The lower Mill River was the site of the latest Bioregional Group walk. Robin Schafer sent in the following write-up, and Maria Tupper sent in the photos.
By Robin Schafer
Among the forces shaping New Haven, few are so influential yet so invisible to us as our rivers. The three rivers shaping our community impact transportation, land use, flood control, and natural beauty. Though they are a source of recreation and of food for some in our community, many of us pass over them almost unaware of their presence our minds set on other destinations, and there are numerous barriers that prevent us from following their winding paths through the city. A solid understand of our eco-system and the impact we have beyond our own region requires basic familiarity with the place we live, and so it is important to be able to experience the rivers, to let their full story unfold and read what we can find there.
On Saturday, July 12 the New Haven Bioregional Group lead a walk on the lower Mill River, that section of the Mill in New Haven proper. Starting from the covered bridge at the Eli Whitney Museum we walked to Criscuolo Park where the Mill joins the Quinnipiac and flows into the Sound. The walk was only about three and a half miles, but it took us through four distinct watershed zones: park zones with preserved natural buffers near the river banks, residential zones with mixed impact buffers, and the interstate and industrial zones which showed signs of the heaviest pollution.
At the Museum, we were closest to the reservoir, and Ron Walters of the Regional Water Authority spoke to us of our efforts made by the water authority to assure the safety and quality of our drinking water. He emphasized the importance of the catchment basins and water gardens used by the Authority to filter stormwater run off into the rivers, and the importance of educational outreach to home and business owners in the area to limit pesticide and fertilizer use that delivers unnecessary and often harmful chemicals into the source of our drinking water.
Walking through the bridge, we passed the waterfall and followed the well maintained trails of College Wood along the river as it moved steadily through the park. It was sunny and warm and the birds were out in full force under the shade of the maples, birch, oak and willow that line the riverside path. Crossing over Orange St, we past by Cold Spring, one of the two springs of critical importance to the early settlers of New Haven. Beyond the stone steps of Cold Spring, the path rises to meet Rice Field, the soccer and baseball fields that abut the Cedar Hill neighborhood.
Skirting the edge of the field to the back corner, we picked up the riverside pathway again, now walking through a strip about 100 feet wide that is a residential buffer zone. The area is crisscrossed with trails leading to fishing and crabbing spots. The forest makes way to scrub land, the path is lined with wild rose and olive, and opens into patches of tall grass. Here we see the first signs of trash and waste, and some scattered camping sites. Here also the river slows, now a mile downstream from the falls. It is important to note that on the other side of the bank is Wilbur Cross, the track and playing fields, separated from the neighborhood. A foot bridge would be a welcomed addition, connecting two communities and providing good fishing. Better access here would also discourage illegal dumping.
The river flows down below the East Rock Elementary School playing fields and Ralph Walker rink. On the opposite bank, we come out at an on ramp to the interstate. Walking along the side, a sharp drop to the river beside us, we see essentially no buffer to the river. We cut down and head towards the tide gates, walking now mostly under the interstate. Trash abounds, and pvc tubing extends down from the interstate itself. This allows stormwater to wash the debris from the highway, including salt and other de-icers, oil and engine fluids, and asbestos from breaks, directly into the Mill. We cross the tide gates, occupied by four fishermen. Walkers talk of tide gate designs that utilize the river flow to generate electricity, but there is no such plan for this short span. We walk now insight of the skating rink towards State Street.
Crossing State Street, the river is trapped between the massive CT Transit yard and the Interstate. The Bioregional Group did a clean up here a few weeks back, but trash tossed out of vehicles is again evident as we walk through the knotweed. We pass under the State St off ramp, and here there is the tell tale smell of a sewer vent nearby: the smell had not been evident when we cleaned up this area, and we wonder why it is present today. We pause under the off ramp and can look directly down the river to the State St bridge, and across to the CT Transit parking lot that extends essentially without a buffer to the edge of the shore. Here we listen briefly as Lauren Adams, a masters candidate at Yale School of Forestry, discusses her research on the Mill River. We head up moving away from the interstate toward the railroad bridge and Humphrey Street. These are wetlands, though quite dry now, filled with mullein and wild mustard and lily of the valley which was in bloom when we first cleared the trail.
At Humphrey look back over the river from the bridge. Reflected in the water are the overhanging trees and the hard lines of the highway, the gently floating swans and the trash from the banks. We move away from the river for the first time, following the road beneath the railway bridge to James St. The road is at the height of its heavy litter season, and the broken glass, a discard TV, and the incoherent graffiti imbue us with a forlorn sense. This beautiful bridge, with three offset rows of arches and stone worked faces is like a gateway to another place from another age; it would seem abandoned now, but for the cars zipping by. We round the corner on James St and head for a rest at the Chabaso Bakery outlet. This by-pass away from the river is necessitated by the parking lot behind and beside the large, new Yale Building here, which did not leave room for a riverside walkway. There is also no street front, we pass by its blank front along a litter lined sidewalk, the trash bags we carry over filled. Thankfully, as we leave the Bakery we are able to directly access the riverside trail behind the light industries lining John Murphy Drive. The path required some work to clear, but there are old benches and signs of past attention. It was first established by the work of Tom Hollahan and friends and follows the river to Grand Ave. Here we clearly observe the tidal nature of the river, and can watch egrets on the mudflats and see our first sea gulls. Bees dig into the roses and large orange rose hips are already visible. As we round up to the back of Grand Paint, there is a truly magestic view of the English Station building. The power plant, thankfully closed and no longer polluting the neighborhood, cries out for reuse and preservation. Grand Paint owner, Ray Pagliaro, greeted us with an array of snacks courtesy of local businesses, cheese from Liuzi’s and bread from Chabaso. His awareness of the proximity of the river is evident in his landscaping. He talked to us of the local business network, and the benefit we reap from patronizing local merchants. A surprise special feature of this visit: we were able to see his set up for producing bio-diesel, and hear how he takes waste oil from local restaurants to make an odorless and clean burning fuel for his vehicles. Now on the final leg of our journey, we walk by the neatly kept reclaimed material yard on Haven St, and cross through the playing fields at the John Martinez School, to the end of Wolcott St. where we can climb up mounds of clam shells to see the river once more. The shells are used as a substrate for oysters, and this is essentially a temporary storage sight, but it affords us a great view of the waterway back north to Grand Ave. and to the island on which English Station sits, and south to Chapel St and the harbor. There are large piles of what we think is salt and sand, roasting in the sun under strapped tarps. We regroup on Mill St and walk the remaining block to Criscuolo Park. On this clear, sunny day the park is filled with ball players of all ages. The river, wider and fast moving now ripples with light. The fishing pier here — open to full sun —- is occupied only by a few kids still in their softball uniforms. We sit in some empty bleachers and look out toward the harbor and the Q-bridge.