Sleeping Giant State Park

Tracking Quarry

“Welcome home Giant lovers!” the Sleeping Giant Park Association’s Facebook page proclaimed on June 14. It’s been a long wait—more than a year—for fans of the Hamden park. A tornado on May 15, 2018, destroyed its lower parking and picnic areas and threw trees across the trails.

Eager to get back out there, my husband and I eschew the heavily traveled Tower Trail for one of our personal favorites: the violet-blazed trail that snakes along the Mill River, then climbs to an old quarry on the back side of the legendary Giant’s head. Approaching from the river, we break from the woods into a strange scene: two multi-arched structures, like portals to a centuries-old garden, backed by a decaying stone wall that climbs the hillside. Their stone surfaces are weathered and pocked, some of them marked with garish graffiti. Vegetation spills over their edges, and moss cushions them.

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This is where the quarry’s crusher once pulverized rock cut from the Giant’s head and loaded it into small rail cars, which followed a spur of track down to the trolley tracks on Whitney Avenue, according to Born Among the Hills: The Sleeping Giant Story (1982) by Nancy Davis Sachse. We stop to take some photos, then climb to the top of the old industrial complex. A 1920 photograph in Sachse’s book shows the quarry in operation, with the bare mountain behind it, but today the view is more dramatic due to an element of surprise. Trees mask the mountain, and it isn’t until you follow the path above the remains of the buildings that you break into the open and meet the awesome face of the quarry itself, a massive curve of smooth purple trap rock with accents of orange, silver and blue, tenacious greenery here and there climbing its cliffs or peering over its edge.

The quarry opened in 1912, when the Mount Carmel Traprock Company first leased the land from its owner, Willis Cook. The Cooks were among a dozen or more families who built vacation cottages on the mountain in the late 1800s. Before then, the ridge, known as the Blue Hills for the color of its pine-covered crown, was an undeveloped, wild rise above the small farming community of Mt. Carmel. Its shape, seen from the distance as a reclining human figure, was legendary, identified by native peoples as the evil spirit Hobbomock, who, “angry at the neglect of his people, stamped a foot (at what is now Middletown) and changed the course of the Connecticut River to the east,” Sachse writes. As the story goes, a good spirit named Kietan then cast a spell to put him to sleep.

This land had supposedly been acquired from the Mattabesett tribe by early English settler Theophilus Eaton, presumably the same Eaton who co-founded New Haven, for 11 bolts of cloth and a coat in the 17th century. Early in the 20th century, Willis Cook owned the Giant’s head and a cottage on its rugged chin, but hikers had begun to vandalize it—“every Yale student seemed to have left name, class, and fraternity emblems there,” Sachse writes—and fed up, Cook reportedly “saw no objection to turning a profit after all these years.”

Neighbors felt differently. The quarry was noisy. And year by year, it cut a larger gash in the mountain, hacking out trap rock to be used for building roads. “ 1915 it was apparent to everyone who looked toward the mountain that the unsightly inroads already made by the trap-rock company into the back of the Giant’s head would soon destroy the beautiful and imposing figure—unless something were done at once to stop it,” writes Rachel M. Hartley in her 1959 book The History of Hamden Connecticut 1786-1959.

Stopping it would take nearly 20 years, intense fundraising and a lawsuit. In 1924 the Sleeping Giant Park Association was created to preserve the Giant, but the quarry worked on. Some property owners donated land to the Association; others made cash donations. Ultimately, the SGPA purchased the Giant’s head from Willis Cook’s widow, then filed a lawsuit over a provision in the quarry’s lease that “forbade any quarrying in sight of Mount Carmel Avenue, to the south of the Giant’s head,” Hartley explains. The Association prevailed, but Blakeslee Associates, the company now running the quarry, simply said they’d move to the north side. As Sachse tells it, tough bargaining and impressive fundraising by a “small, dynamic maiden lady” named Helen Porter, who served on the Association’s board of directors, sealed the final deal. On July 29, 1933, an agreement was reached with Blakeslee, and the quarry was shut down for good.

Today the SGPA is still going strong. While the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) and state park personnel are responsible for work on the parking and picnic areas and the Tower Trail, volunteer crews from the SGPA did the majority of the post-tornado cleanup work themselves, hiking out every weekend to clear and restore trails in order to avoid an influx of heavy equipment that would have destroyed what they call the “backwoods” personality of the park.

We run across traces of their impressive work along our hike. Fresh blazes redirect the violet trail around huge fallen trees. Others have been cut to open passage. As we take the right fork from the quarry and climb up the cooler, quieter north side of the ridge, we can see the tornado’s path of destruction and note a small detour the trail now takes. Lush ferns still spread across the forest floor, and small boulders cradle puddles of cool water. Birds sing in the canopy above.

We follow the red hexagon trail to the Tower Trail, then sail down its easy gravel past plenty of midday hikers. Everyone seems cheerful and maybe more inclined than usual to say hello. The Tower Trail is a little wider, with enhanced drainage bars and ditches. You can now see the ranger station through the remaining trees as you descend. A grassy lawn is coming in strong below, where once there was a pine grove.

I think of the undisturbed Hobbomock, the Blue Hills, the cottages no longer standing and the long-silenced quarry and note that the tornado of 2018 was just one of the Giant’s many trials. He’s a survivor. And an excellent sleeper.

Sleeping Giant State Park
200 Mt Carmel Ave, Hamden (map)
Online | Facebook Page | Trail Map

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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