Upriver

B ack in the 1920s, before there was an Interstate 91 or a Wilbur Cross Parkway, a small neighborhood of cottages sat along the Quinnipiac River off North Haven’s Banton Street. At one time it was nicknamed Little Savin Rock, according to the North Haven Trail Association. Officially named Overbrook Beach, you could swim, sunbathe or buy a hot dog at the concession stand there. “There’s a lot of nostalgia,” says Ann Clark of the North Haven Historical Society. She recalls one former resident describing the place as “magical.”

Today that community, which eventually grew to include three dozen houses, is gone, a casualty of repeated flooding caused by development including the construction of the nearby highways. In the mid-1970s, after ongoing pleas by residents for help with flood control that went all the way to the White House (Nixon’s deputy assistant John C. Whitaker actually replied), the state decided the area would be better used for recreation. It bought out residents and ultimately removed the buildings.

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What remains is an abandoned road, a retaining wall here and a fence there, patches of asphalt and concrete beneath the forest undergrowth, an old stone fireplace, even a set of steps between two nearly intact stone walls that leads straight into the water. One shady glen is carpeted by delicate vinca vines, which must have once belonged to someone’s garden. The landscape has changed so much, though, that Clark says even former residents have trouble finding the spot where the beach once stood.

You can explore this “forgotten neighborhood,” as the Trail Association has dubbed it, on a mile-long walking trail that follows the river in what is now Quinnipiac River State Park, hidden in plain sight between the two highways. In addition to searching for the remains of the once-vibrant community, this curious walk, called the Banton Quinnipiac Trail, offers other appeals: a lightly traveled route where you can truly distance yourself; a view of the Quinnipiac totally different from New Haven’s; and moments with the flora and fauna that still make their homes here.

To find it all, ignore your GPS and head up either I-91 or the Wilbur Cross Parkway to North Haven. Between the two highways, take Route 22 to State Street. Head north, then turn right on Banton Street and park at the dead end behind a rest stop located on the parkway. (Parking at the rest stop itself isn’t a great choice; there’s a one-hour limit.)

A barrier blocks the small parking area and a primitive canoe launch from the rest of Banton Street, but you’ll begin your walk on the remains of this paved road, where tall summer weeds pry through cracks and crowd in from the old macadam curbs. One option is to follow the road and its several turnoffs, which hint at where homes once stood. The other is to drop down closer to the water on a trail that’s marked orange on the official map but is actually blazed blue.

That’s the route a friend and I chose for our midday hike. The blue-blazed trail takes a sharp right turn off Banton about a tenth of a mile past the parking area. The walk is flat, but webbed with roots and narrow at times, at least in the flush summer season. It mostly hugs the curves of the river, breaking away toward the end and climbing a small hill to what’s intriguingly marked on the map as “The Pines.” But first, there’s the river.

Anyone who knows the Quinnipiac in New Haven—a wide, sometimes forceful waterway eager to reach the Long Island Sound—will be surprised to find it lolling up here between two low banks so close you could hold a conversation between them. The river’s opaque, moody surface shimmers green. It’s hard for the untrained eye to discern how much of this strange effect is natural and how much is the result of pollutants; the Quinnipiac River Fund reports ongoing pollution from factories, sewage treatment facilities and runoff that delivers fertilizers, pesticides, road salt, litter and other contaminants into the water.

Along our walk, in addition to evidence of Banton Street’s past, we found a few natural curiosities. Woodland sunflowers, a magnet for bees, lined the pavement. A tree stripped of its bark was laced with the trails of insects that had carved intricate designs in its trunk. Large stands of Japanese knotweed bore sprays of delicate white flowers—pretty, but profuse as only an invasive species can be. The North Haven Trail Association’s Facebook page boasts photographs of warblers, a catbird, a great blue heron, a kingfisher, an eagle—all evidence of a vibrant world for birders patient enough to watch and listen.

Less than a mile in, we were surprised to find deciduous trees giving way to a grove of pine trees—“The Pines”—with a soft carpet of brown needles. The trail continues a little farther, but this evergreen hilltop is the trail’s de facto destination. Beyond that point it narrows and is choked by the summer growth. The river, on the other hand, carries on—or, more accurately, can be traced back all the way to Plainville, where it starts its 38-mile, meandering journey to New Haven Harbor.

For their part, walkers will travel less than two miles along the Banton Quinnipiac Trail, taking in the present and getting glimpses of the past.

Quinnipiac River State Park and the Banton Quinnipiac Trail
Banton St, North Haven (map)
www.portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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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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