The area around the Farmington Canal in Cheshire, Connecticut, has always been sacred ground to me, my family, and friends. “The Tracks” as we called the strip of swampland that transformed from a canal route to a railroad corridor, and finally to a rails-to-trails pathway over the course of its lifetime, is where we grew up. The train came along through our backyards twice a day, following the same path that mules and horses had followed over a century earlier, towing canal boats and barges laden with products; beef and coffee, lumber and molasses, soaps and spices. The trains’ contents, on the other hand, remained a mystery, hidden from our eyes, locked up behind heavy steel doors as lines of multicolored boxcars and, on rare occasion, a flat car, careened past us on the mighty iron tracks. As young children, we placed our pennies on the tracks and watched as conductors, waving their striped puffy railroad hats, navigated the huge steam engines through our backyards, unknowingly, crushing the contents of our piggy banks, making our savings into canal souvenirs. A red caboose, chugging along at the end of the long line of freight cars, like a playful toddler, signaled it was safe to return to our narrow playground, to collect our coins or sometimes a piece of coal that had fallen from the train.
In between the brief train sightings, or when the train just didn’t come at all, we turned to the streams and the swamps around the old canal route for our amusement. We didn’t think twice about plunging knee-deep into the mucky swamp that lay hidden beneath a thin layer of bright green algae. We found all we needed for a summer of fun; spotted turtles, massive bullfrogs, copperheads and water moccasins. Whatever we could dig out of the thick tar-like mud that would eventually cover us from head to toe, was there for us, a vast treasure of nature’s offerings. In the springtime my brothers and I rushed to the banks of the swamp in search of the treasure of all treasure—frog eggs. We’d scoop handfuls of stringy jelly-like eggs into a bucket filled with water, take them home and, like a great backyard science experiment, we watched as day by day the thousands of tiny black dots in the center of each of each of the eggs, would transform– elongating and growing, until, magically, we had a bucket full of tiny fish. When the heads began to grow bigger and the legs sprouted from the bodies of the tiny tadpoles, we knew it was time to return the young, soon-to-be-frogs to the swamp and wait for the next spring to do the same experiment.
In the summer the swimming hole, located at the trestle closest to Mount Sanford Road, was regularly filled with swimmers, taking advantage of the hard work of some kids who had spent hours building a damn below the bridge, raising the water to a four or five feet pool. Inevitably, someone, a railroad official we thought, would come in the cover of night and destroy the damn, forcing the teenage engineers to rebuild so all could return to the swampy swimming pool.
When we hit the invincible teen years we watched for the train for a different reason– a free ride home from middle school. We couldn’t resist chasing the chugging red caboose, down the tracks. If we were fast enough, and lucky enough, we’d jump on and take a ride. But all too often, burly, cigar-smoking conductors and engineers would suddenly appear at the back door of the rocking caboose. Legends of smashed fingers and close calls were born on the tracks, as guardians of the tiny red car, armed with heavy iron pipes and other finger crushing weapons, appeared more and more often. So we learned to run alongside the trains and jump on from the sides, where the ladders came down just a couple of feet off the ground. From there we could climb between the cars, or better yet, climb up on top, out of view of the conductors. We passed through the crossroads and neighborhoods as if riding a great horse in a parade, looking proudly along the long line of freight cars that bumped, creaked and squealed through the neighborhoods, whistle blaring, the great engine lazily following the soft curves in the tracks. If we didn’t catch the train, or one of us was too slow to jump on, we’d all walk home on the tracks, throwing rocks in the water and challenging each other to middle school pranks and contests; jumping from track to track, trying to balance on the iron rails the longest, or rip the huge spikes that held iron plates down to the wooden ties. We hid beneath bridges as cars thundered overhead. We walked and we ran, we jumped from tie to tie, rail to rail. We joked and told stories.We snuck beneath the streets where tunnels carried the canal water southward, straddling the tunnels, sometimes falling in, sometimes not.
In the early eighties a storm washed the railroad tracks away in the southern end of town and the train stopped coming through our neighborhoods. The washed-out tracks along the canal line took on a sort of ghost town quality. The iron rails, set along the tow path that had carried so many canal boats up from New Haven, became an abandoned relic. Brush and trees and marshes began to take back the canal. Dirt bikes made new trail beside the abandoned tracks as helmeted riders temporarily replaced the train, becoming the newest form of transportation along the route.
For several years the canal line was forgotten, abandoned, quiet. The abandoned railroad tracks rusted. Water washed away sections beneath the tracks, making them into an iron tightrope, that an occasional jogger or motorcycle rider would come across. The water, once bustling with passengers and freight silently carried nothing, but leaves and ducks. It was a silent, sad, almost pensive time at the long-forgotten tracks.
Today, once again, the canal route is back, as part of another great experiment, this one perhaps more successful than the canal project that linked the towns nearly two hundred years ago. Thanks to the Rails to Trails program. Now scores of walkers, bikers, roller bladers and joggers follow the same route that the canal boats, the trains, the motorcycles, and a raucous band of middle schoolers had all followed so many years ago, bringing life back to a trail that carries so much more than meets the eye.
The other morning I was walking along the route when I bumped into a neighbor of mine by the old swimming hole. Phil said he hadn’t been down to the canal since high school. He graduated in 1969 and immediately was off to Vietnam. Like so many of us, Phil had returned to the old neighborhood to help with an ailing parent.
“I remember fishing and swimming down here all summer. We used to throw cherry bombs in the water down here.” His voice carried across the pathway, with a boyish quality.
“So much has changed, but at the same time–it’s still the same.”
All along that route of neon-clad roller bladers and earphone-wired bicycle riders, so many footprints can still be found. Footprints of those, past and present who, like so many of us, spent a small portion of their lives on a trek along the canal route that would lead us to see so much more than how long it takes a tadpole to grow legs, or how hard it is to board a canal boat or a moving freight train, or how long it can take to come home–to really come home. And how nice it can be when we finally get there.
Join me as we follow the footprints along the Farmington Canal route in search of stories, past and present, stories as American as apple pie and as old as the canal itself. The journey begins with a dream in one of America’s first and finest neighborhoods two hundred years ago. And end somewhere beyond Northampton in a future just beyond our reach. So grab a seat on the canal boat, grab hold of a ladder on the train, jump on your bike, or put on your roller blades, because the canaltrekker is about to embark on a journey you won’t want to miss.