A River Runs Through It

A River Runs Through It

Walking on land that hasn’t been trod since 1794 isn’t something you get to do every day.

Until recently, the land in question, located just off the Amity stretch of Whalley Avenue, was the floor of Lily Pond, created in 1794 when Levi Sperry built a dam on the West River for his grist mill. For 222 years, one dam or another stood on that industrial site, forming a small pond upstream and generating valuable water power. Sperry’s mill gave way to a succession of other factories that made paper and then iron products such as carriage axles and springs. Pond Lily Company was the last and the largest, an operation that “dyed and finished cotton piece goods, shoes, and other fabric,” according to a historical assessment written for Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

In operation until 1978, Pond Lily Company’s factory was demolished in the late 1980s, leaving behind hazardous industrial waste, which was cleaned up before construction of a Walgreen’s plaza in the 1990s. The pond and its surroundings—14 acres in all—were turned over to the New Haven Land Trust in 1996. 20 years later, the grassroots environmental organization Save the Sound, with the support of the Land Trust, led a project to remove the old dam.

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That project was a “win-win for everyone in the community and the environment,” says Justin Elicker, executive director of the Trust. It opened up the site for public enjoyment of new trails, it opened up the river so fish can travel to spawn and it protected downriver residents from potentially serious flooding if the deteriorating dam had failed. Volunteers have cleaned up trash left behind when the water receded and planted new native vegetation. Now nature is doing the rest.

Today, the West River runs more as it did when “the well-drained terraces along offered seasonal hunting resources and fish capture points” for “prehistoric or historic peoples,” the assessment says. Willsher’s Walk, a path memorializing local resident John Willsher, leads visitors onto the old pond bed. According to one of the educational markers on the trails, in the winter of 1995, Willsher saved two boys who fell through the ice into the river, then suffered a fatal heart attack on the riverbank.

Walking this short route, you can observe up close the amazing sights of nature on the rebound. The old outlines of the pond are visible as a strange plain that ends where the woods begin. Nothing has had long to take root, and the diverse flora look as youthful as spring itself. There are daisies and wild lupine, aspen and honey locusts and numerous grasses. At the water’s edge, where two stone benches invite a rest, swallows dip and zoom over the river while a red-winged blackbird soars overhead. Some of the area’s eponymous lily pads have taken root at the edge of the water, their green faces floating as if searching the low, gray sky for sunlight.

Willsher’s Walk is just one of three short trails on the east side of the river, accessed via a trail head on East Ramsdell Road, just over the West River bridge. The spot is clearly marked with a blue New Haven Land Trust pole, a historic placard and a trailhead sign. Entry here is on the River Trail, softly mulched and laid with boards crossing brief sections of mud. Though my companion and I walked quietly, we flushed birds from the trees and a duck from the river as we followed the soft trail through a wooded tract along the water. The river borders the rear of the Walgreen’s lot, but there was enough birdsong to distract us from city noises. Don’t miss the sign on this trail showing twin views of the old dam and the new river route.

From there, we quickly reached a trail junction, sending us out on Willsher’s Walk or continuing through the woods on Lily Trail. The latter eventually petered out, but not before we found ourselves on a muddy path marked with the prints of deer and raccoons as well as a hefty pile of deer scat. Elicker reports this trail is a “work in progress” that will eventually end at a lookout on the river.

One note for would-be walkers: Our GPS took us to the Walgreen’s parking lot on Whalley Avenue, but that’s not the best entry point for Pond Lily Nature Preserve. Signage is there, including a placard that displays photographs of early and later factories operating on the site. There’s even a bench overlooking the water. But an impromptu path leads nowhere, and some trash blemishes the spot; Elicker promises a cleanup soon. Instead, park on East Ramsdell Avenue or in the McConaughy Terrace housing parking lot, where you’ll find an open gate into the preserve.

Then walk into a brand new natural habitat.

Pond Lily Nature Preserve
42 E Ramsdell St, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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