Two Roads Diverged…

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

In Farmington, CT the trail picks up again and does become two roads for a short bit as the Farmington River Trail offers canaltrekkers an alternative route following in the footsteps of our darling from Dingle, Shannon McCarthy. Like Frost we pondered both routes and instead of taking the one less traveled, which would be neither, we traveled down both.
The Farmington River Trail curves westward in an arc following the Farmington River and, although it is a bit wider and is considered a bike route, could easily pass for the Farmington Canal Trail. This path meanders through the woods much like much of the canal trail has over the past twenty miles, but after approximately three miles, the trail edges down next to the water and gives trekkers and bikers a fabulous view of the rapids along the Farmington River.

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The Farmington Canal route continues from the divergent on a straighter path, again following the route of the canal and the railroad that once ran through here heading north. Instead of finding ourselves alongside the great river, on this route we passed high above the beautiful spot where the reminders of the trains that overtook the canal can still be seen hidden in the growth to the side of the trail. Standing high above the Farmington River, we watched as a bald eagle soared high above the head of an unsuspecting fisherman on the banks below, then prepared to trek northward, again following in the footsteps of our fictional heroine.


Exploring a Missing Link

As we leave Southington behind us, the trail becomes less defined and a little tricky to follow. Busy streets, highway entrances and exit ramps, sprawling storefronts and traffic swallow up any trace of the Farmington canal route that once rolled gently through this central Connecticut landscape. In fact, between Southington and Farmington where the trail splits off to make the Farmington River Trail, much of the route is incomplete. But hidden between the finished route that borders Southington’s busy downtown district and the proposed route that reaches up into Farmington, there is a small link that many Canaltrekkers may overlook in their journey. This short piece of trail, a paved bike route that meanders and flows along existing roads, leads us on a brief journey through the sleepy town of Plainville, CT.
According to town historian, Ruth Hummel, during the Farmington Canal’s heyday, carriages built in Plainville were loaded onto canal boats and sent south to New Haven, then transported by ship to southern states where they were widely used. Today if you look carefully you can spot traces of the canal route in Plainville; a small waterway that meanders through a residential neighborhood, quiet train tracks stretch out as far as the eye can see, yet another street sign signifying Canal Street–all subtle reminders of the route that once carried our hero Shannon McCarthy through this quiet New England town.

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But it was not long before we completed the short trek through town and looked northward where the proposed route extends for the next several miles. We will pick up the trail again in Farmington, CT, the beginning of Connecticut’s longest continuous stretch of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail as it reaches all the way to the Massachusetts border, carrying us further in this journey of discovery and exploration.

Bolts, Nuts, and Screws


As we make our way out of the woods, leaving the fabled Shannon McCarthy on an 1839 canal boat stalled somewhere behind us, we again take to the trail in the Milldale section of Southington, CT. Off to our right in the woods, sections of railroad tracks lay hidden among the brush, swallowed up by time and Mother Nature, relics of the past, leftover reminders of the mighty steam engines that once traveled this route. After crossing a bridge over the historic Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike, we come to the first landmark on this section of the Farmington Canal Trail; the Milldale train depot. Built in 1890, the depot is open on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day and houses treasures and memorabilia donated by the Southington Historical Society. Not far up ahead, on the left, we spot the old Clark Brothers bolt manufacturing plant.
While Southington is now a sleepy New England bedroom community (unless you visit during the October Apple Harvest Festival which attracts 100,000 visitors annually) landmarks along the trail are reminders of the town’s past as our nation’s leading bolt and screw manufacturing community. The Clark Brothers manufacturing building on Canal Street (and right next to the trail) is a case in point. William, Henry, and Charles Clark set up shop here after an 1893 fire destroyed their original facility. The Clark brothers became leading manufacturers in a town where the bolts, nuts, screws, washers, and rivets that held our nation together were produced.
And so the Canaltrekkers press northward, passing Southington’s downtown district, heading toward the community’s mother town of Farmington (Southington was once known as Southern Farmington) in search of a story, in search of an adventure, blazing the trail where Shannon McCarthy will soon follow on her trek into our past.



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Into the Unknown

IMG_0367[1] After spending a night at Lock 12, Shannon McCarthy is able to escape the clutches of the local constable and catches a ride on another canal boat, this one carrying prisoners from the Amistad who passed through this lock in 1839. The boat heads up the Farmington Canal, carrying our hero into her future as she explores our past, and we find ourselves at an important literary and geographical intersection. For it is here, as you may or may not recall, on the banks of the Farmington Canal, somewhere between Cheshire and Southington, CT that our story stalls. Right around 25,000 words.

Ironically, just a mile or so up the trail is where the Farmington Canal trail also stalls. Construction of an approximately four mile section of the trail that begins on Cornwall Avenue in Cheshire, and ends in Southington is due to begin in 2015 and be completed by 2017. Currently this part of the trail is heavily overgrown and has vanished beneath the brush. On the northern side of this wilderness, in the Plantsville section of Southington, the trail picks up again.

So as Shannon continues her exploration in search of her father, we too will continue to explore the “uncharted territory” in search of Shannon’s story. But we’ll have hop in the car and drive up to Southington to catch up with Shannon as we hit the trail again and continue our journey northward.


Lock 12

Hidden deep behind the pickle barrels and crates of Bibles, barely able to stay awake as the boat carries her lazily up the Farmington Canal, Shannon McCarthy wonders what lies around the next bend as she continues northward in search of her father.

The three mile route from Hamden, CT’s Lock 14 to Cheshire’s Lock 12 is one of the most traveled parts of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. Bicyclers and roller bladers, joggers and baby strollers vie for positions along the paved route where nearly two hundred years ago, only canal boat-towing mules and horses traveled. Along the way, nature sings out to the modern pedestrians much as it must have to the original travelers. Flocks of grackles and crows chase away a red-tailed hawk who cries out as it races through the sky and dives into the thick brush avoiding the unwanted attacks. Blue Herons stand guard like frozen Jurassic statues in the streams, watching the pedestrians as they trek by on their way to the most beautifully refurbished lock on the route
As you pass the Hamden/Cheshire line, look for the remnants of Lock 13 hidden deep among the brush and the rushing water, to get a glimpse of what Cheshire’s Lock 12 looked like before 1980. Today Lock 12 and the Lock 12 Museum are a true monument to life along the Farmington Canal. This place, where I grew up (see Home Sweet Home) has always been a treasure to so many of us. The refurbished lock and lock house are a picturesque glimpse into New England’s past and this great experiment in travel that lived an important, but short life. A plaque in front of the huge doors, points out that among the more infamous to travel through these locks were the Amistad prisoners, on their way to the Hartford courthouse where they would face trial.

Just before the boat rounds the bend and readies to enter Lock 12, Shannon McCarthy is discovered as a barrel tips over and her hiding place becomes awash with pickles, vinegar, and fragrant juices, sloshing along the deck of the canal boat and startling the two young boaters in charge. And so it is here, at Lock 12, that our heroine must spend the night, waiting for the constable to come and take her away for transport back to New Haven.


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Stowaway at Lock 14


IMG_0346[2]IMG_0348[1] Lock 14, Hamden CT

IMG_0349[1]Our next stop following in the footsteps of the fictional Shannon McCarthy is the lockkeeper’s house in Hamden, CT. As Shannon unloads crates of Bibles onto an awaiting canal boat for transport to Farmington, Father Dickenson goes inside with the lockkeeper. Shannon arranges the boxes in the bottom of the boat, planning to later return to the site and become a stowaway.
Sixty locks were built between New Haven and Northampton to accommodate a five hundred twenty foot difference in elevation. When the slow moving boats pulled into the lock chambers, the lockkeepers took charge, opening and closing the heavy wooden gates in order to raise or lower the boats along the route. By the time the lock filled up with water and the boat rose several feet, the front door would be opened allowing the boat to proceed up stream. Horses or mules assisted towing the boats along the canal route, passing lock houses, taverns, and inns along the 86 mile corridor.
The lockkeeper’s house in Hamden, built in 1828, sits in front of the remains of Lock 14 today. Take a glimpse off the side of the trail behind the house and you’ll see that much of the original stonework of the lock remains. Heavy boulders and crumpling walls sit like silent ruins where the lock once stood. Just a few miles up the trail an example of a completely restored lock, Lock 12 in Cheshire, will be our next stop.
Shannon returned to the lock house late that night, long after the drunken priest had gone off to bed, and the lockkeeper and his wife were fast asleep. And there, in the bottom of the boat, tucked in behind the crates of Bibles, and barrels of grain, and pickled herring, Shannon dosed off, not knowing what awaited her next on this journey up the Farmington Canal.

The Land of the Sleeping Giant

IMG_0310IMG_0303IMG_0308IMG_0322As Shannon McCarthy takes the reigns of the drunken priest’s wagon, a distant hill, in the shape of a giant, comes into view. The priest assures Shannon, who has been disguised as a boy since leaving New Haven, that the giant will not awaken as long as she remains “a good Christian lad.”
Heading north from Whitneyville, another landmark overlooking the Farmington Canal Greenway in Southern Connecticut is Sleeping Giant State Park. According to the Sleeping Giant Park Association, Native Americans once thought that the giant was actually an evil spirit named Hobbomock, put to sleep forever by a good spirit, Keitan, seeking to end the giant’s reckless and violent behavior.
Today the park, just opposite the Quinnipiac University campus in Hamden, CT, is a great place for hiking, fishing, picnicking, camping (if you are affiliated with a group such as Boy Scouts) and just hanging out. There are over thirty miles of trails across the giant, some extremely challenging and others, like the one my kids and I took to the lookout castle at the top of the hill, (about a mile and a half one way) are more like a walk in the park.
The scalp of the giant marks the site of a quarry where stone was mined during the early years of the 20th Century. One of the more challenging hikes in the parks makes its way along the rocky ridge above the quarry and can be seen from route 10, Whitney Avenue in Hamden.
It is here, not far from the chiseled scalp of the sleeping giant, that Shannon McCarthy finds herself unloading crates of bibles for transport up the canal to Farmington. Although the Hamden lock keeper is less than hospitable to the disguised Shannon, she sees her chance to proceed up the canal in search of her father and at the lock keeper’s house Shannon becomes a stowaway.