The Main Stream Of New England


Surprisingly, the old Valley Railroad still serves river industry also; twice a week it runs from Middletown to Essex though the bed of the single track has become so bumpy that the maximum speed limit has been cut to twenty miles per hour. But the panorama from the diesel cab of the little freight train, as it rumbles along close to the river, is breathtaking. Below a feldspar quarry and a power station is a lonely stretch of woodland and hills that seems to have changed little since Block sailed by. The train cuts its way through the branches and brush on either side, occasionally scaring a partridge or rabbit, whistles by the deserted private crossings, and passes summer cottages facing the river, marinas, and boat-launching ramps. At the stops there are none to greet the train, there is no bustle of activity, only a car or two to drop off or pick up. The ride seems to lead one right back into the past.

More essential to Connecticut industry than the railroad is the river highway itself, and the tugboats, barges, and tankers that ply it year round, carrying three million tons of cargo upriver annually, more than half of it oil. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a fifteen-foot channel from Old Saybrook to Hartford, and the Coast Guard sees to it that over 100 navigation lights are kept in working order, including—since 1839—the sentinel guarding the mouth. In winter, the Coast Guard also keeps the channel open, using 100-foot tugs that can easily slice through two feet of ice.

With tens of thousands of pleasure craft now registered, and boating recognized as the Number One family sport, the river is fast becoming a great and noisy recreation highway. Numerous public launching sites, yacht clubs, marinas, small shipyards, and state parks dot the lower river, mostly below Middletown, where the water is saltier and a little cleaner. Army engineers are debating opening up the Connecticut above Hartford by dredging a channel for small boats all the way to Holyoke. At the same time, the water resources of the entire basin are being studied by the federal government to consider its recreational future and the possibility of preserving it as a unique kind of national park. Thus, despite the pollution and other changes, in many ways the river is being used for the sports and pleasures of yesteryear. Over 100,000 shad a year are still caught in the Connecticut, college crews race at Hartford, and diesel excursion boats cruise daily in good weather between Hartford and Middletown or give sightseers a peek at the lotus lilies of Selden’s Creek just above Brockway’s Landing and at the bygone splendor of the Haddams, where the picturesque castle of William Gillette sits atop the hill known as the Seventh Sister. Gliding past, one can almost hear again the cry of the bosun on the steamboat creeping upriver, calling out the landings: “Hadlyme, Haddam, North Haddam, East Haddam, Middle Haddam, Wish the devil had ’em!”

Between Essex and the entrance the marshes remain a naturalist’s paradise, even though the onslaught of civilization has reduced them to two thirds of their former size. Here, on land washed twice a day by salty tides, muskrats scamper through waist-high grasses and bulrushes; sandpipers poke about in search of insects; and wild duck and heron and osprey make their seasonal visits. Slip down in a sailboat past the marshes, the little towns, and the neat lighthouses, and you are in Long Island Sound, still pulsing with the same currents that carried in Adriaen Block over three and a half centuries ago. What vast changes all that time has seen!