Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, Connecticut

Posted 04/01/12 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Trail of the Month: April 2012

When it comes to layers of history, few pathways can top the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. This central Connecticut corridor started life as a waterway, then turned into a railroad, then became a multi-use trail. Lately, it's become a crucial link in an ambitious 3,000-mile greenway from Florida to Maine.

"There's so much history and heritage—it went through three modes of transportation," says Steve Mitchell, owner of a trailside business and board member of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, the group promoting the Florida-to-Maine pathway.

Many trails have a lengthy backstory, but few tales are as long and as varied as that of the Farmington Canal trail. It started in the 1820s, when a group of businessmen in New Haven joined together to build a canal north through the Farmington Valley and into Northampton, Mass., to facilitate trade. The canal was completed in 1835, but the advent of the steam locomotive quickly spelled the waterway's doom. By 1850 most of the right-of-way was laid with tracks for the New Haven and Northampton Company railroad, also known as the "Canal Line."  

The railroad operated for more than 130 years, under various owners. Generations of residents watched trains come and go on this line, including the 54-year-old Mitchell, who remembers seeing them passing through town and behind the lot of his family's car dealership in Simsbury, Conn., when he was a boy. By the 1980s, though, service over most of this rail line ended. Work on converting the unused sections into rail-trails began in the early 1990s, spurred on by funding provided by the federal Transportation Enhancements program.

The first sections of the trail opened in 1993. Mitchell remembers taking his family out on one of these sections not long afterward—his first ride on a rail-trail. "It was absolutely wonderful—you didn't have to worry about cars or trucks," he recalls. From that point, he was hooked on rail-trails.

The trail extended in segments over the years as access and funding became available. When the pathway came through Simsbury, Mitchell's family provided access to the section of the railroad corridor that it had previously leased from the state to use as an employee parking lot, keeping the trail route continuous.

Today, about 42 miles of the 56-mile route through Connecticut are complete. (Another 25 miles of the corridor in Massachusetts, starting with the Southwick Rail Trail at the Connecticut border, are in various stages of development.) Mitchell estimates that it will take another three to five years to complete the trail. Trail builders have been careful to preserve the corridor's history, protecting one of the last remaining canal locks and creating a museum beside it in the town of Cheshire, for example.

Even though it's still a work in progress, the greenway has proven to be enormously popular. More than 154,000 people used the section of trail near Simsbury in 2008, according to the Farmington Valley Trails Council (FVTC). The pathway provides not only health and recreational benefits for users, but an alternative commuting option for residents. It generates an estimated $4 million to $7 million a year for the regional economy. Perhaps equally important, the Farmington canal trail has helped to catalyze an alternative transportation movement both on the local and state levels.

"It's fun to see what a difference [the trail] has made in our community in terms of encouraging biking, and making people feel safe on bicycles," says Mitchell.

Adds FVTC president Bruce Donald, "After 20 years of work, we finally are bringing to fruition a point-to-point alternative transportation corridor that is not just a fantastic regional amenity, but a useful harbinger of the steadily increasing value of people-powered travel."

The FVTC, a citizens' group formed in 1992 to support rail-trail development in the area, now has more than 1,600 members, according to Donald. These volunteers have played a crucial role not only in creating and promoting the trail, but maintaining it. For example, when a major snowstorm crippled New England last October and brought down hundreds of trees and thousands of branches on the trail, dozens of members of the trails council swarmed over the trail like worker bees and cleaned away the debris—in some cases, before power to their homes had even been restored.

These trail advocates have also been a powerful voice in support of bicycle and pedestrian issues across the state. In an acknowledgement of the importance of this constituency and recognition of the crucial role of multi-modal transportation, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy last year created and filled the state's first-ever full-time position for a bicycle-pedestrian coordinator.

Malloy has also provided funds for a feasibility study for a bike path running parallel to southwestern Connecticut's Merritt Parkway—a path that could ultimately connect to the Farmington Canal trail and provide another important link in the East Coast Greenway.

The East Coast Greenway would connect Key West, Fla., to Calais, Maine, linking 26 major cities along the way and providing new, non-motorized recreational and commuting options to millions of Americans. Nearly 200 miles of the proposed greenway would go through Connecticut, including the section of the Farmington Canal trail from New Haven to Simsbury. About 25 percent of the greenway is complete, and Donald, Mitchell and others from Connecticut are using their experiences on the Farmington Canal trail to help move the interstate project forward. "We have a symbiotic and complementary existence," Donald says of the greenway group.

Sounds like the makings of another engrossing chapter in the history of the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.


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