By: Francis Russo (History, Class of 2013)
There are many things people don’t know about Hartford. Perhaps no one cares enough to find out, or maybe Hartford’s secrets are buried so deep beneath its unfortunate reputation of a dying city that no one knows where to look. Some things, though, are especially hard to find when they’re literally buried—like the Park River. In a discrete gulf between Pope Park and I-84, the river slips into a massive concrete tomb that travels three miles under the center of Hartford before letting out into the Connecticut River. This is about all I knew of the river when a friend asked if I wanted to raft down it. Most people we told of the venture thought it was ridiculous. Rats, sewage, wild animals and gang members, they assured us, would be lurking underground. While most of our friends passed on the trip, four of us agreed to brave the mysterious river under Hartford.
After a few days of planning we set off. A path through the woods of Pope Park led us directly to the river. When we emerged from the trees it was hard to imagine what the Dutch must have seen when they explored the area in 1614. Concrete wings braced the river on either side, sloping down towards the water. The traffic on I-84 threw its noisy bustle all over and weeds struggled to squeeze through the cracking concrete. At least someone was taking advantage of the waterfront property—a tarp and plywood hut was tightly nestled in a patch of trees across the river.
Despite its current situation, the river once attracted more than just the homeless. In fact, the city of Hartford was born and raised on the Park River. Twenty-two years after the Dutch, Thomas Hooker arrived and settled where the Park and the Connecticut Rivers met. He and his Ecclesiastical Society founded the “River Colony”, or the Colony of Connecticut, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Hartford rose along the waterway. The Park River was the vital engine that powered industry saddled to its banks and provided a direct route to the Connecticut River, which opened the door to the rest of the country and to Europe. In 1824 Washington College (renamed Trinity College in 1845) was established on the grounds of the future state capitol overlooking the river. Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe both lived on the river, Twain finishing construction on his new home in 1874. Bushnell Park, one of the first public parks in the country, was founded in 1865 with the river as its main design feature (it also gave the “Park” River its current name). No one would guess this today; except for a few ponds left where the river’s path once flowed, the Park River has been completely erased from the face of Hartford.
Before long we were in the water. Peering in from the entrance, the innards of the massive tunnel were only visible for a few hundred yards. At first our journey was tough. Debris of all kinds lay half submerged and littered throughout the water, making it almost impossible to navigate. After the first corner we were immediately submerged into total darkness. The pitch black was disorienting and the raft kept spinning sideways at every attempt to avoid obstacles. At this point the water was only a few feet deep and a number of times I had to get out of the raft to straighten us out. About 5 minutes in we stopped and asked if we could really do this. All the bad things about the river we had read and heard were flooding our minds.
As great industrial expansion flourished on the river’s banks, so did the pollution. Starting in the 1850’s and 60’s businesses and private individuals dumped waste directly into the river. It wasn’t long before residents nicknamed the stench ridden and disease filled water the “Hog River”. One person even called it a “Hell without fire”.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century when efforts were made to cleanse the water, and in 1912 a plan was commissioned to build a vast network of beautiful parkways along the river.
On our own adventure, things began to turn around as well.
About ten minutes into the trip, the debris in the water began to vanish. The graffiti that covered the walls disappeared and a cool mist filled the tunnel. We saw not a single animal and the water was clear. It wasn’t long before we got the hang of steering the raft and we began cruising through the tunnel at about 4 MPH. The initial disorientation of the pitch black passed and the veil of darkness became a part of the experience. Not even with high-powered flashlights could the entire tunnel be illuminated at once, making each leg of the journey a complete surprise. Waterfalls revealed themselves as trickling pipes. Huge walls turned out to be just bends in the path of the tunnel. A few times we killed all the lights and plunged into absolute darkness. On and off you could hear the faint hum of Hartford traffic, a reminder of the world above. Perhaps one of the coolest things was the echo—a loud yell would last for thirty seconds or more. Pointing a flashlight to the wall and raising it higher and higher, you could trace the massive thirty-foot high and forty-foot wide concrete tomb around you.
And that was just our side of the tunnel. On the other side of the wall was another thirty-foot tall cavern; the two conduits ran parallel with each other the entire way. The enormity of the tunnel was a grim reminder of the river’s monstrous ability and the reason it was buried in the first place. In 1936 the river burst its shores, sending a torrent through Hartford. The flooding killed hundreds, destroyed lives, and cost millions of dollars in damage. It wasn’t until the same thing happened again in 1938 that Hartford asked the federal government for help. With local fears of further destruction and a national interest to protect an important city for the looming war in Europe, by 1940 the decision was made to bury the river in a tunnel large enough to contain another flood. In one of the largest public works projects in New England’s history, the main section of river under Hartford was buried. After another flood in 1955 the north and south branches were also sent underground. Around 1985 the conduit was officially completed, and the Park River fated to a dark eternity beneath what was then the insurance capitol of the world.
Comfortable on the raft, we eventually came upon the junction where the north and south branches intersect and become one—an impressively massive room with rectangular concrete pillars looming out of the water. Soon after the junction, the water became deeper and the ceiling lower as we got closer to the Connecticut River. This was the best part of the trip. The ceiling continued to get lower and lower until a raised paddle could scrape it. Then, out of the wall of black in front of us, a tiny prick of light was visible. We knew we were at the end and decided to shut off all the lights and stop rowing. As the current moved us along, the faint dot grew into long beams of sunlight. One friend aptly compared it to the Styx. Finally after about an hour since we first set out, the conduit turned sharply and we were on the Connecticut River.
We greeted a half-dozen men casting their fishing lines off of the top of the tunnel opening as we drifted out underneath them. They told us to be careful and related disconcerting stories about rafters who traveled up the other side of the tunnel. After hearing screams the fishermen witnessed the rafter’s gear come floating down-stream, and forty-five minutes later the rafters themselves (they were fine). We later found out the other tunnel contains a giant pipe that shoots steaming hot water from Hartford air conditioning systems diagonally across the conduit.
But don’t let that scare you—if you’re thinking about taking the trip, look at urban adventure blogs and websites devoted to the Park River and you’ll find all the information you need to stay safe (but make sure you do this, because there are some hazards). You’ll find out that unlike the massive underground water systems of New York or Paris, the tunnel under Hartford is just a river channeled underground, with one way in and one way out. An outdoor adventure business even used to offer kayak tours through the tunnel before nervous lawmakers shut it down.
This was both a great underground adventure and a journey into Hartford’s past. Many groups would like to see sections or even all of the Park River resurrected, citing other large cities that have made the revitalization of buried rivers a part of proposals to rejuvenate city life. Maybe one day Hartford will again enjoy the river above ground, but for now, take advantage of this awe-some underground experience.
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