The remnants of abandoned mills dot the banks of rivers and streams across the state. Many are just ghostly shells eroded by the New England elements and the waters that once powered them, leaving the 21st-century visitor to imagine their industrial past.
But not at the Haddam Land Trust's Pine Brook Preserve in Haddam Neck. Visitors to this preserve, along the banks of the robust Pine Brook, are treated to not one but two abandoned mill sites where one can retrace the water as it spilled from dam to sluiceway through the factory and back into the river. They can find piles of old bricks and half-rotted wood, rusted factory implements and intact foundations where one can easily imagine workers walking through the doors for a day of work.
Because Pine Brook was the lone waterway strong enough to power a mill in this narrow stretch of land located in East Hampton, across the Connecticut River from Haddam, this section of river was packed with mills and factories. In addition to the early saw and grist mills, there was a factory that produced swords – that were used in the War of 1812 – and later scythes. Other mills created oakum, used to fill cracks in ships, and cotton duck, a heavy woven cotton fabric. One of the last factories was a paper mill whose remnants can be seen today.
Visitors enter this world of abandoned mills after crossing a narrow bridge over the brook. Spend a few moments in the middle of the bridge — the experience is relaxing, with the sounds of birds and rushing water filling the air. Shortly after crossing the bridge, turn to the right to see the remnants of the first mill. Although the trails aren't blazed, the well-worn paths are easy to follow.
A slight scramble up a hill and along a path where visitors slalom around large hemocks will lead to one of the largest and most well-preserved 19th-century dams I've seen in the state. The moss- and lichen-covered dam made of field stones is about 25- to 30-feet high, with large trees growing from the top of it. A wide path allows visitors to walk across the top, affording a tremendous view of Pine Brook and the surrounding hillsides.
The trail continues along the banks of the brook to a second abandoned mill site to the north. This old mill includes a similar but smaller dam and well-preserved sluiceway where water was diverted from the top of the dam along a stone-lined channel through the factory complex to power the turbines. Old foundations with rusted machinery can be seen mingling with ferns and hemlock and oak trees.
After returning to the bridge, a path to the left will take visitors through the deep forest to a scenic overlook at the start of the Salmon River Cove, where steamboats, sloops and scows once docked after their travels along the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound.
The mill history of Pine Brook is similar to that of many other rivers across the state. Men came to its banks in search of the raw power they needed to operate their mills and factories, and that history should be protected, preserved and showcased no matter what century it is.
Turn on Pine Brook Road off Route 151 near the border of East Hampton and Haddam. Follow the road about a half-mile driving carefully along the narrow, twisting road. Look for a small bridge over Pine Brook marking the entrance to the preserve. Visit http://www.ct.gov/dep/lib/dep/wildlife/pdf_files/maps/maps_hunting_area/map9160a.pdf for a map of the preserve. Peter Marteka can be reached at 860-647-5365, at email@example.com or at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.