The Park River in Hartford, Connecticut meanders through the city, but you might never know it. Once a historically valuable and nostalgic part of Hartford (at least to Mark Twain, who lived along it), it now flows through two conduits channeled under city’s downtown. While neither the river nor the conduits are visible from the surface, the importance of both should not be forgotten (or understated) when reflecting on Hartford’s beginnings and development.
The place where the Park River conduit flows out into the Connecticut River was the first Dutch landing point and Western settlement in the Hartford area. On his expedition of 1614, Dutch Navigator Adriaen Block sailed up the Connecticut River to the mouth of what was then considered “Little River.” In 1636, Thomas Hooker landed at “Dutch Point” before settling with his followers on the north side of the river. Soon, the first mill was built along the river, and by the mid-1800s, the “Mill River” or “Hog River,” was polluted with excrement, dyes, and all manner of industrial waste.
Wanting to clean up both the river and the slums along its banks, theologian Horace Bushnell proposed the creation of a city park. In 1865, Bushnell Park was completed, with the newly renamed Park River as its centerpiece. Carrere and Hastings’ 1912 “City Beautiful” plan featured the river as a connecting link to an improved city-wide urban park system. However, this plan was never achieved.
In addition to its ongoing battle with industrial waste, the river posed a disease threat when shallow. In contrast, the river was known to flood the downtown area during heavy rain. Severe flooding in 1936 and 1938 necessitated what was, at the time, the largest public works project ever attempted in New England.
By 1950, the downtown portion of the Park River was diverted and encased in concrete, relegated to a below-ground sewer and essentially forgotten. The “Park River Conduit,” flows underneath the State Capitol and Bushnell Park to the Connecticut River. While the conduit has become popular with brave kayakers and urban explorers, the prominent bridge in Bushnell Park looks peculiar without the river that once flowed beneath.
Other cities are considering daylighting their urban streams, and as Mary Pelletier of the Park River Watershed Revitalization Initiative stipulates: “it would be more valuable to Hartford's future if they invest in those kinds of things." But by now, the river has been forever altered. Restoring it would be a mega-project that could be hard to fund or justify. Pelletier adds: “Unless we build the appreciation for living, healthy rivers, nobody's going to want to uncover the river.”
What are your thoughts on urban stream management? Do urban watercourses complement the urban aesthetic? Is the Park River right-of way the missing link to a contiguous urban park system? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.
Credits: Images by Dan Malo. Data and historical images linked to sources.