The Damned Story: When you mention a river flowing through Hartford, most would immediately think of the Connecticut River, which borders the eastern half of the city. Very few know that there’s another river in the city—or more accurately, under the city.
Time to take a trip down the Park River, a.k.a. Hog River or Little River.
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, a small river ran in from the Northwest end of the landscape that is now Hartford, winding down through the heart of the city and to southeast, eventually joining up with the Connecticut River. Originally known as the “Little River” by early settlers (with the Connecticut being the “Big River”), development quickly sprung up along its muddy banks. Initially used as a source for mills and other factories, it soon became a dumping trough for industrial—and human—waste. It was referred to as the “Mill River” for a short time, and then the “Hog River,” because of the obvious: Pigs were kept in farms along some stretches of it.
Not surprisingly, between the pigs, factory waste and human poop, the Hog River became horribly polluted and eventually smelled as bad as it sounded.
Still, the river was a key, if noxious, aspect of the city. In an attempt to clean it up a bit, a park was created around it in the hopes that less factories and homes might render it a bit less odious. Spearheaded by respected Hartford minister Horace Bushnell, the effort didn’t quite have the desired effect, although the city did get a new park (named for Bushnell) and a new name for the byway: the Park River.
A new name and a pretty park were all well and good, but the city also needed a new plan to deal with the nasty river, which was becoming even more a problem during flooding season; imagine a proud capitol city swamped with trash, garbage and excrement on an annual basis. The floods of 1936 and 1938 were particularly damaging, and lead to the formulation of a more permanent solution to the problem of the stinking waterway: Bury it.
The Army Corps of Engineers were brought in, and over the course of the 1940s, the Bushnell Park section of the river was re-routed into a 30-foot-high by 45-foot-wide concrete tunnel under Hartford. During the next four decades, the rest of the river was buried, a public works project that when complete, cost over $100 milli0n and resulted in nine miles of river being placed out of sight, and for the most part, out of mind.
Currently, there are parts of the Park River in Hartford that are above ground—where it runs through the University of Hartford campus, meanders through town to the UConn Law School campus and to Farmington Avenue (not too far from the Mark Twain House). It is at this point that it begins its subterranean journey beneath the city, essentially a straight shot under the Capitol and Bushnell Park before dumping out into the Connecticut River, close to where the Whitehead Highway connects with I-91.
The underground portion is accessible when water levels are low. From somewhat recent accounts, however, the river is still a bit of a nasty, stinky place, with sewage and other runoff.
For a more detailed history of the Little/Hog/Mill/Park River, you can visit Connecticut Explored, formerly known as The Hog River Journal.
Our Damned Experience: Although we’ve been left up more than one river without a paddle, we have not yet made our way down the Park River and under Hartford.
If You Go: The upper, exposed portion of the Park River is open to the public, but the part under the city is currently off limits. At one point, canoe tours were available—we contacted the group that used to run them, and they informed us that they had to stop because of legal liability issues.
You can visit where the river goes underground, which is right off of Farmington Avenue, or where it meets up the Connecticut River near I-91 in Hartford, which is shown in the picture above.