Water Way

I f you know the Mill River, you probably know it best from the north end of town—where it meanders through East Rock Park—or the south end of town—where it meets the Quinnipiac River and feeds into the Long Island Sound. Fewer people notice where it goes in-between.

But noticing the river is a key step toward taking better care of it, according to Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound and the Mill River Trail Advocates. And it does need to be cared for. The river, which starts in Cheshire, picks up seven tributaries and plenty of problems on its 12-mile journey to Long Island Sound. One of the biggest is stormwater runoff that flushes it with pollutants. Another is sewage overflow—4.4 million gallons every year—which happens when stormwater overburdens the city’s sewer system. In some places, the river’s bacteria content is 77% higher than the Total Maximum Daily Load, a target for restored water quality.

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The goals of a Mill River Watershed Management Plan prepared last year by consultancy Fuss & O’Neill include giving residents safe access to the river, educating them on “the connection between land use and a healthy river” and promoting sustainable land management in the watershed. It’s a work in progress, but you can already walk what’s being called the Mill River Trail all the way from East Rock Park in the north to Criscuolo Park in the south, even though parts of it require a jog away from the river onto city streets. “The idea is to eventually move it… closer to the river and make [for] more visibility of the river,” says Nicole Davis, watershed coordinator for Save the Sound. Easements for access still need to be worked out, she says, “and we’re still getting people used to the idea of coming down here and linking a trail from the Sound north up to East Rock Park.” As of this month, half of the route has been blazed.

To start from the end that hasn’t yet been marked, park your car near College Woods, where the East Rock trail system dips down to the river’s edge. It’s a pretty, wooded spot that many New Haveners know well. Exit the park at Mitchell Drive and follow the sidewalk to the next patch of park at Willow Street, where you’ll cross Blake Field and pass Ralph Walker Rink. Here, the I-91 entrance ramp obscures the view of the river, but when you emerge on State Street, make a left and cross the bridge. On the south side, the arched buttresses of the highway overpass lend the river an inviting air of mystery. On the north side, just upriver, you’ll see a set of early 1900s tide gates that were built to shrink marshland upstream and control mosquitoes; today they provide some flood control but also harm the ecosystem upstream by blocking fish passage and depriving native species of the salinity they need.

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The Mill River Trail is less a nature walk than a city walk. But there are a couple sections of new gravel path that are intimate and quiet and invite you to pause and watch the water go by. One of them is behind the District business campus on James Street. Take care crossing at State and James, then enter District’s parking lot, keeping to the river side, and look for the path that brings you back to the water. Here, the river is narrow and flat, an unassuming bit of real estate beneath the concrete and asphalt that’s usually too modest to draw attention.

Follow this short trail down to Humphrey Street, where the railroad tracks force another detour away from the water. Turn left on Humphrey Street and walk under the Amtrak overpass. Even in broad daylight, this bit of the trail is unsettling, but there’s literally light at the end of the tunnel as you enter Fair Haven. Make a loop around the block by turning right on James Street, then turn right at Chabaso Bakery onto John W. Murphy Drive. A paved path just past a bend in the street leads you back to the river at an old railroad bridge, where you’re more likely than not to catch a train crossing. Then the trail continues on a narrow, grassy embankment.

Straight down the river is the tip of manmade Ball Island parting the water. Rising from it like an industrial cathedral to dominate the sky are the stacks of the abandoned English Station power plant, a source of contamination by PCBs and other pollutants that threaten the health of the river. United Illuminating Company, the plant’s owner for most of the 20th century, reached a cleanup deal in 2015 that is still underway.

As the river bends to accommodate the island, the grass gives way to another fresh gravel path. Bordered by industry, the river here is wide and insistent, its banks low and rugged. The trail is dotted with new benches and marked with a placard that denotes an urban oasis, where plants designed to filter stormwater and support migrating birds have been installed and maintained by the Mill River Trail Advocates and Urban Resources Initiative. This second snippet of finished trail ends at Grand Avenue, where, if you turn right at the chain link fence, you can walk through a gate to the sidewalk.

Beginning here, the Mill River Trail is officially blazed all the way to its southern terminus. Turn left on Grand Avenue, then follow the diamond-shaped blue markers to the right down residential Haven Street. Where it meets Exchange Street, a low barrier of broken concrete and bricks cuts off a small, overgrown lot—the future site of a pocket park. It’s one of many locations where the watershed plan recommends replacing asphalt with earth to reduce runoff and increase natural filtration and absorption of stormwater into the ground.

Cross the playing fields of John S. Martinez School here, and you’ll find, on the far side, a message from the children of Martinez and nearby Cold Spring School: “Only Rain in the Drain.” With the help of New Haven artist JoAnn Moran, they’ve painted a smiling orange octopus reaching its arms across the sidewalk toward the storm drain. Colorful fish painted in the crosswalk are another reminder that the river is nearby.

From here, trail markers lead you down Mill Street and around the corner onto Chapel to Criscuolo Park. Two playgrounds, a memorial to the Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment of the Civil War and an impressive view of the Q Bridge make the park a great destination along with the fact that it brings you back to the river. Here, the Mill meets the Quinnipiac, and together—along with your eyes, though your feet can’t follow—they run out to sea.

Mill River Trail
Trail Website | City Webpage | Watershed Plan

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 6 features JoAnn Moran (left) and Nicole Davis.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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