The Valley Whispers

Years ago, these woods held bustling mills and childhood skinny-dippers. Today, the Westville valley is a little-known trove of peaceful riverside trails. As part of the Festival of Arts & Ideas’ New Haven Preservation Trust walking series, this guy led a tour of the lush green space he seeks to preserve.

Colin Caplan, a local architect and preservationist, led two dozen festival-goers through the honeysuckle bushes behind Bill’s Carousel Ice Cream at Whalley Avenue and Dayton Street. Tour-takers were in for a surprise: a vast, quiet, open space right off a commercial thoroughfare.

Caplan has named the park West River Narrows. Ever since the 1650s, those banks around the West River have held mills and factories — a saw mill, a dye-production plant, and the Parker Paper Mill, known for making paper out of recycled cotton, said Caplan. Now the land is owned by the city and kept as open space.

The steep-banked park still holds the remains of stone channels and factories. The area’s mostly unkempt nature now, overgrown with vines. The valley whispers with water sounds, with West River rapids rushing through (pictured).

Back when the mills were running, dams created pools luring neighborhood kids to play on the bank and cool off in the water. “Apparently they used to swim without any clothes,” explained Caplan. “That’s not apparently!” interjected a voice from the crowd. That’s a fact, said the man.

Two men on the tour, both of whom grew up in Westville in the 1930s, shared tales of the days when the area was filled with workers, and the woods an active playground. George Uihlein (pictured) and Jim Broker scaled the steep banks of a place they knew quite well.

Broker recalled ice skating on the river, then daring friends to be the first to dip into the water in spring. He remembers little houses along Whalley created for Scottish mill workers, named Scotch Row. “Everybody would live near the mill so they could walk to it.” To go downtown, they’d take the trolley down Whalley.

Uihlein’s father worked down the street at the Geometric Design factory. “It would be good if people could utilize the facilities,” he said of the neglected park, where following trails in some parts requires a little bushwhacking.

The tour ended at the site of the Parker Mill, where foundations from various eras lie in fragments. The lot, now owned by developers West Rock, LLC, will soon be turned into elderly homes, according to Caplan. He wants to see the rest of the open space, the 25 city-owned acres, turned into “an interactive park.”

“It’s important to think about this place … how we can make it accessible and safe, and keep it as nature.” To that end, Caplan’s created a clean-up crew and preservation group called the West River Narrows Park Friends Group. Those interested can email Colin Caplan or call 397-2002.

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