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River Connection

With rivers so genuinely symbolic of time’s steady flow — past into present and present into future, it’s especially appropriate that Glastonbury, a subtle blend of what has been, what is, and what’s to come, is set on The Connecticut River, New England’s longest waterway.

A mainstay of the area’s prosperity, owing to the hidden coves — some natural and some manmade — that dotted the river’s meandering flow, The Connecticut kept both the agricultural and shipbuilding economies safe from seasonal flooding and the scrutiny of British naval forces for centuries. By the mid-1900s, however, the Connecticut River 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, as well as the other wildlife species they supported. And 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 1980s, and with them 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. Then Silvio O. Conte, a 16-term U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and lifelong naturalist, introduced legislation to protect the Connecticut River and return spawning salmon to its waters, the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge was created. 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 early thirty years later, the Connecticut River is beautiful once more.

Standing guard at its mouth are the Lynde Point and Saybrook Point lighthouses. Both trace their roots back to 1803 and 1886, respectively, when their predecessor structures first took up watch over the ever-shifting sand bar — a sand bar that spared the river from deep-draft ship traffic, preventing Old Saybrook from becoming a major port city and the estuary and wetland ecosystems from destruction. Fact is, in Essex and Old Saybrook, where the river meets the Sound, the estuary, tidal marshes, and wetlands 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 40 biologically important ecosystems in the western hemisphere and designated these tidelands 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, opening 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, 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 opening of Glastonbury Riverfront Park, the historic link between the Connecticut River and the town has been not only restored forever but enriched, thanks to 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, as well as herons, snipes and 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.

Photograph by Al Ferreira