Putnam markets itself pretty well, calling the town "Connecticut's Best Kept Secret" or "The Heart of Connecticut's Quiet Corner."
And a secret within that heart is the River Mills Heritage Trail and Putnam River Trail – two paths that showcase the best the town has to offer, its historic mills and the scenic Quinebaug River. And if you've never seem them, the Cargill Falls dam and rapids are some of the most scenic in the state.
The 2-mile Putnam River Trail begins at a place known as the Arch Street Bridge – the remnants of an old Air Line Railroad trestle where steam engines once thundered across on their way to Boston and New York City. A huge 80-foot-high granite abutment welcomes visitors to town along Kennedy Drive while a smaller stone arch where an iron trestle once sat greets those walking across the Quinnebaug River.
From here, the trail winds along the banks of the placid Quinebaug through several parks before reaching the first industrial site – Cargill Falls Mill. Once known as the Pomfret Manufacturing Company and Pomfret Cotton Mills, it began producing cotton textile products in 1807. It is believed to be the earliest cotton textile mill built in the nation.
The 1.1-mile River Mills Heritage Trail begins at the Pomfret Street bridge where visitors can cross the Quinebaug and look at the Cargill Falls Mill in detail, from its stone walls to a crumbling smokestack. The mill is enjoying a renaissance of sorts since being transformed into apartments along with retail, commercial and office space. The complex is even using electricity harnessed from the nearby Cargill Falls.
The falls are definitely the "must-see" portion of the trails. The northern side of the falls is the man-made portion, with water thundering over a dam. But the southern side is an impressive series of several waterfalls tumbling over huge boulders and ending in frothing pools.
From the falls, visitors can either walk north along the River Mills Heritage Trail that follows the northern banks of the Quinebaug or continue along the Putnam River Trail. The Heritage Trail winds through a park and past a mansion once owned by mill magnate George Morse built so he can watch over his three mills. The trail winds past a huge 157-foot-long and 18-foot-high dam with sheets of water sloshing over it before winding to one of the most scenic mills on the trip – the Belding/Powhattan Mill.
The mill is known for its 115-foot-long and 10-foot-high dam that once powered the mill's 20,000 spindles and 416 looms. The scenic dam, with its huge waterfall and impressive spillway, can be viewed from a bridge across the Quinebaug. The mill was one of the last of the original buildings to remain in use. A display at Miller Park showcases some archival photos of the old mill buildings, allowing visitors to compare the way structures look today to how they looked in the past.
The Heritage Trail reconnects with the Putnam River Trail, returning visitors past several more mills before passing through a park along the banks of the pond created by the Cargill Falls. It really doesn't matter which trail you chose to follow. You will not only get a history lesson on the mills, you'll also discover a secret place in the quiet corner of the state.
To get there, take I-395 north to exit 95 and take a right on Kennedy Drive. There are multiple trail parking areas on the west side of the drive. Visit http://putnamct.us/absolutenmnet/templates/?a=351&z=150f for a detailed map of the trails. Peter Marteka may be reached at 860-647-5365, at pmarteka@ courant.com or at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.Copyright © 2015, CT Now