"We have no plans for it and we don't know what to do with it."
Those words were spoken by Stanley Bates, a planner for the state parks and forests nearly 37 years ago shortly after Oscar Swenson sold the "old Forster powerhouse" and 40 acres surrounding it to the state. Those same words could have easily been spoken today.
I first came across the abandoned powerhouse – a 20th-century hydroelectric mill - several years ago while exploring the Connecticut Forest & Park Association's Chatfield Trail in the wilds of Killingworth. The sound of rushing water drew me off the trail into a hollow where I immediately fell in love with the setting of the mill where the town's first sparks of electricity flew.
A twin set of waterfalls plunge Chatfield Hollow Brook over a dam past a huge fieldstone foundation where a sawmill dating back to the 1700s once sat. A huge iron pipe snakes along the brook still taking water from the dam spillway into the plant where a water wheel slowly rusts away - frozen in time. The plant, with its weathered and moss-covered shingles, is slowly losing its battle with the New England elements. Since my last visit, a portion of the roof has collapsed but the building still stands proudly on top of its foundation on the banks of the brook.
Old mill and factory sites along the river have always fascinated me and this plant – by no means ancient history being built in 1925 – is the most intact vestige of the age of water power I have seen in my travels.
And now after years of neglect, it appears a newly formed group – The Friends of Forster Pond & Chatfield Hollow State Parks – may save the structure and other homes within the park once owned by Frank J. Forster, a famed architect. According to Killingworth Municipal Historian Thomas L. Lentz, Forster received national recognition for designing redevelopment projects for rundown New York City neighborhoods during the Great Depresson.
Lentz, who is helping to organize the Friends group, said much of the plant's machinery including the waterwheel remains intact. While the wooden structure around the machinery falls, Lentz believes the building can be rebuilt and serve as a kind of museum.
"The [state] parks are not funded well and can't maintain these types of buildings," Lentz said of why the Friends group was formed. "We want to save these historic buildings. Not many of these have survived. It's a valuable historic site."
Thomas J. Tyler, director of state parks for the DEEP, said the state has hundreds of buildings in need of repair and renovation across the state.
"We have a number of structures in very rough shape along with buildings we actively use and maintain," he said. "We just don't have the resources and funding for ongoing maintenance and care for every building."
Some of the state's old waterwheels and sawmills have found new life at re-created villages like Sturbridge Village and the now-abandoned Johnsonville in the Moodus section of East Haddam. But here's a chance to save some of the state's history where it sits and brought the first sparks of electricity to a town.
"Until somebody with an interest and funds makes an acceptable proposal or until the state takes the initiative, this remnant of modernization in the boondocks is consigned to neglect and decay," read a 1977 Hartford Courant article on the mill.
Time and Mother Nature have always had the upper hand and are slowly chipping away at the remnants of the old mill. Sometimes preservation is not only about saving land and the treasures of the natural world. It's also about protecting its human history.Copyright © 2015, CT Now