The Park River once flowed past the the Connecticut State Capitol’s gilded dome and was the centerpiece of its namesake, Bushnell Park, in downtown Hartford, but it is now mostly forgotten. After the floods of 1936 and 1938, it was decided that the river should be buried to prevent future flood damage. Under the direction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, construction started in late 1940 to entomb the river in dual 20 foot by 30 foot concrete conduits from the Connecticut River to the Capitol, and finished in 1944. While this conduit worked well, it was decided that more of the river needed to be buried after the flood of 1955, and the Greater Hartford Flood Commission was established soon thereafter. During the construction of Interstate 84 during the 1960s, the State Highway Department built additional sections of conduit under the direction of the Flood Commission. The final sections of conduit, as well as an auxiliary tunnel to the Connecticut River, were built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers under the Park River Local Protection Project, which was authorized in 1968, with construction finishing in 1981. In total, almost four miles of river are buried, plus an additional two mile long auxiliary tunnel.
More than two years ago, I decided I wanted to canoe the Park River and started researching it. While other people had explored it and tours were even given at one point, I couldn’t find much detailed information online. Therefore, I proceeded to acquire copies of the engineering reports on the Park River Local Protection Project via interlibrary loan and looked at maps and other reports at the Connecticut State Library, which gave me a much better understanding of the conduit system.1
A few days ago, I put this knowledge to use and finally paddled under Hartford. The river has a North branch that goes into the conduit near the Mark Twain House and a South branch, which I took, that goes underground between I-84 and Pope Park. While the river is fenced off, there is a convenient hole in the fence on the East side of the river just North of the corner of Hamilton and Brookfield streets, as well as an open gate farther North. Arriving in Hartford a little after six on a Sunday morning, my canoeing partner and I dropped off our canoe, chaining it to a fence post; staged a car at Charter Oak Landing; and returned to Pope Park. We then began our hour and a half journey through the bowels of Hartford to the Connecticut River.
Launching our canoe in about a foot of water in the river’s concrete channel, we began paddling towards the conduit’s mouth a quarter mile away. As we got closer, the conduit’s massive twin entrances appeared, where we opted for the right tunnel. Light reaches a few hundred feet into the tunnel, until the first turn; as the light fades away, so does the graffiti. The river was fairly low, with the North Branch discharge gauge reading 4.2 ft3/s; while traveling through the conduit with high water is an extremely bad idea,2 a little more water would have been nice as we bottomed out on debris and sediment a few times and had to walk the boat part of the way, although this was easy as one could walk along the sides of much of the conduit and be out of the water. Also, life jackets are always a good idea.
As one continues into the tunnel, flashlights become the only light source, and we used a high-power, 900 lumen LED flashlight mounted on the front of the canoe as a headlight. Roughly 1500 feet into the tunnel, we came upon the junction structure, a massive concrete chamber where the North and South branches meet. To the right, up a few foot concrete ledge and behind massive steel tree catchers, is the auxiliary conduit. Dimly illuminated with light from the conduit system’s only vent, is a pool of stagnant water at the bottom of a steep slope, the entrance to the auxiliary conduit; one shouldn’t get too close, as it would be very difficult to get out if one were to fall in.3 The auxiliary conduit is of an inverted siphon design, like the U on a sink drain; it drops below sea level, travels through bedrock, and returns to the surface next to the Connecticut river, making it near impossible to traverse.
Leaving the junction structure, one should take the right tunnel, as the left tunnel has unpredictable discharges from Hartford Steam that shoot horizontally out into the conduit.4 Besides for occasional debris, it was mostly smooth paddling as we headed toward Bushnell Park. Various pipes drain into the conduit, and their trickling water can be heard from quite a distance, echoing down the tunnel. Additionally, there were occasional access ladders going to the surface. Just after one of these access points, there were even some work lights strung along the center of the ceiling that were left up, with the plugs on the ends dangling down. If one is observant, one can see the transitions from the sections of conduit built in the 60s to those built in the 70s, as the concrete color changes and painted over graffiti by the old entrances is visible. Otherwise, the sections built in both decades are pretty similar, although one section from the 60s, under I-84, has concrete beams reinforcing the ceiling.
As the conduit transitioned to the original section from the 40s, just North of the Capitol, the ceiling dropped from a little under 30 feet to a little under 20 feet, the grade steepened, and the water became faster and shallower; the concrete was noticeably more worn than the previous sections. Here, under Bushnell Park, we again walked the boat as the water was too shallow, and the canoe was scrapping along the channel bottom. Around Main Street, the conduit levels out and the water deepens as the conduit reaches the level of the Connecticut River. Here was where most of the debris we encountered was, including a car and a few shopping carts. The sedan was flipped upside-down in the middle of the conduit in about three feet of water and has apparently been there for a few years.5 It was probably stolen and driven much of the way down the conduit as the water was only about a foot deep until shortly before the car’s present location; flood waters likely then pushed it to its current resting spot. While there was less debris than expected, there was also more wildlife. I spotted catfish and an eel while wading in the junction room, and there were swarms of gnats under Bushnell Park, but most surprising was the duck we saw. Past the junction room, thousands of feet into the tunnel, we encountered a duck that kept flying farther and farther into the tunnel away from us. Although we thought we would end up chasing it to the Connecticut River and out of the conduit, it eventually stopped flying away from us, and we were able to pass it.
When we started our subterranean journey, the air temperature was just right for paddling in a T-shirt and swim trunks, probably in the lower 60s. As the water deepened, the air became cooler, which was refreshing after having paddled for over an hour. Traveling under the Whitehead Highway, the ceiling became lower and lower as we progressed towards the Connecticut River, but eventually a prick of light appeared. We paddled toward the light at the end of the tunnel and emerged into the bright morning sun. We proceeded down river to Charter Oak Landing, where we got out, passing the exit of the auxiliary conduit; loaded the canoe on the car; and left. The trip was a fascinating experience; it was neat seeing the massive physical object that the engineering reports I had read described, and the expedition was well worth it.
The following United States Army Corps of Engineers reports are now online: Plan Formulation, Box Conduit Design, Auxiliary Conduit Design, Auxiliary Conduit Detailed Design, Auxiliary Conduit As-Built Main Report, and Auxiliary Conduit Appendices. They contain some interesting maps and drawings, particularly the box conduit design report. Noteworthy items in the State Library include a 1981 MDC map, G3783.H3 1983 .M4; Hartford Department of Engineering reports to the Court of Common Council, H251eng; and parts one and two of a Report to the Greater Hartford Flood Commission upon Control of Floods in Park River from 1958–1959, G78 me. The MDC map shows the location of the conduit, the engineering department reports mention construction progress and contain photos, and the 1958–1959 report contains details about the original conduit as well as drawings for a proposed expansion, some details of which were used for the final design. There is also apparently a report by the same engineering firm that produced the last item, Metcalf & Eddy of Boston, from the construction of the original conduit, although I was unfortunately not able to locate a copy. ↩
If the water level in the Connecticut River is too high, you can’t get out. ↩
Without a rope, that is. We brought a throw bag as a safety precaution. ↩