When you walk through an ancient tunnel that takes a stream beneath abandoned railroad tracks, there are basically two scenarios.
The first is that you walk through slowly, admiring the turn-of-the-century craftmanship of railroad builders as you view the perfectly placed granite stones. Your footsteps slosh in the stream and echo through the chamber.
The other potential outcome is that your imagination runs wild, and you believe this will be the time an earthquake hits and you will be entombed forever in a chamber of granite.
Thankfully on this visit to what is called the "old stream tunnel" on the 80-acre Palmer Taylor Preserve in Portland, the ground doesn't shake and I make it through and back in one piece. And with a tunnel, you must always tempt fate, so I went through and back one more time.
The Middlesex Land Trust's Portland preserve was created in 2005, when the late T.J. and Prudence Taylor Palmer donated land that had been in the Taylor family for generations. Prudence's grandparents — Howard and Gertrude Taylor — built St. Clements Castle, a large estate along the Connecticut River that has been turned into a wedding and banquet hall.
The main trailhead and map kiosk is located at an old barn along Middle Haddam Road. The main attaction is a loop trail that travels south from Middle Haddam Road through the woods down Snow Drop Hill, named after a plant that blooms early in the spring, to an abandoned railroad. There is a bit of bushwhacking to get from the road to the main trail blazed with orange squares, but it is worth the effort.
The trail travels through the deep forest and is bordered with large rocks. It passes a vernal pool and old stone walls lined with ferns. As the trail twists through the forest, ahead of you lies the old tunnel. Above on the tracks, trains once passed along the Air Line Railroad to Boston or New York. The railroad was the straightest way to those cities through the state, hence the Air Line name.
The tunnel provides a shortcut from the northern half of the loop trail to the southern half. Although a small stream passes through the 30-foot-high tunnel, there are places where travelers might sink up to their ankles in mud. But they're avoidable. In addition, those who take the shortcut will miss several scenic overlooks of the Connecticut River, including one high along a cut in a giant rock ledge where railroad builders blasted their way through.
The southern portion of the loop trail takes visitors to the edge of a large field. Nothing says summer to me more than standing in the middle of a field surrounded by waist-high grass blowing in the wind as butterflies flutter and birds flit across the meadow. The loop trail returns you to the railroad bed to the entrance.
When T.J. and Prudence Palmer passed away, they not only made sure the land they loved was preserved for future generations, but also protected an old tunnel created with workmanship usually reserved for a museum or monument. The Palmer-Taylor Preserve is not only a testament to the great outdoors, but a tribute to the ingenuity and craftmanship of the time of the great railroad builders.
Take Route 66 in Portland to the traffic light just east of the junction with Route 17. Turn on Middle Haddam Road and bear right at a three-way stop sign and go through a tunnel under some railroad tracks. The preserve is about a half-mile on the left at 258 Middle Haddam Road. The trail entrance is across Middle Haddam Road just east of utility pole #176. Peter Marteka may be reached at 860-647-5365 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.