Walk along the trails of Portland's Riverfront Park and you will quickly discover just about everything is brown. The paths are brown. The stones — from pebbles to boulders — are brown. The mud is brown. And by the end of the hike, your boots and pant legs will take on a brownish hue.
Welcome to "Quarrytown," and its huge pile of brownstone-slag-turned-park along the banks of the Connecticut River. For many years the town with the most frontage along the Connecticut River had little access to the storied waterway that makes its big turn through Portland. The park changed all that and brought area residents back to the banks of New England's longest river.
One of the strange things about the park is the fact that much of it is man-made – a legacy of the town's quarrying past. From the 1600s up to the present day, the sandstone cliffs of Portland have been quarried for the stone's unique color and workability by craftsmen. People used the sandstone for everything from foundations to college buildings and churches to chimneys and gravestones.
About 1880, the quarry business reached its peak. Shaler and Hall Quarry Co. and the Brainerd Quarry employed about 1,500 men and more than 25 ships were used to transport the stone to New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities throughout the country.
The quarrying operations created a lot of slag and waste rock that wasn't suitable for building. So quarry operators dumped huge chunks of rock to the north of the quarry, creating a manmade riverbank of brownstone. Although the area is overgrown, visitors to the park can still make out the piles peeking out like ancient ruins.
The trails run along the river with views out to Wilcox or Willow Island, located directly to the north of the Arrigoni Bridge. Before the area was settled, the island was a halfway point for Native American tribes crossing the Connecticut River. A footbridge once connected the island to Middletown, and it was used by residents as a park.
Side trails snake down to the riverbank and offer "church steeple" views of Cromwell and the boats plying the water. Another trail goes to the top of the slag pile, with an outstanding view up the river and across the hills of Portland and Glastonbury. Visitors can either return to the trailhead through the woods or via the main path that links to an access road and Middlesex Avenue Extension, which travels past the former homes of quarry workers and administrators.
A side trip up Middlesex Avenue will bring visitors to an overlook of the sparkling water-filled quarries and the Arrigoni Bridge. A drive along Brownstone Avenue showcases the abandoned quarries' newest incarnation — Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park.
You can see the past, present and future of Portland's famous brownstone quarries all in one trip.
To get there, take Route 66 east across the Arrigoni Bridge. Take a right on Lower Main Street just after crossing the bridge and take a right on Brownstone Avenue and follow to the end. If coming from Route 66 west, turn right before crossing bridge and take a right on Lower Main Street and right on Brownstone Avenue.