'The Northeast Wants To Be A Forest'

In the years just before the Civil War, the Connecticut landscape was radically different than it is today.

It was an open, agrarian landscape, a patchwork of farms with few mature trees. A farm woodlot often was little more than a cluster of young, spindly trees.

Those mid-century years were years of enormous change, however, even if they were but a hint of what was to become a complete make-over of the Connecticut landscape.

With a boom in farming in states to the west like Ohio, where many Connecticut farmers resettled in the 19th Century, and the emergence of railroads to move crops quickly over long distances, agriculture slowly declined in Connecticut and continued to do so into the 21st century. Cropland and pastures were abandoned. Trees sprouted in the old fields.

"The Northeast wants to be a forest," said David R. Foster, director of Harvard University's Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., president of the board of the Highstead forest conservation preserve in Redding, and an authority on the history of New England forests. "If you stop mowing your lawn, you'll get a forest. That's essentially what we did in the mid-1800s — we stopped mowing 50 percent of our landscape."

Around 1850, only about 30 percent of Connecticut was forested, and even then the trees were often young and small. By 1970, nearly 70 percent of Connecticut was forested, with many of the trees sizable and at or near maturity. It happened slowly over more than a century, but, comparing images from the mid-19th century and those of the late 20th century, the transformation of the landscape was dramatic.

"It is incredible how clear-cut the whole state was," said William Hosley of Enfield, a cultural resource, marketing and development consultant who has studied Connecticut history for 34 years.

Meanwhile, by the mid-19th century the Industrial Revolution was well underway. Thousands of dams were constructed on Connecticut brooks, streams, and rivers. Some dams were built in the Colonial period, of course, but many were a direct result of industrialization in the 1800s, as streams were tapped for water power. Where once there were free-flowing brooks and rivers, now there were impoundments. Rivers looked different, sometimes like a chain of little ponds, and many still do, though over the past two decades state and local agencies have begun to remove dams that no longer serve any purpose.

Bigger factories appeared, including the Colt Firearms complex in Hartford. Cities like Bridgeport and Waterbury and Hartford grew rapidly.

Even at Woodward Hill Farm in rural Columbia, the ancestral home of Walter W. Woodward, a University of Connecticut professor of history and the official Connecticut state historian, the impact of the industrial age was felt.

Madison Woodward, Walter Woodward's great-great-grandfather, who owned the Woodward Hill Farm in the mid-19th Century, sold 25 acres of his property to the American Linen Co. in Willimantic so the company could impound the stream in what was known as the Great Meadow, creating a reservoir to power their mills. That reservoir is Columbia Lake, now ringed by homes.

Natural lakes and ponds were altered. Often, an outlet stream from a pond or lake was dammed to increase the size of the water body. For example, the size of 656-acre Lake Waramaug in Litchfield County, the state's second largest natural lake, was augmented by a small dam at its outlet stream, East Aspetuck Brook.

Movement to Conserve

In Concord, Mass., the philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau already was questioning the status quo, eloquently preaching a conservation ethic, calling for the preservation of wild land and park land.

It took time, but by the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, the nation's first real environmental movement emerged, and Connecticut people were deeply involved. Forests were an early focus.

On Dec. 31, 1896, The Courant reported on the formal organization of the Connecticut Forestry Association, a conservation group that had held its first meeting a year earlier and would become the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, one of the oldest conservation organizations in the country and today a major voice in preserving and expanding open space lands.

Among the goals of the group back then, essentially unchanged today, were "to develop public appreciation of the value of forests, and of the urgent need for preserving them and using them rightly," while striving to increase the number of national and state parks and reservations, The Courant reported. The organization has been instrumental in the creation of many of Connecticut's state parks and forests.

Beginning in the early 20th century and continuing to this day, the state has acquired 107 state parks and 32 state forests, many of them large holdings of more than 10,000 acres, most of them forested. They are heavily used for recreation, and a significant feature of the overall Connecticut landscape.

With the development of power machinery in the 20th century, even the shoreline was transformed. Robert M. Thorson, a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut and an authority on landscape geology, calls it "the hardening of the shoreline."

Where once there were wooden docks, sometimes washed away in powerful storms, now there were long breakwaters and barriers made of huge boulders and blocks of granite transported and placed by heavy power equipment.