Connecticut is a River

story and photography by Bill Heald

Find me a state and you’ll find a river named after it. This I believe with every fiber of my geographic knowledge, which I amazingly spotty. I also believe when a state does indeed share its name with a river, the river came first. This is my theory, and I’m sticking to it regardless what some states may say about the matter.

Connecticut supports my theory, whether it wants to or not. This compact state (a postage stamp compared to Alaska) has a river running through it that has been a critical part of the success (and occasional destruction) of human settlements. This state has not only relied on this robust runnel’s resources but also stolen its name, and kept it to this day. The license plates even say it, and so does the emblem of the state police. Outrageous.

The origin of the name Connecticut is, like most history, in dispute. Everybody agrees that the name is a bastardization of the Native American word “Quinnehtukqut,” but things get hazy as to which Native Americans had it first. Some say it was the Algonquins, others (including the state government) say it was the Mohegans. I’m going with the Mohegans, because they have a mighty casino that will check your riding gear for no charge.

The Gillette Castle in Connecticut
Sherlock Holmes would have loved the Gillette Castle, and Arthur Conan Doyle loved the builder who was incredibly successful bringing Holmes to life on stage for large New York audiences.

Regardless, the word means, roughly “along the long tidal river.” It begins in Canada at the fourth of the four Connecticut Lakes, teasingly scurries south along the border of New Hampshire and Vermont, boldly slices Massachusetts in half and finally arrives in the state where it belongs. Ultimately it meanders down to the Long Island Sound, giving its aquatic essence to the Atlantic Ocean.

Given the lure of this huge river (the largest watershed in New England), I decided to follow it and soak in some of its power and heritage. Naturally, a lot of you Road Warriors would have started at the Canadian headwaters and followed it down, but I did not adopt your strategy. Due to time constraints (and various outstanding legal issues in certain New England constabularies), I decided to follow the Connecticut River starting from where it cruises into the state all the way down to its oceanic conclusion. I would follow this twisty blue line on the map by sticking as close to it as pavement would reasonably allow. This turned out to be a challenge, as you shall see.

I loaded up a BMW K1200GT for this journey, and before rolling down the driveway I spent many hours GoogleQuesting maps to plot a course along the river. This meant bouncing from the east to the west shore and back depending on where roads were actually constructed. This done, I loaded up the panniers, stuffed my carefully composed route maps into the window of my tankbag and headed out. Next stop, the Long Tidal River!

Excellent picnic spot by the river.
Tiny lines on the map next to the river occasionally bring access to excellent picnic spots, as long as you’re not put off by some occasional mud.

Well, not quite. I found the Connecticut-Massachusetts border OK (although it is invisible), and proceeded to where my map told me was a road that should be close enough to witness the river’s passage into the Nutmeg State.

Here’s the problem with maps: Sometimes they exaggerate, and sometimes they lie. In this case the road that was supposed to take me close to the shore (Bark Haul Road, accessed from Route 5 off Interstate 91) was fine until I encountered the part that looked like it was closed in the 1930s. At this point there were some very interesting signs, though. One stated I was viewing the Fannie Stebbins’ Memorial Wildlife Refuge, and the other told a tale of high water on this flood plain that is now a wetland wildlife paradise. The hurricanes of 1938 and 1955 are represented, but the really high-water mark is from the flood of 1936.

This massive disaster soaked 12 states, and started when more than half a foot of snow cover was besieged by nine days of rain that totaled well over 14 inches. Dams broke, great walls of ice broke through bridges, thousands were made homeless and the damage in today’s dollars was in the billions. The Connecticut River and its endless tributaries haven’t been as full since, which is good because a good chunk of the state was under water.

The Goodspeed Opera House
The Goodspeed Opera House is located high above the river, and has entertained the Nutmeg State since the 1870s (and has played roles like a storage depot during its long life).

I proceeded north on the road that intersected the “failed” one, and observed ponds teeming with bird life (and insects, hurling themselves at my windscreen with admirable enthusiasm). I knew I was running parallel to the river so the first track that headed west I attacked. I must see the mighty river, for it is the spiritual point where my journey begins!

Sand. Lots of sand. This way to the river was no interstate, but better resembled a narrow, rock-strewn golf hazard from hell. The GT is no GS, and as the stuff got deeper the bike squirmed as I kept gassing my way through deepness. I sensed peril and pain was near. I pictured the blue Beemer involved in an incident, much like Alton Brown’s Feasting on Asphalt get-off (only this time there was no film crew to pick me up, and probably no Good Eats at the end of the day if I was stranded here). I became hot and tired, and sweat soaked my helmet liner as I turned back and powered my way back to pavement. Of course, some of the heat came from the seat heater I bumped on during the sand wrestling; an entirely unnecessary accessory in July.

I consulted my (now suspect) maps and scampered back to Route 5 and headed southwest. Thompsonville was the objective. This little village is part of Enfield, and was named after Orrin Thompson who started a carpet mill in the 1820s that used a tributary of the Connecticut River for power. The industry disappeared entirely in 1971 and nowadays Thompsonville is pretty sleepy but still has some village character. It’s here where I first saw the river (located right off River Road, surprisingly enough) and a relic from the past in the form of an abandoned mill.

Sign showing record floods in the area.
Like all rivers, the Connecticut has had a wild life including many substantial floods, recorded on this handy sign near where the river enters the state from Massachusetts.

Rain started to fall as I tried to read the side of the crumbling building, and it said WESTFIELD PLATE CO CASKET HARDWARE AND DRY ___ something. The last word was obscured by ivy. There’s something tragic about these neglected dinosaurs of the industrial age, and they’re found all along the Connecticut River and its endless tributaries.

The wet weather made me think of a certain sign showing the water level in 1936, so I cautiously watched the skies while looking for more river. Back on Route 5, miles went by and Bridge Lane begat Parson’s Road and a great view of the river at the King’s Island boat ramp. I observed a couple in a canoe, wondering how deep the river was at that point. I got my answer when a Rottweiler appeared from behind them, and the water was up to his knees. Either this dog was part giraffe, or the river was pretty dang shallow here (explaining the lack of heavy boat traffic).

My map told me it was time to cross the river and try following the western shore, so I crossed in Windsor Locks on yet another Bridge Street (with a real bridge on it, no less), and headed south on Route 159. This quiet, winding road followed the river at a slight distance, and the odd refurbished mill (many are now office buildings) celebrated new life on high banks overlooking the river. Route 159 took me through Windsor, the first British settlement in Connecticut and a charming little town even in the rain (could explain the roundabout I saw just up the road, too). Shoot, at Keney Park just south of town they still dabble in Cricket. Well played, I say!

Statue of Major John Mason.
Major John Mason was great at founding things. Once he arrived in New England he founded Norwich, Old Saybrook and Windsor, where this statue now stands.

Dinner, sleep and a sunny morning visit to the Mark Twain House in Hartford led to the west bank of the river and the continuation of the journey down south. Route 2 (the Veteran of Foreign Wars Highway) escorted me back over to the west side on the Route 3 Bridge. I then accessed what my map told me was a fine road that ran along the river, called Elm Street. It was hidden but I found it, and soon the pavement stopped and dirt and mud prevailed. Oh fine.

The “road” was slick but empty, and ran right along the mighty Connecticut. I stopped and enjoyed the silence that was breached by the odd powerboat or personal watercraft, then proceeded on and found a paved surface that appeared to be heading away from the river but generally in the right direction. I throttled mightily onward, reaching Glastonbury and a recognizable spot on my devious Googlefied map-item. Route 99 led to Route 9 and the big river once again, visible just to the east of downtown Middletown. A jaunt west over the Arrigoni Bridge revealed the Brazos Quarry, and cool green waters very different from those of the Connecticut River. After checking several sunbathers for sufficient sunscreen (resulting in hostility from large, neckless companions), I aired out the Beemer on the Arrigoni once again heading west, and then aimed south down Route 17.

My map confused me, but I meandered through a hospital complex and returned to the river via, you guessed it, River Road. I was in a blissful state. Easily the tastiest road on the trip so far, this two-lane was awesome. Until l saw the ROAD CLOSED sign, that is.

A construction worker was there, and I asked if the road was really closed farther on. “Has been for years,” he said. “It’s national security. Pratt and Whitney is down here, and they build jet engines for the military. The road’s closed to the public for good, I think.”

Brilliant. I was told not to shoot any pictures of the fence blocking the road, too. Don’t get me started.

Relaxing by the Long Title River.
Ah, the peaceful solitude of the Long Tidal River! Of course, the odd passing Jet Ski or powerboat does break the reverie a bit.

I backtracked west to Route 154, and a great ride it was even though the river wasn’t always evident (the forest and a sea of endless green was). At Bridge Road (Route 82 this time) I went east over the Connecticut River and into East Haddam, where the majestic Goodspeed Opera House overlooks the river. Built in 1876 by William Goodspeed, this picturesque theater had many identities after his death and was a World War I militia base, general store and even a depot for the Connecticut Highway Department. But in 1959 it became a theater again, and a beacon of successful theater rejuvenation ever since. Singin’ in the Rain was playing when I visited, and it reminded me that my impromptu River Dance a day before was not well received by a family having a damp picnic outside Windsor. Odd, that. And I thought my Aerostich step-dancing was joyous!

From the Goodspeed I took Route 82 east through more of Connecticut’s excellent summer greenery, following the signs to the Gillette Castle. My dear friends, sometimes a trip will reveal itself when you least expect it, and show you unknown truths as to why you were driven to undertake the journey. This castle and I were destined to meet, evident by the excellent motorcycle parking area up front. The structure itself is odd, sloppy, intriguing and magnificent. The story behind it is even better.

Ride route map.
Map by Bill Tipton/

With the encouragement of one Mark Twain (the guy with the house in Hartford), William Gillette became an actor, and world famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage. He made a good living, and with his fortune built not only a most singular castle but also a small railroad to take guests on a tour of the grounds. The design and furnishings of this place reflect the Holmes-like quirkiness of its creator, and I think the fictitious detective would have heartily approved.

At Gillette’s urging before his death, the state made a park out of the castle and surrounding digs that overlook the Connecticut River. I love Sherlock Holmes, castles and “eccentrics.” This place is a genuine hat trick for the likes of me.

Back up to East Haddam and over the bridge to Route 154, I headed south to Essex and the Connecticut River Museum. Here you’ll find a comprehensive history of the river and many fascinating exhibits, and their collection includes the only working model of the American Turtle. This was the first submarine ever to be used in combat, and it was tested in the Connecticut River.

A final run south on 154 took me to Old Saybrook and ultimately Saybrook Point, where you run out of river and run into Sound. A huge, wide expanse of water with a wicked amount of boat activity, it is here where the Connecticut River gives up its mission of bisecting New England and surrenders to the Atlantic. I parked the bike right by the paved boardwalk and relaxed on a bench amongst endless pedestrians. This was quite possibly the most crowded “traffic” situation I experienced on my border-to-border trip though Connecticut, and following the river was the key to great roads and surprising isolation in a fairly crowded state. This solitude and William Gillette’s castle truly made this a trip to remember.

[From the May 2008 issue of Rider]


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