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Rock, river, road

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From East Rock, on the northern edge of New Haven, Connecticut, the Mill River shines like snakeskin beneath a knot of overpasses. The river skirts the curved southern border of East Rock Park, a crescent of green on the frontier of suburb and city, before venturing out to disappear underneath a scrum of concrete and brick. The narrow strip of water heads straight for the harbor, splitting near its terminus to make way for Ball Island, a man-made industrial rectangle. The Mill River is just one of many byways that streak across the unremarkable industrial corridor between New Haven and Fair Haven. Roughly four lanes wide, the river blends right in with I-91, its various on and off ramps, the old freight train tracks, and the local roads that span the corridor in a twisted cord. Nine bridges cross the Mill River in its one-mile journey from East Rock to the harbor. The roar of tires on pavement waxes and wanes with rush hour, hiding the river in cacophonous shadow.  

In the 1890s, only one bridge, a humble wooden span, hopped the river. Back then the river dominated the view from East Rock, executing wide swooping turns across a broad marshy basin, a scattering of wooden houses perched on either bank.  What is now a mile of river between East Rock and the harbor was probably more like three, because the river, as is its natural tendency upon reaching the end of its journey to the sea, was able to spread itself into luxuriant meanders, taking full advantage of the broad basin it had carved for itself over the millennia. A century and a half later, the river has been rechanneled to take up the least space possible, running in a straight shot to the harbor, and the salt marsh has been filled in to support sprawling brick factories that sit where the tide once nosed its way upriver. Some have been abandoned, decaying remnants of industrial bloom, leaking liabilities of PCBs and asbestos. Yet amid the plains of grey, the river retains its riparian fringe of greenery, and is hemmed by walls of phragmites, oak and willow. A float down the river reveals a waterway not without nature, hidden from human visitors by the freeways and embankments of humanity itself. No one paddles this stretch of the Mill River, nor walks along its shores. It is the fate of many urban waterways to be thus ghettoized and then forgotten, left to become wild again in the least scenic corridors of the concrete jungle. Rivers like this might be classified by the city as drainage ditches, and may be considered lost causes in the battle for conservation, casualties of urban development—yet they remain more wild, or at least less familiar with human contact, than the protected curves of waterways within well-traveled city parks.

The lower Mill River was sacrificed for the upper. In the 1880s, the city of New Haven forced Milton J. Stewart, owner of East Rock and the portion of the Mill River that traces the foot of the cliff, to sell his land; the city was intent on making a park. With the $13,000 that he received for the land, Stewart built twelve identical wooden houses in the Mill River valley further downstream—where the freeway passes today—which came to be known as the Dirty Dozen for their use of the river as a sewage system. The Dirty Dozen was the first finger of development into the Mill River salt marsh, a harbinger of the restructuring forces that would fill the marsh and confine the river’s last mile. Though these forces would have eventually transformed the lower valley regardless—flat and with flowing water, it was destined for industry—the Dirty Dozen would not have provided the breach had the city not moved to protect the more picturesque stretch of river upstream.

In the 1960s, the city changed its mind. A proposed I-91 connector cutting across the base of East Rock would have relegated the river to a ditch beneath the thruway, erasing the last stretch of river that remained as nature drew it—upstream from the park the river is dammed, and downstream from the park, parkway. Sensing the existential threat, a coalition of locals and students fought the plan back. It was dropped quietly a decade later.  

The city’s 1880s purchase preserved the physical space of East Rock and the upper Mill River for posterity, but it was the beginning of the end for the human landscape of old. Milton J. Stewart was the last lord of a realm for outlaws and eccentrics, misanthropes and adventurers—the rock’s barren heights more Wild West than staid New England. The first known inhabitant of the rock was a drifter who spoke to nary a soul, his body found frozen in his shack one brutal winter. A Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who built themselves a life in a stone house near the summit, were murdered upon the rock for reasons unknown. Another squatter, Hubbell, descended from the heights on occasion to drive his goat team through the city streets, offering firewood. Milton J. Stewart built a main house, outbuildings, an observation tower perched on the cliff’s edge, and a fifty-foot oystering steamboat, three hundred feet above the harbor. Had all the world’s ice melted at once, the sea would not have risen high enough to lift his boat from its perch. Upon hearing of the plan to turn his kingdom into a park, Stewart closed his road to visitors, attacking those who tried to enter. But the rising tide of development would lift the rock as precious green ground, and the city would have its way.

The realm of Stewart became the canvas of Donald G. Mitchell, the landscaper commissioned by the city to design the park in 1882. Mitchell recognized the innate appeal of the land. Overwrought ornamentation would only distract from the ancient groves of white pine, the timeworn cliff, scar of tectonic revolution, the gentle curve of river and the river’s bank studded with old stone. But he sought for the natural experience of the parkgoer to be, as he puts it, “artfully directed”. Gone was Stewart’s steep, harrowing road that went straight up the gorge and into the heights of stunted oak, where outcasts howled and murderers prowled the New Haven imagination. In its place was the long, winding carriage road, carefully graded at one step up for every twenty paces forward, offering curated views of grassy fen and winding stream, with sturdy retaining walls just low enough to afford a view and just high enough to ensure safe passage. In was the well-trodden footpath, the miniature dairy farm, and the Swiss cottage, nestled in a planted grove.  

There’s a footbridge I like to sit on over the Mill River, in the northwest corner of the park, a little downriver from the Whitney Dam. The bridge is one of a few designs proposed by Mitchell, sketched in the corners of his map of the park, showing the landscapers how each type might ideally complete the natural scene presented by that particular bend in the river. If you look downstream from the bridge, the cliff rises like a proud Roman brow to your left, glowing rust red above the treetops, and you see only trees, and rock and river; it’s a perfect landscape painting. A fallen tree lies in the river there, and the water makes little dimples as it flows around the tree, away from you. And you can hear the chuckle of the stream behind you, and the birds in the trees. And the freeway roaring downstream.

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