across the Massachusetts state line.

 

View #35: At Brattleboro, the State of Vermont is connected to the State of New Hampshire via a bridge and small island.. The island was once much larger and held an amusement park, but a large part of it was washed away in the flood of 1927. The railroad runs through town close to the west side of the river, with the back sides of Main Street commercial buildings high above it. A plan to cantilever a walkway over the tracks and open the buildings to the waterfront has not materialized. Except near the bridge to New Hampshire, the river is invisible from this river town.

 

View #36: The large dam and locks at Bellows Falls, Vermont, are on the National Register of Historic Places. But from I-91 to the west, it is out of sight.

 

View # 37: The traveller must follow the road leading into Bellows Falls well past the town center to know that this dramatic piece of 19th Century industrial landscape exists in the town that bears its name.

 

View #38: White River Junction is what that name suggests.

 

View #39: It is also the junction of two interstate highways and two railroads. Historically, cities tended to arise where overland routes crossed water routes.

 

View #40: The Wilder Dam at Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth College, seen in the distance.

 

View #41: The green floodplain narrows. New Hampshire's White Mountains rise ahead.

 

View #42: Again the flood plain widens to an intervale, with I-91 on the western edge.

 

View #43: More fertile fields with wild meanders.

 

View #44: The bridge at Orford, New Hampshire, which we saw at ground level. Its picture postcard New England Church can be seen beyond. According to the Connecticut River historian, Edmund Delaney, it was here that Samuel Morely designed and launched the world's second steamboat in 1787, twenty years before Robert Fulton is reputed to have invented it (The inventor of the first one, launched on the Delaware River, was also a Connecticut River native, born in Windsor, Connecticut.)

 

View #45: At a sharp bend in the river, adjacent highway and railroad bridges connect Woodsville, New Hampshire, with Wells River, Vermont. Several railroad lines converge here, and the tracks still run down the mains street of Woodsville.

 

View # 46-53: In the Coos region where the most northerly stretch of the river veers to the northeast, leaving I-91 behind, the intervales again broaden out between the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Here the river cuts through the soft loam in fantastic meanders.

 

View #54: As it nears its source, the river narrows to a mere stream, but the banks remain green and fertile.

 

View #55: Once more the flood plain opens up and the river coils through it.

 

View #56: A mountain rises directly to the east

 

View #57: And then the river switches back on itself, as if reluctant to reach its end (in reality it's begining).

 

View #58: It seems to do a wild climactic dance....

 

View #59: And with a graceful oxbow, bids adieu to us, it's aerial audience.

 

View #60: Off on the horizon lies Lake Francis, the first of a chain of four small lakes which are the source of the Connecticut River. Beyond is Canada.

 

View #61: The air has been bumpy all the way and a rough ride. Our hard working pilot, Sevgin Oktay, turns around and takes us up to 8,000 feet for smoother air.

 

View #62-63: On the return trip, we see the river from a distance, framed by clouds, as it might be by trees on the ground if view openings were cut along its banks.

 

View #64: White River Junction looms below.

 

View #65: And we glimpse Brattleboro with its island hopping bridge to New Hampshire.

 

View # 66: We end our trip by flying low over the Oxbow at Northampton on approach to the small LeFleur airport. This is the Oxbow in the famous painting by Thomas Cole made at the summit of Mount Holyoke. The legend is that after the flood of 1858, when the river cut through the base of the loop in the river to form an oxbow lake, the citizens of Northampton declared a day of Thanksgiving to express their gratitude to God for shortening the trip to New York by three miles !

 

Now Interstate 91 runs directly over the Oxbow, but unfortunately people in cars cannot see it from the highway that crosses it. Most travelers do not even know it is there.

 

All rights reserved. Photographs © Barrie Greenbie, 1997

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