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Rediscover the Connecticut River

Picture a waterfront promenade and new riverside trails to explore. Cross those bridges. Grab an oar. Learn more about the lore.

Aqua Ark LLC's proposed riverfront promenade in Hartford would offer shopping, restaurants and take-out kiosks.

New York developer George Bryant got his first glimpse of the Connecticut River in Hartford more than a decade ago when he and his wife became “crew parents,” driving their then-teenage son and daughter to one regatta after another as they competed on rowing teams from middle school through college.

“It’s a gorgeous spot,” Bryant says, of the city’s waterfront. “But outside of the events, there’s nothing to bring you down there and keep you going down there when there’s not an event going on.“

That could change if Bryant’s plan to build a promenade with shops, sit-down dining and takeout food kiosks on a city-owned acre just south of Mortensen Riverfront Plaza wins approval. He says the attraction could open by late next summer, 2021.

His proposed $9 million idea is vastly scaled back from a more ambitious $40 million multistory hotel, shopping and dining destination.

Its significance would achieve the long elusive goal of bringing a steady stream of life and economic activity to downtown’s riverfront. The way, on a far smaller scale, San Antonio, Texas, has done with its River Walk, lined with shops and restaurants and vistas along the banks of the San Antonio River visited by 13 million people annually and generating more than $2 billion in economic activity for the city. Or the way London, New York, Boston, Baltimore and a host of other cities have developed their waterfronts.

Hartford’s challenge, and Bryant’s, is that the riverfront has long been considered unsuitable for development because the site floods nearly every spring, partly because it’s also the narrowest part of the Connecticut River in Connecticut — about 700 feet bank to bank.

But Bryant believes his Rye, N.Y.-based three-year startup, Aqua Ark LLC, can solve that obstacle. Sure, the building might close and be inaccessible during severe flooding, but it could be built to be flood-proof, often rising with floodwaters as if it were on a barge.

Bryant has presented his plans to the City Council’s planning, economic development and housing committee, and discussed the project with the committee’s chairman, Councilman John Gale, for more than a year. Besides needing approval from the city, the proposal would require a green light from other agencies as well, including Riverfront Recapture, a nonprofit organization that manages the riverfront park system.

The most arduous process, Bryant has been told, will come from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It could be quite a driving force” for activity along the river, Bryant says. Imagine extending activity south to the Charter Oak Bridge. “You could create a very long promenade, and folks could enjoy the river.”

What Bridges Us Together

If you drive through Greater Hartford on any given day, chances are you cross one of the five bridges that span the Connecticut River, three of which link Hartford to East Hartford. But what do you really know about the structures? Here’s a quick briefing:

The Bulkeley Bridge: The stone-arch bridge, which opened in 1908, is the oldest of the three Hartford bridges and also the oldest on the interstate highway system still in use. A wooden covered bridge spanned the river at the Bulkeley site as early as 1818, but it burned down in 1895. Without a bridge, ferry service resumed, but with the stone bridge, ferries became redundant. Originally called the Hartford Bridge, it was renamed to honor Morgan Bulkeley, once Hartford’s mayor, Connecticut’s governor and a U.S. senator who also headed the commission that oversaw the bridge construction.

Avon High School girls cross the finish under the stone arches of the Bulkeley Bridge at the Head of the Riverfront Regatta in 2017. (Peter Casolino/Special to the Courant)

The Founders Bridge: A sign of the city’s boom times, the Founders, first conceived as the State Street Bridge, opened in December 1957 as a toll bridge to relieve traffic congestion on the Bulkeley, then the only bridge that led to downtown. It’s a steel stringer bridge that crosses I-91 and carries the Route 2 expressway. It also became a centerpiece of Hartford’s Riverfront Recapture project to enhance activity along the riverfront. That occurred when the state began rebuilding the bridge in 1994, adding lanes and a pedestrian promenade, completed in 2001, that links to the downtown riverfront, Constitution Plaza and East Hartford.

Rey Perez of Hartford adjusts his fishing lure on the bank the Connecticut River under Founders Bridge. (BRAD HORRIGAN/Hartford Courant)

The Charter Oak Bridge: This twin steel stringer bridge, which carries Route 15 (the Wilbur Cross Highway) over the river, is named for the state’s famed Charter Oak. It opened in the early 1940s as a toll bridge, south of downtown Hartford, and was replaced with a new toll-free bridge immediately south in 1991. While the original was under construction disaster struck, when a 222-foot section fell into the icy river in December 1941, killing 16 men. Another 16 were rescued.

The Bissell Bridge: Built in the late 1950s, it carries traffic between Windsor and South Windsor, links I-291 to I-91, and includes a pedestrian crossing. The span’s official name is the Captain John Bissell Memorial Bridge, after one of the founders of Windsor. Like the Charter Oak Bridge, it was a toll bridge, but following a tollbooth accident on the Bissell in 1983, one of several toll-booth related accidents around the state, toll plazas gradually were eliminated statewide between 1985 and 1989.

The Putnam Bridge: The southernmost river crossing in Greater Hartford, it carries Route 3 across the Connecticut and links Route 2 in Glastonbury to I-91 in Wethersfield. The bridge, officially the William H. Putnam Bridge, was named to honor the man who chaired the Greater Hartford Bridge Authority and was instrumental in getting three bridges built: the Putnam (originally called the Wethersfield-Glastonbury Bridge), the Bissell and the Founders. A $15 million rehab was completed in 2013, which included new lighting and a pedestrian walkway.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Four suburban women, three in their early 60s, the other in her late 40s, are rowing on machines inside the Greater Hartford Jaycees Community Boat House at Riverside Park in Hartford one dreary morning this past February. With weekday classes early mornings, mid-mornings and early evenings, these recreational rowers are gearing up to paddle on the Connecticut River this spring.

“Keep going,” yells instructor Hector Diaz, 27, as he counts down one of three 14-minute sets. Thanks to Riverfront Recapture’s wide-ranging rowing program, Diaz and the four women are among thousands of residents from the region who make rowing on the Connecticut part of their weekly routine.

Diaz, who discovered how much he loves rowing as a high school student, is a member of a Hartford adult men’s racing team, which won its event in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston last fall.

Bryan Pape, director of Riverfront Recapture’s rowing program, looks on, the river out the glass windows as flat as glass this particular day.

“Our organization’s mission is connecting people to the river,” says Pape, 34. “And through the rowing program, we’re making rowing accessible for as many people as possible in Greater Hartford.”

Riverfront has programs geared to middle school groups, high school students, adult recreational and competitive teams, even a rehab group for athletes with physical disabilities, Pape says.

Hartford and East Hartford residents row for free on Riverfront’s high school team, which draws rowers from 21 different schools and 14 municipalities in the region.

Hartford--Choate Rosemary Hall finishes at the Head of the Riverfront Regatta in 2018. (PETER CASOLINO/Courant file photo)

The popular Head of the Riverfront Regatta, coming up on Oct. 4, marked its 20th year last year, drawing thousands of competitors and spectators. And the Dragon Boat & Asian Festival at Mortensen Riverfront Plaza is planned for Aug. 15.

The Dongguan Shatian dragon boat team from China crosses the finish line in first place during a heat at the Riverfront Dragon Boat & Asian Festival in Hartford last August. (SEAN PATRICK FOWLER/Hartford Courant)

Recently, Riverfront has offered rowing as a way of corporate team building, says Pape. “What better team activity than a very literal team sport where you have to row together with eight people doing exactly the same thing in the space of 90 minutes? ... It’s a really fun way to come together.”

How’s the water?

For decades, the Connecticut River, like rivers across the nation, was a place to dump raw sewage. That began to change in 1972, when the federal Clean Water Act was established, to restore waterways and protect them from pollution. Over time, the 410-mile river, the longest in New England, went from a Class D to a Class B waterway, as it became cleaner year after year.

But there’s still work to do, says Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy, formerly known as the Connecticut River Watershed Council.

“It’s important to move past the positive stories about how the river no longer is full of untreated sewage and industrial waste," he says. It may be clean and healthy, he says, but it’s nowhere near as full of life as it once was.

“We know there are nowhere near the number of migratory fish coming back into our rivers every spring," Fisk says. "That’s a huge long-term goal.”

Fishing guide Dixon Merkt pulls aboard his boat a large striped bass he caught using a fly fishing rod near the mouth of the Connecticut River. After weighing and measuring the fish, he released it. (MICHAEL MCANDREWS/Hartford Courant)

Among the migratory species that live in and use hundreds of miles of the river — and which need help — are the American shad, the striped bass, the Atlantic sturgeon and the shortnose sturgeon, the alewife, the blueback herring, the American eel and the sea lamprey.

A Glastonbury fisherman gets an early start casting for striped bass on the quiet calm of the Connecticut River in Rocky Hill. (BOB MACDONNELL/Courant file photo)

A walk in the park

On the next nice, spring day, and you know more are coming, treat yourself to a walk in any one of the four riverfront parks along the Connecticut River.

The centerpiece is downtown’s Mortensen Riverfront Plaza, 300 Columbus Blvd., which opened on Labor Day weekend in 1999. It’s home to outdoor performances on a stage with a 2,500-seat amphitheater overlooking the river; the annual Dragon Boat and Asian Festival in August; fishing access, boat cruises and a riverwalk to two other riverfront parks, Charter Oak Landing to the south and a promenade on the Founders Bridge to East Hartford’s Great River Park.

A sculpture by Clyde Lynds called "Quenticut," derived from the Algonquin word for "long tidal river" -- the basis for the name Connecticut -- stands at the entrance to Riverfront Plaza in Hartford. The sculpture, which incorporates fiberoptic technology, symbolizes the renewal of the Connecticut River. (Michael McAndrews/The Hartford Courant)

Along the way, take in the Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk, featuring 16 permanent works depicting Abraham Lincoln’s early years and legacy. Part of a national competition, funded by a $500,000 grant, the walk also includes a mobile tour narrated by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

At Charter Oak Landing, 50 Reserve Road, the first of the riverfront parks developed, you can fish, picnic or launch a boat.

Or go north to Riverside Park, 20 Leibert Road, a Victorian-era park, established 140 years ago. A community boathouse now anchors the park, a thriving community rowing program, docks, volleyball, cricket and playground fields, a challenge course, and riverfront trails. The boathouse includes second-floor reception areas for events and private parties.

The Greater Hartford Jaycees Community Boathouse at Riverside Park in Hartford. (KASSI JACKSON/Hartford Courant)

If you cross the river to East Hartford, either by car or by foot, you’ll reach Great River Park, 301 East River Drive, a favorite spot for walkers and joggers in nearby office buildings and residents of Riverpoint Condominiums overlooking the park. The park draws about 70,000 people annually.

Within two years, expect the riverwalk to continue from Riverside Park to Windsor, a 2 1/2-mile, $4 million extension that will take you to Windsor’s East Barber Street and another boat launch. From there you can easily take the walkway across the Bissell Bridge to South Windsor, a development that will create an even more connected regional park system. Last year the four riverfront parks attracted 830,000 visitors.

A majestic bald eagle takes flight, skimming the surface of the Connecticut River just north of Hartford on a September evening. (STEPHEN DUNN/Hartford Courant)

As for visits to the parks, you don’t have to wait for the next beautiful day. Marc A. Nicol, Riverfront Recapture’s director of park planning and development, recalls a blustery day in January 2018 when ice flows on the river brought 3,000 people, including fans from a volleyball tournament at the nearby Connecticut Convention Center, to the river plaza.

“They wanted to see the flood,” Nichol says. “And the ice and the power of the water and the river.”

The Connecticut River Museum

Want to contemplate the meaning and history of the Connecticut River? Visit the Connecticut River Museum on Steamboat Dock in Essex.

The museum at 67 Main St. boasts two floors of permanent exhibits and another floor of changing seasonal exhibits that capture more than 400 years of river history. It also presents lectures, including a lunch-and-learn series, Thursday evening concerts, a series on sea shanties, paddling programs and public and private excursions on a replica of the Onrust, the vessel Dutch explorer Adriaen Block built in 1614 to explore the Connecticut River among other waterways on the East Coast.

“It’s the only museum dedicated to the history and nature of the river,” says Gainor B. Davis, executive director since last summer.

The museum draws about 22,000 visitors annually and about 4,000 school children for STEM and history programs, she says. In the summer, the museum offers camps for children on Native American history and life on the sea. Scholars also use its research library with public access to about 13,000 historical artifacts and documents about the river.


A new magazine

A new magazine called Estuary ( published its first issue this spring, and it’s all about the Connecticut River, the watershed and the estimated 2 million people who live along the 410-mile waterway from Long Island Sound to Pittsburg, New Hampshire, in four New England states and nearly 100 cities and towns.

Publisher Dick Shriver of Old Lyme says 26 writers and photographers contributed to the first issue.

River sociology

Want to really appreciate the significance of the Connecticut River? Sit in on Wick Griswold’s Sociology of the River course, which the assistant professor, emeritus, teaches every fall at the University of Hartford.

Griswold is also the author of four books on the river. His fifth, “Connecticut River Shipbuilding,” co-written with Ruth Major, is due out in June.

“Rivers do two things,” Griswold says. “They separate us and bring us together," the latter of which he covered in his earlier book “Connecticut River Ferries,” which includes the Rocky Hill-Wethersfield ferry, the oldest continuous ferry service in the U.S. (The ferry runs April 1-Nov. 30.)

“What we put in Hartford winds up in Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, and the waters of the world, so the river is a way to connect the Hartford community to the greater world in general."

Griswold points out that April is a special month in Hartford and the river’s history. It was in April 1614, 406 years ago, that Adriaen Block, a Dutch trader and explorer, sailed up the Connecticut River, making stops in Hartford and reaching as far north as the Enfield Rapids. His explorations led to a Dutch trading post called the House of Good Hope, where the city street Huyshope Avenue comes from.

Griswold worries that the Clean Water Act could be gutted. When he was a youth, he recalls, “you wouldn’t stand within 100 yards of the river because it smelled so bad, but when the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, literally, a magical transformation occurred,” as the river’s health improved. “It was a huge improvement. Now you can fish and swim in it. Before, it was unthinkable. The Connecticut River used to be called the best landscaped sewer in the world.”

Budget cut

Since Riverfront Recapture was established in 1981, the nonprofit that manages the Hartford-area’s riverfront parks system and is credited with turning the Connecticut Riverfront into a destination, has operated its budget with funds from three key sources. A third comes from donations and private sponsorships, another third comes from Riverfront programs such as rowing, and a third comes from the Metropolitan District Commission, the region’s water and sewer agency.

The MDC had planned to gradually cut its contribution to the nonprofit organization to hold the line on water rate increases. But last December, instead of a slight cut for 2020, the agency cut about half its $1.25 million contribution to Riverfront Recapture.

Michael Zaleski, Riverfront Recapture’s president and CEO, says the Connecticut River is key to the continued revitalization of the region. (JOHN WOIKE/Hartford Courant)

Michael Zaleski, Riverfront’s president and CEO, called the cut “a devastating blow” to its $3.2 million budget.

Since then, Riverfront officials spent the winter discussing possible cuts while also lobbying legislators and other officials to close the gap. MDC officials also said they were talking to lawmakers and municipal officials to find funds.

“It’s time," Zaleski says, "to act to create a sustainable regional plan that recognizes that our greatest natural resource, the Connecticut River, is key to the continued revitalization of the region.”

This essay originally appeared in Hartford Magazine.


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