For newbie and nature-loving riders like me, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail offers a unique adventure, and minimizes automotive encounters. This adaptive reuse of an abandoned railroad line allows access to a bit of urban decay as well as an opportunity to reconnect with nature. During my last year in New Haven, I finally made it onto the trail, and was amazed by the uncommon and unusual things I found there.
A little bit of internet research told an interesting and historical tale of how the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail came to be. In the 1800s, after Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, businessmen found large profits in the transportation industry. The success of the Erie Canal prompted the Canal Corporation to design and build a canal from New Haven’s port, through Connecticut, to Massachusetts.
During the groundbreaking ceremony, the shovel broke, an inauspicious start to the construction of the canal. The Canal Corporation was under-capialized and did not receive any funding from the State of Connecticut. Nevertheless, the company continued to build, but was forced to make shortcuts, with disastrous results. Leaks and collapses disrupted the canal’s construction, but in 1835, the canal was completed–stretching 84 miles from New Haven to Northampton.
Apparently, still beset by problems, the canal was never able to turn a profit, so the shareholders of the Farmington Canal Co. petitioned the legislature to build a railroad. In 1848, the New Haven and Northampton Railroad Co. was chartered.
Just as the locomotive replaced the canal boat in the mid 1800s, trucks began to take over transportation services in Central New England in the late 1900s. Rail lines around the country fell into disrepair. In the 1990s, groups of creative initiatives began to explore the idea of converting abandoned rail and canal paths into recreational trails. The “rails-to-trails” movement was born, and is still in motion today. Today, there are still a few small gaps to be filled before the entire 80-mile length of the trail is connected and complete. From sunrise to sunset, this unique trail is shared by walkers, riders, and skaters.
Rolling through the trail on my bicycle, I ride slow enough to take in all its small historic and picturesque pieces, but fast enough to see it transform. My start of the trail is behind Yale’s Department of Health, and several minutes later, I enter New Haven’s residential area. A few more miles down the trail, I’m greeted by wooded stretches and babbling brooks.
If you start out from New Haven on a bicycle, you’ll see remnants of railroad sprinkled on the side of the trail. You will be confronted by passing cars and trucks where the trail intersects with urban streets. The paved road leads you through dark tunnels and long stretches of sky. Wooden bridges roll underneath, while interstate bridges pass overhead. Benches lining the trail offer moments of relief and contemplation.
The Farmington Canal Heritage Trail promises miles of respite from a (sometimes) hectic life in New Haven.