The Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway is the most important recreational asset developed in the state in the past two decades. Or so I thought, despite never having been on the trail south of Farmington. Saturday, I got to bike the southern corridor.
The whole trail is terrific, or will be, when we get those pesky gaps filled in.
Dan Esty, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, along with a bunch of hard-riding trail advocates, rode the trail from New Haven to Southwick, Mass. They were ginning up support for closing the last two breaks in the Connecticut portion of the 84-mile, multi-use trail that runs from New Haven to Northhampton, Mass. The gaps are a 4.7-mile breach in Cheshire and a nine-mile pause in Plainville. So, short press conferences were held in those communities. I rode as far as Simsbury, 40 miles or so.
The trail is a fortuitous accident of history. It began as a canal, dug by hand between 1825 and 1835. Alas, it never made money, and was replaced by a railroad in 1847. The railroad hung on until the early 1980s. Work on converting the corridor to a paved, multi-use rail-trail began in the 1990s. That it still isn't finished — and that it has taken more than twice as long to build a wide sidewalk than it took to dig the canal with shovels — is frustrating.
We — 15 to 20 bicyclists — gathered at the New Haven Green and picked up the trail behind the Grove Street Cemetery.
I rode for a time with Lisa Fernandez, president of the Farmington Valley Rail-to-Trail Association, the group that coordinated the restoration of the southern part of the trail. She said the word "heritage" is in the trail's name on purpose; that's what you see along the way.
And so you do. We passed through an industrial area of New Haven and by the post-industrial Science Park, where old factory buildings are being used by new tech companies. In densely settled Hamden, there are long stretches of trail through woodland and a park built around a restored canal lock, a historic jewel. Let your imagination roam and you can picture a time before sprawl when there was open land between towns.
What you also see are people. Early Saturday morning brought walkers, runners, rollerbladers, cyclists. A young couple out for a ride heard we were going to Massachusetts and joined our little peloton.
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, wife of the commissioner, greeted us in Cheshire. They are a power couple elsewhere but a local couple here. Their children learned to ride bikes on the canal trail, and really understand why it is a good thing.
I'm told the wheels are in motion, so to speak, to close the Cheshire gap. Plainville is a bigger gap and a bigger problem; there's still active rail traffic in the area. But officials at town hall, our second stop, said they too are making progress on closing that gap.
Why close the gaps?
The gaps force riders to use local roads. The ride is vastly more pleasant on the trail, and from just over the Farmington line, it's trail virtually all the way to Massachusetts, with great vistas of woods and the Farmington River.
The trail is a tremendous quality-of-life amenity. People want to use it and live near it. It promotes exercise. Some people use it to run errands and even get to work, which gets cars off the road and pollution out of the air.
And, not least, it spurs economic development. Developers and business owners are paying attention — it's called "trail-oriented development," said Bruce Donald, president of the Farmington Valley Trails Council, the group responsible for the trail's northern end. There aren't many long off-road trails in Southern New England, so thousands of people travel to use this one.
Make no mistake, local activists made this happen. The state Department of Transportation was indifferent to it for most of the past two decades. But we now have officials, at DOT as well as DEEP, who get the picture. So let's finish this trail, and get a few more going.
And yes, my butt was a little sore — thanks for asking.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.