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River Was Where Road Is

Adding Water Feature To Bushnell Park Fraught With Risk

March 19, 2006
Commentary By WILSON H. FAUDE

In January, The Courant carried an enthusiastic endorsement of the Metropolitan District Commission's scheme to tap a brook in Bloomfield and have it flow in Bushnell Park. The most seductive part of the idea was that the MDC claimed the new water feature would flow "roughly along the former path of the Park River," which once flowed through the park.

It is unclear if the MDC or The Courant had not done their homework or were simply imagining where the Park River might have flowed. In any event, they had it wrong. The river flowed where the streets are on the north side of the park. When the Army Corps of Engineers buried the river after the floods of the late 1930s, they took away a substantial amount of parkland.

Can they be trusted not to do it again? As pleasant as a water feature would be in the park, the impulse to widen streets in this state is such that the project should be viewed with extreme caution, lest history repeat itself. The park has lost too much land as it is. Let's leave bad enough alone.

Bushnell Park was created by a vote of the Hartford citizens on Jan. 5, 1854. The city fathers had a carefully conceived plan to create a park on the open acreage west of Main Street, where in a few years a new state Capitol building could be built. In the 1870s, Hartford became the sole capital of the state (previously this honor was shared with New Haven) and the new statehouse was erected on the south end of the park.

In time, various improvements were added to the park. Two multispan bridges were placed over the Park River as carriage entrances into the park: the Ford Street Bridge in 1850 and the Hoadley Bridge at the foot of Gold Street in 1909. In 1884, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch was built at the southern end of the Ford Street Bridge. Small footbridges were built near the railroad station and at the foot of Trumbull Street. The road that hugged the park on the north and east (Ford, Jewell and Wells streets) was a simple one-lane road. Asylum Street from the railroad station to Main Street was a two-lane road.

By the 1930s, Hartford was a major industrial, insurance and banking center. Unfortunately, its streets were the product of its 17th-century settlement. They were narrow, twisting paths that had been set over ancient trails. What might have been comfortable routes for a horse and wagon were simply too narrow for 20th-century commerce. Business leaders knew if Hartford was to grow it had to meet the needs of the modern world, a world that held the automobile at its center.

Enter, stage right, Mother Nature. On March 19, 1936, as the result of a snowy winter and a sudden thaw, the Connecticut River set an all-time high-water mark of 29.8 feet. The previous record had been set in 1854. There was some flooding in the park, but the major flooding affected the businesses east of Main Street. On Sept. 21, 1938, after four days of rain, a hurricane slammed into the state. Again the park was flooded, and again the real damage was east of Main Street.

Dramatic pictures of the park under water provided the city with a way to achieve two things. First was the need to control the flooding of the Connecticut and the subsequent flooding in the park. A floodgate where the two rivers met would have solved that problem. It is interesting to note that this new proposal recognizes this: "Floodgates would be installed at the Park River conduit that could be closed if the Connecticut River rises too high."

In other words, the Park River was never the problem, but by burying it, the city could solve its road issues.

Under the guise of flood control, the city received approval of the plan to bury the Park River. When the mountains of dirt created by the project obscured all views of the park, the city took park land and Park River bed and built streets in their place. It happened without public notice or objection. The bridge beneath the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch was shortened by over 60 feet. The multispan Hoadley Bridge was reduced to a plaque.

The single-lane road that once bordered the park on its north and east side (Ford, Jewell and Wells streets) was widened to six lanes, in part, with islands in the middle! At the railroad bridge on Asylum, more land was taken to form a multilane thoroughfare, complete with bus pull-offs.

I am for restoring water to the Park River, but I know the city will not undo the streets, restore the river to its original position and then restore to the park its lost acres. It will not restore the arch's monumental bridge or rebuild the Hoadley Bridge.

With history as our guide, we know that when dirt is in mountainous piles that cannot be seen around, more land from the park will be "reassigned." Those who propose the new conduits and water features and ponds may have honorable intentions. But this plan is not in Bushnell Park's or the public's best interest.

It's time to draw the line in the macadam and say, "Enough, thank you - but no."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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