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River Connection

A river is more than an amenity. It is a treasure – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Glastonbury and the Connecticut River. Since the early 17th century, the two have enjoyed a shared destiny.
Early on, its local tributaries nourished the town’s fertile bottomland making it ideal for farming. Later, it provided the waterpower necessary for the mass production of gunpowder during the Revolutionary War, shipbuilding throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and a host of manufacturing and other commercial enterprises from the mid-1800s on. For centuries, its hidden coves — some natural and some manmade — have kept both the agricultural and shipbuilding economies safe from seasonal flooding, as well as the scrutiny of British naval forces. And it has served Glastonbury as a vital artery to the world as a whole. Indeed, the town’s recent growth surge is owed, at least in part, to the uncommon beauty, rich history, and enduring prosperity that derive from The Connecticut River.

But life along New England’s longest waterway has not been without its challenges. By the mid-1900s, the Connecticut had fallen victim to an industrial revolution that not only defiled her once-pristine waters but ended her traditional spring runs of shad and Atlantic salmon, along with the habitat other wildlife species needed to survive. Sad to say, like those living in so many river towns, Glastonbury’s residents came to see the river as a foul-smelling embarrassment beyond salvation — the inevitable consequence of industrial growth. Then came the 1980s, and with them both the decline in the region’s industrial production and an increase in environmental awareness.

A renewed reverence for the beleaguered Connecticut River emerged, with organizations like the Connecticut River Watershed Association and the Nature Conservancy leading the way. Joined locally by the Connecticut DEP, Great Meadows Trust, and the Connecticut Audubon Center of Glastonbury, a full reclamation of the river itself, as well as the meadows along its banks, began to take shape.

Silvio O. Conte, a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and lifelong naturalist, introduced legislation to protect the Connecticut River and return spawning salmon to its waters, effectively launching the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Spanning the river’s course through four New England states, the refuge, in cooperation with state and local organizations, landowners, and individuals, began protecting not only the fish and fauna but also the river’s vastly varying watersheds. And now, just over two decades on, the Connecticut River is beautiful once more.

Standing guard at its mouth are the Lynde Point and Saybrook Point lighthouses —which trace their roots back to 1803 and 1886, respectively, when their predecessor structures first took up watch over the ever-shifting sand bar that spared the river from deep-draft ship traffic, preventing Old Saybrook from becoming a major port city and thus losing its estuary and wetland ecosystems. Today, the estuary, tidal marshes, and wetlands in and around Essex and Old Saybrook, where the river meets the Sound, remain so entirely unspoiled that the International Ramsar Convention Treaty named them a Wetland of International Importance. And in 1993, the Nature Conservancy deemed them one of the western hemisphere’s 40 biologically important ecosystems and A Last Great Place.

Mid-river, two ferryboats still carry pedestrians, bikers, and cars between Rocky Hill and Glastonbury on the Upper River and Chester and East Haddam in the Lower Valley. The former, in operation since 1655, and the latter, first launched in 1769, have the distinction of being the two oldest ferry lines in the U.S., ensuring a convenient trip across the big river on a seasonal schedule — and a bit of fun in the bargain.

Along the way, pleasure boaters routinely dock in coves to relax, picnic, and sometimes take a refreshing swim, while weekend mariners press on to East Haddam to enjoy the pleasures of Gillette Castle, the centerpiece of Gillette Castle State Park — or historic Goodspeed Opera House, an acclaimed regional theater recently returned to its original glory. And in Glastonbury, the river really shines.

Families gather for the brunch and beautiful river vistas at South Glastonbury marinas. Canoers and kayakers join tourists aboard the vintage riverboat reproductions that cruise from Essex, Middletown and Hartford. And with the recent opening of Glastonbury Riverfront Park, the historic link between the Connecticut River and the town has not only been restored forever but enriched by a stunning boathouse; public boat, crew, and canoe/kayak launches; a dock for the Fire Department’s rescue boat; a picnic pavilion; a playground for the youngsters, as well as a lighted basketball court for kids of all ages; an outdoor ice-skating area; and multi-use trails with scenic overlooks.

So on life flows, both for the Connecticut River and for the town of Glastonbury set along her banks. Indeed, just as the river is once again home to several families of eagles, herons, snipes, woodcocks, and fish — including 50-inch stripers, trophy largemouth, shad runs, and the long-missed Atlantic salmon, it is once again home to the residents of Glastonbury, who are proud to live alongside her.

Symbolic of time’s steady flow — past into present and present into future — the Connecticut River is a subtle blend of what has been, what is, and what’s to come. And so is Glastonbury. They mirror each other. They sustain each other. And sometimes, they share the same soul.

Photograph by Al Ferreira