One path took me up a series of granite ridges, along a stone wall and through thick ferns growing along a stream. Another path took me down under the power lines to an old railroad bed known as the Air Line a route that once took trains through the state to the bright lights of Boston and New York City. By the time I was exploring the wilds, the trains had stopped running, the tracks were removed, but the bridges and culverts remained. And they became my playground.
Over the next few months, I will be re-visiting some of these reminders of our railroad past and exploring some new ones including this week's installment of a 160-year-old tunnel in Vernon under the former Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad. It's actually a tunnel that was originally built for farmers and townspeople to get their wagons and coaches through to the other side of town.
Known as Vernon Tunnel or bridge number 01617, the structure is one of the state's historic masonry arches. According to a town history of the structure, it is a keystone arch tunnel and was built between 1846 and 1849 by masons and stonecutters from Ireland. No heavy equipment, earthmovers or dump trucks. Just oxen, hand tools and plenty of brow sweat.
The one-lane tunnel allows you to marvel at the workmanship as you drive slowly through the 110-foot-long and 14-foot wide structure. A two-way stop sign controls traffic and drivers are able to see the opposite side of the tunnel with many honking before they enter for extra safety. Or maybe it was people honking at me as I ogled the masonry work.
A parking area on the southern side of the mountain provides an access trail to Hop River Linear Trail, a multiuse path that runs from Manchester and Vernon to Willimantic. The trail is a bit steep giving visitors an appreciation of the terrain railroad builders were working with. But the views high above the tunnel are tremendous and visitors can walk east to Bolton Notch or west to the Rockville Spur and Vernon.
According to legend, one of the stone masons who worked on the tunnel carved "Grady, Jerry" into the rock like an artist signing his work. And this tunnel is not only a work of art, it is a testament to Irish immigrants who built it with only their hands.
Take the Tunnel Road exit 66 off I-84 and follow the signs. Once you reach Tunnel Road take a left. The tunnel is about a half-mile south of I-84. There is a parking area on the southern side of the tunnel with trail maps of the Hop River Linear Park Trail.For more Way To Go columns go to www.courant.com/waytogo.