Land Conservation in Litchfield County

There were more trees in Connecticut in 2010 than there were at any time since 1850. This, of course, reflects different land use patterns that have emerged as the state’s economy has evolved. In Litchfield County this is also a result of the willingness of residents to conserve rather than develop their land.

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The Orzech Family Preserve, 112 acres near Route 67 and the Shepaug River in Roxbury.

The celebrities and artists who have long been attracted to the area have also been prominent supporters of land conservation, and nearly every town in the county has a land trust.  Some of these trusts are extraordinarily active; the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, for example, has preserved over 4,000 acres of land, mostly in Litchfield County.  The results of this movement have been profound. Perhaps the best example comes from George Black’s book, The Trout Pool Paradox, in which he laments the Naugatuck River south of Torrington as a “chemical sewer,” while the Shepaug River is the “Platonic ideal of a trout stream.”

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This carving on a boulder in the White Memorial Foundation honors Alain and May White.

Alain and May White were among the most extraordinary conservationists in the county. In addition to their own 4,000 acre preserve (what is now the White Memorial Foundation), the siblings additionally donated nearly 6,000 acres to fourteen Connecticut state parks, mostly in Litchfield County.

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The Macricostas Preserve of Steep Rock, along Route 202 in Washington.

A similar operation to the Whites was taking place in Washington, where noted architect Ehrick Kensett Rossiter made the Steep Rock Land Trust his most lasting legacy to the town.  Rossiter began with a 100-acre purchase in 1881 – what would become the heart of the preserve – and continued to add land to the trust he established. Additional donations from the Van Sinderen and Macricostas families have brought Steep Rock’s holdings to nearly 3,000 acres.

 

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The Morosani Preserve in Northfield.

The examples of the Whites and Rossiter are matched in spirit if not in size by dozens of more conservationists who have helped to preserve the county’s landscape.  Among these are the Morosanis, whose Laurel Ridge Foundation is noted for its daffodils every spring, Edith Morton Chase, daughter of a brass magnate whose home became Topsmead State Forest, and S. Dillon and Mary Livingstone Ripley, whose Kilvarock estate became the Livingstone Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Girl Scouts’ Camp Townshend

 

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One of the remnants of Camp Townshend cabins

Beyond the White Memorial Foundation, Alain and May White contributed money and land to dozens of other ventures that have greatly impacted the Litchfield County landscape.   Among these are the Connecticut State Police barracks in Litchfield, Community Field, the land for Litchfield Intermediate and High Schools, Wamogo Regional High School, and the Bantam Civic Association.  They also donated 5,745 acres to 14 Connecticut state parks, most in northwestern Connecticut.

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A latrine

The Foundation supported the Boy Scouts by leasing Camp Boyd, adjacent to Sandy Beach (the cabin burned in the 1970s) and the Girl Scouts through Camp Townshend, located along Alain White Road in Morris. Townshend opened in 1940, and by the end of that decade over 700 campers visited the property. The property could house 100 campers and 28 staff members for each two-week camp session, which began in late June.   In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mrs. Barbara Cutler served as camp director, and the facility was overseen by a 22-member Budget, Planning, and Maintenance Committee.

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The interior of a cabin. The writing on the wall says “Cloud, Lightning, Sun, Moon, Star, Rainbow, Rainbow, Bean Sprout, Corn, Blossom, Warrior Mark, Mark of Some Offices”

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Remnants of old telephones?

While Camp Townshend closed in the mid-1970s, and was utlized by the Morris and Litchfield fire departments for  training exercises, a walk through the remains of Camp Townshend has the feel of visiting a Wild West ghost town. Even in the darkest days of fall and winter, it is easy to imagine the sounds of summer coming from the lake.

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The Camp Townshend shore line

Hidden Nearby: An Autumn Walk Along the CCC Road at Macedonia State Park

Camp Macedonia Brook operated as a base for the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1936, during the New Deal. The camp was charged with building a new road to Macedonia Brook State Park and a road to the top of Kent Falls. The road to Macedonia, which still exists, was especially difficult, requiring many cuts into the rocks and filling. The New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad ran alongside the camp, allowing for direct delivery of supplies. The men of the camp were also involved in flood relief during the 1936 floods of the Housatonic.

Fall is a wonderful time to explore the history of Litchfield County. At Macedonia State Park, a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression offers insights into the area's history.

Fall is a wonderful time to explore the history of Litchfield County. At Macedonia State Park, a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression offers insights into the area’s history.

An old grindstone can be seen along the roadside, certainly pre-dating the CCC.

An old grindstone can be seen along the roadside, certainly pre-dating the CCC.

The explorer can appreciate the beauty of the CCC's stonewalls. The CCC was established by the Roosevelt Administration as a New Deal agency to both protect the environment and give work to 18-24 year old men.

The explorer can appreciate the beauty of the CCC’s stonewalls. The CCC was established by the Roosevelt Administration as a New Deal agency to both protect the environment and give work to 18-24 year old men.

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The above two photographs provide a glimpse into the drainage system developed by the CCC. Even after a heavy rainfall the previous day, the road was dry.

The two photographs above provide a glimpse into the drainage system developed by the CCC. Even after a heavy rainfall the previous day, the road was dry.

CCC members cut rocks to crate the roadwa.

CCC members cut rocks to create the roadway.

Where the men didn't build stonewalls, they put coping stones in place to serve as guardrails.

Where the men didn’t build stonewalls, they put coping stones in place to serve as guardrails.

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A true appreciation for the scope of the work done by the CCC can be gained by examining the sheer size of the road's retaining walls.

A true appreciation for the scope of the work done by the CCC can be gained by examining the sheer size of the road’s retaining walls.

60 Years Ago: The Flood of 1955

The Prospect Street bridge over the Naugatuck River in Torrington (Connecticuthistory.org)

The Prospect Street bridge over the Naugatuck River in Torrington (Connecticuthistory.org)

The Flood of 1955, the worst natural disaster in Connecticut history, resulted from the approximately two feet of rain dropped by Hurricanes Connie and Diane that August. Low-lying areas were already flooded on the morning of August 18th when the second storm dumped fourteen more inches that afternoon and on August 19th. The Housatonic stood at 24.5 feet deep and the Mad and Still Rivers in Winsted raged at 50 miles per hour.  In Torrington, the Naugatuck River, so peaceful looking today, swept away lumber, rocks, even buildings. Stores along East Main Street were filled with six feet of water. The city suffered an estimated $22 million dollars in damage.

Memorial to flood victims in Winsted

Memorial to flood victims in Winsted

A similar scene played out in Winsted, while the Shepaug River carried away an apartment building in Washington Depot.  Concrete sections of Route 44 were washed away and across the county, Bailey bridges – made famous during World War II – were used to provide temporary river crossings.  Twenty-five helicopters searched for survivors or dropped clean food and water.  Statewide, 87 people were killed, and over 8,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Twenty five of the dead were from Litchfield County. Memorials stand in Torrington and Winsted to those who lost their lives.

American Brass factory, Torrington

American Brass factory, Torrington

Extraordinary acts of heroism by police, firemen, and ordinary citizens kept the death toll from growing. In its August 26th, 1955 edition the Torrington Register proclaimed, “So numerous were the many acts of heroism, rescue of the sick and invalid, neighbors’ concern for neighbors, that it would impossible to chronicle them without slighting someone deserving of great credit.

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Thomaston Dam

In addition to severely (in some places irreparably) damaging the state’s industrial infrastructure, the floods forced the Army Corps of Engineers to take action so that such a disaster never happened again.  The army constructed the Thomaston Dam (1960), Northfield Brook Dam (1965), and Colebrook Dam (1969), at a cost of $70 million.  The Naugatuck River, with its many tributaries, had been especially prone to flooding and the dams constructed along that river provided over 77,000 acres of flood capacity, while returning over 1,000 acres to forest.  This protection came at a price as construction displaced the communities of Fluteville and Campville in Litchfield.  Still, it is perhaps fortunate that the traveler through Torrington today has difficulty in imagining the destructive power of the now-controlled Naugatuck River. 

Please see “The Lost,” a special section of the Hartford Courant for tributes to those who died in the Flood of 1955: http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-55flood-casualties-htmlstory.html

Also see the Torrington Register-Citizen’s photo archive of the flood: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/albumMap?uname=kaitlynmyeager&aid=5547678124797887025#map

The Blizzard of 1888

With Litchfield stuck in a weather pattern that seems to bring more snow every day, perhaps a look back at the great Blizzard of 1888 is in order.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel's house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888.  Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel’s house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

With little in the way of accurate meteorological predictions, the blizzard came as a surprise to the Northeast on Sunday, March 11, 1888.  It had been an unusually warm winter, and that day dawned with rain.  It soon turned to hail, then sleet, then ultimately snow.  Bitter cold and high winds set in, and the snow continued for three days.  When it all stopped, between 20 and 50 inches of snow had fallen in Connecticut, with drifts of 12 feet not uncommon.  (One drift in New Haven reached 40 feet high!)  The storm resulted in more than 400 deaths and an estimated $20 million worth of damage.

Dr. Buel's house after the snow had melted.  One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn't melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dr. Buel’s house after the snow had melted. One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn’t melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The following are excerpts about the blizzard from the Litchfield Enquirer:

March 12th – “The wind blew a perfect blizzard all day and the drifting and falling snow made even main streets almost impassable Monday night the storm continued with increasing fury and buildings rocked as though in a storm at sea.”

A modern view of Dr. Buel's house.

A modern view of Dr. Buel’s house.

March 13th – “On Tuesday morning the wind had lessened though still blowing a gale with the thermometer at or near zero. The most remarkable drifts are at Dr. [H. W.] Buel‘s. One, a little west of the house, about 20 feet, to a level with the eaves. There is an addition on the west of Dr. Buel‘s house, reaching- about to the eaves, which is almost completely covered by the snow, so that our reporter, walking- along the top of the drift, passed completely over the roof of this part of the house, and down on the northern side. There is a drift on the east which is even higher, shutting up one of the library windows completely, and reaching nearly to the top of one of the large firs which form a hedge on that side of the house.

March 14th – “The wind is northeast and considerable snow is still falling. People are about on snow shoes skees (sic) and snow shoes extemporized out of boards some carrying groceries to those in great want. Little business is doing. Most of the stores are closed. A few are open with people standing about comparing notes about tunneling to their woodsheds drifts over second story windows and other marvels of the great storm.”

The Lake Station, Bantam.  Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Lake Station, Bantam. Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Shepaug Railroad was out of service until March 16th. A railroad cut near the Lake Station (today the Cove in Bantam) was filled with a drift 22 feet deep!

And all this snow needed to be removed from the transportation network without the benefit of modern plows!

Topsmead State Forest

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A modern visitor to the Topsmead State Forest may think he or she has stepped into a Harry Potter novel.  The English cottage at the hilltop – the name means “top of the meadow” – is reminiscent of the Weasley clan’s home in J.K. Rowling’s novels.  The home and grounds, however, are reminders of an important era of the region’s history. Topsmead was the summer home of Edith Morton Chase and her companions, Mary and Lucy Burrall.

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The former headquarters of Chase Brass and Copper, designed by Cass Gilbert who also designed the Woolworth Building in New York and the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

Ms. Chase was the daughter of Henry Sabin Chase, the first president of Chase Brass and Copper Company, founded in Waterbury in 1876. The company became one of the most profitable businesses in the city, and Chase hired the noted architect Cass Gilbert to design the corporate headquarters across the street from Waterbury’s City Hall. Shortly before his death in 1917, Chase purchased 16 acres on East Litchfield’s Jefferson Hill as a gift for his daughter, who built a small cottage on the grounds.  Over the next 55 years, Edith Chase made twenty-four additional land purchases, enlarging the estate to 511 acres. Ms. Chase hired architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr.  (who designed the main building of St. Margaret McTernan’s school, established by Henry Chase and now called Chase Collegiate) to create a grander house.  Dana designed a structure in the English Tudor style, with brick and stucco walls, and a slate roof.  The interior walls are oak and stucco, and the house was decorated with 17th century antiques.

Property map of Topsmead, displayed at the site.

Property map of Topsmead, displayed at the site.

Edith Chase was a lover of the outdoors and she paid great attention to the landscaping.  Formal gardens surround the house, apple trees line the driveway, and holly and lilac grow against the house. In 1927, Ms. Chase purchased the adjoining Buell Farm, which was used to produce the estate’s food, with vegetable gardens, dairy operations, and beef, hogs, sheep, and poultry.

The Topsmead meadow in winter, a wonderful spot for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

The Topsmead meadow in winter, a wonderful spot for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

Edith Morton Chase died in 1972 and willed her estate to the people of Connecticut.  It was renamed Topsmead State Forest, and thanks to an endowment left by Chase it preserves much of the estate as it appeared at her death.  Particularly significant is the meadow, which preserves a landscape that has been lost in much of Connecticut.

Stone Walls

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With the leaves off the trees fall is a great time to explore the stone walls of White Memorial. There is, perhaps, no better-known example of man’s reshaping of the Litchfield County landscape than stone walls. Robert Thorson, author of the superb history of these creations, Stone by Stone, wrote that “abandoned stone walls are the signatures of rural New England, the “relics of a vanished agricultural civilization.”

Perhaps there is no better metaphor for the history of Litchfield County than its ubiquitous stone walls. Constructed from colonial times through the middle of the nineteenth century, they stand as testimony to the intrepid early settlers who cleared the land in the hopes of making a living from the county’s soil. In plowing their fields, they utilized these unwanted stones to dam streams, mark roadways and property boundaries and pen in livestock. Yet the explorer is struck to find these vestiges of an earlier time in the county’s deepest forests, an indication that this land was once cleared and worked but has since been reclaimed by forests as lifeways in the county changed.

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The stones that form these walls were deposited by the Laurentide Ice Shield 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, which scraped down to New England’s bedrock and scattered billions of stones across the region. Initially, the earliest stonewalls were built from stones obtained from quarries. The “Little Ice Age” of the 18th century, however worked stones to the surface through deep freezes and the erosion caused by spring runoffs. Thus, the clearing of stones from pastures and fields became an annual spring ritual. Farmers brought these stones to the fences that lined their properties, often by hand or by sleds pulled by oxen. Over time, these piles were reworked into more architecturally-significant structures as the supply of labor on farms grew.  Eventually the walls shaped the landscape by forcing rain to different streams or building up soils.

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Stone walls served several purposes for farmers. When the communal land practices of the earliest colonial days shifted to a philosophy of individually owned land, stone walls were used to define boundaries. Farmers often piled stones until they reached the lowest level of a split rail fence.  Stone pens were utilized for what Thorson has termed the “strategic dropping of manure” for use as fertilizer. Elaborate stone walls were utilized as status symbols. More than anything, however, stone walls were simply ways to dump stones that were obstacles to farmers in their fields.

New England farmers built five principal types of stone walls. These are:

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Dumped Wall – A simple line of piled stones.

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Tossed Wall – With stones stacked like firewood, this is the most common of       stone walls. It required a bit more attention that the dumped wall.

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 Single Wall – stones piled on top of each other. These were used to surround pastures.

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Double Wall – Parallel walls with smaller stones used to fill in between.

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Laid Wall – Featured stones in a “weave” pattern.

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A 1939 study estimated that there were 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England, which contained more stone than the remaining monuments of the ancient world put together. Unfortunately, Connecticut (unlike Massachusetts and New Hampshire) has no law that protects its stone walls, and they are slowly falling victim to bulldozers or being quarried for new stonework.