By Herb Hiller
I took the train from Florida to New York, then a commuter train took me to New Haven. My next conveyance was a bicycle, in the perfectly wonderful village of Simsbury, Connecticut.
After a sleepless night on the train, I slept well the next at a university club. I was out before morning coffee and walked the three blocks to Grand Central Station. A toasted bagel, a cuppa Joe — commuter rail to New Haven took less than two hours. Mike Gallagher was there with a bike for me. Plenty of gears but no toe clips. On the other hand, the breeze was right away at our backs, the morning cool, not cold.
Cycling the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail
I quivered with anticipation, hummingbird-eager to sip the dream. Right away this Cadillac of paths – the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail — absorbed me with its stone pylons that introduce each next section, each also marked by car-blocking bollards.
After service as a canal, the corridor had become a rail bed, its history summarized in plaques and boards that commemorate the “New Haven and Northampton Railroad, the Canal Line.”
Trailside flamed in forsythia, dogwood, and pink magnolia of luscious come-hither petals. Fresh beaver dams blocked streams. A historical museum sat closed beside the historic #12 canal lock. Mike told me that only snow stops trail cyclists, though I also learned from a Simsbury planner that snow plows in Stockholm Sweden re-open trails ahead of roads.
The day warmed to the low 80s, while my eyes warmed to kids riding home after school, to moms pushing prams, to old guys taking their time. The trail ran flat, as train-riders assuredly know that rail-trails also do.
I remembered what I’d curiously learned while researching the trip: that the words “train” and “trail” not only look the same but share origins, “train” from the French “to drag, pull, draw along” (as the train of a woman’s gown); “trail” from the Latin trigula, which gives us ‘pull’, as “somewhere to pull something along,” both words anglicized in the 14th century. Train and trail alike, who knew? The rail-trail movement signified more than it described.
Mike and I rode two trail gaps in after-school traffic, the longest 6.5 miles north from Southington. Despite ups and downs, I never got off to push. The last seven trail miles ran straightaway to Simsbury.
Simsbury: Visionary as well as rooted
Like the trail, Simsbury, founded in 1670, itself runs so narrowly through the valley that it lacks a town green. Instead of square in the middle, the town stretches long and tight shouldered, the same as yesteryear’s canal and rail bed.
You wonder about Route 10 through town, the kind of road that elsewhere might so easily become four-laned, reducing town commerce to burger joints, gas pumps, and chain motels. Or why hasn’t town already become an antique alley? The Simsbury Commons mall south of town captured many town stores and still out-competes downtown for inquiring retailers.
Yet thanks to its residents, Simsbury is visionary as well as rooted. Harriet Beecher Stowe had a home here, and Mark Twain sometimes walked over from Hartford. Town celebrates its listings in the National Register. But Simsbury is also a bedroom community only 25 minutes from Hartford. Many among town’s 24,000 residents choose retirement in their familiar rural canvas. They use the trail. They support local farms. They sell off development rights.
Municipal buildings stay put in town. The Chamber of Commerce has stayed. So have upper-end shops and restaurants. They’re helped by the Simsbury Inn that looks 19th-century but opened only in 1988. The inn scores well with conferences and retreats. Corporate visitors mix with affluent locals at Meadow Asian Cuisine and at Abigail’s. Three independent markets do business here. You find a florist, three hardware stores, a bike shop, jewelers, a music store, wine shop, pubs and a row of car dealerships all owned by the Mitchell Family.
More retailers will follow the next newcomers. Planning for them began when Iron Horse Boulevard paved the old railroad right of way. Waterfront parks line the way, so here, at last, the town “green” for public events and for launching canoes and kayaks.
Back-of-store parking went in, and so too did the first section of trail. Garden-level condominiums alongside the river back up to the trail, and more are coming. To keep town attractive, residents early this year ordered that whatever next gets built conform to the town’s traditional look. First Selectman Mary Glassman is a driving force.
So are farmers like Nevin Christensen. He’s the fourth generation and far thinking. He farms 38 organic acres; generates most of the farm’s electricity from solar photovoltaic cells, and much of its hot water from a solar thermal system.
He makes his own biodiesel. He puts up “steak dogs” of prime beef parts that sell for $18 a pound at Fitzgerald’s. Eggs from non-caged (and soon to be pastured) hens get sold wherever you see his signs that spell eggs backward: SGGE. Nevin runs summer farm camp for kids and hosts events. He’s planning a system that will integrate natural processes to produce ethanol and food in a closed loop system that is “carbon negative”.
Nearby, retired software mogul Joe Patrina has gone back to his first love. He leads the band Little House that plays shows much enjoyed by locals at his red barn that’s outfitted with a state-of-the-art performance and recording studio.
East of the river a high
hill called Talcott Mountain harbors the cave of King Philip, whose war of resistance against the English convulsed New England 335 years ago. Less tortured history attends the 165-foot-tall Heublein Tower, built in 1914 as a love castle for his wife by the heir of the once famous Heublein Spirits Company.
Many already in town are shaping its future. Jeweler Bill Selig relocated from built-up Avon. He grew up cycling the American West. He now rides the trail and newly tends a vegetable garden that supplies his neighborhood.
The Chamber of Commerce lady cycles and works to preserve the Connecticut shore. Most revealing, Steve Mitchell of the auto group in town donated part of his car lot to the city to accommodate the trail.
Steve sits on the board of the East Coast Greenway Alliance. After he helped with my train-trail plans, he also organized a mass ride for Alliance members up the trail from New Haven to Simsbury.
Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy showed up the day after the ride to announce that a new $1.1 million grant would evaluate how to put a trail alongside the entire 37-mile Merritt Parkway.
That would parallel the Metro North line in the new world where trains and trails not only share meaning but also corridors.
If you go Contact the Simsbury Tourism Committee,, 860/658-4000, P.O. Box 1015, Simsbury, CT 06070.
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Herb Hiller writes critically about mainstream tourism and about one of a kind places. Two of his three books have won top awards of the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation and of the North American Travel Journalists Association. An expanded version of his story about Kearney appears in his book, “Unmarketed Travel. ” He lives in Deland, Florida.