Hartford History Bike Route

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Rose Garden, Elizabeth Park, July 2016

This coming week I will be attending the National Council on Public History’s annual conference, here in Hartford. I am very excited to be attending a national conference right here at home. Having followed the twitter feed, and read the conference-specific blog posts, I decided to write one that I would be looking for, if I were traveling to Hartford for the first time.

Yes, it involves a bicycle.

If you are bringing a bicycle (or have access to one, as well as a helmet, appropriate attire, etc. etc.), or want to walk/run 13.5 miles (🥵), this route will bring you past a number of interesting spots in the city. This is a completely urban route, so you must be comfortable riding on city streets with traffic. There are a couple of painted bike lanes, but no protected bike lanes. Often you will have to share the bike lanes with the city buses (among others 🙄). I do ride these streets, and am comfortable doing so, but like everything in life, there is risk involved; you are responsible for your own actions. I have not accounted for any construction that may be in progress; please re-route yourself if necessary. Attempt to follow the “same road, same rules” adage. Sometimes it’s easier than others. You are allowed to ride when the walk sign is on.

You could also do this by car. If you do, please do not drive through an intersection when the walk light is on.

However you travel the city, I hope you enjoy your visit!

View the map and cuesheet here.

These are the points of interest you will encounter. The distances shown are approximate, and cumulative from the Convention Center:

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Alexander Calder’s Stegasaurus, with the Wadsworth Atheneum and Travelers tower, March 2018.

0.3 miles Stegasaurus by Alexander Calder, adjacent to the Wadsworth Atheneum (the country’s oldest continuously-operating public art museum).

JFK spoke from the portico of UConn’s building across the street.

0.5 miles Next up is the Old State House. Lots of things have happened here over the years.

[Oops…I left the Isham-Terry House out of the route. You could take a left onto Walnut St (at 0.9 miles) then a right onto High St. to go past it. You will return to the route at the intersection with Main St (straight-ish) and Rt. 44, when the route has just gone past the Keney Clock Tower.]

1.2 miles Keney Clock Tower. A tower dedicated to Mr. Keney’s mom.

1.6 miles Old North Cemetery. Frederick Law Olmsted is among those buried here.

The SAND School is across the street from the cemetery. You may notice the
Ropkins Branch of Hartford Public Library is located in the school. During riots
over Labor Day weekend in 1969, the library (then located in another building
right near by) was fire bombed. The Hartford History Center holds one photo
of the library after it burned. Among those in the photo is a priest. When
researching the fire recently, I found out the priest was the branch manager
that year! No one currently working for library had been aware of this.

2.9 miles Circus Fire Memorial behind Wish School. A lifelong Nutmegger, I visited the memorial for the first time last year. The weather is taking its toll on some of
the pieces, but it’s still an incredible experience. So many people attended, or
were supposed to attend, or have a story about the fire. It’s hard to put into
words the impact this event had on the city. Continues to have, really. The trees
indicating the location of the tent helped me put into perspective how the
chaos ensued. The structure was small, and the number of people was not.

6.1 miles Chick Austin House. Only 18 feet deep inside! It’s amazing.

7.7 miles Elizabeth Park contains the country’s oldest municipal rose garden. Most of the park is actually located in West Hartford. Connecticut has 169 separate cities and
towns, and no county government.

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Ana Grace playground, December 14, 2017.

8.5 miles Ana Grace “Love Wins” playground, also in Elizabeth Park. Very relevant to
the repair work theme of the conference.

9.6 miles Mark Twain House and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Both are worth visits.

10.5 miles Memorial to Alice Cogswell.

10.8 miles Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. It’s architect is buried inside! Also, it was dedicated on my birthday, so very cool in many ways.

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About to win the Hartford Marathon! Ok, maybe it was the next day. Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, October 2017.

11.4 miles Butler-McCook House. The house will be open for tours on Saturday. It was home to four generations of one family, and is the only 18th century house remaining on Main St.

11.6 miles Charter Oak Cultural Center is Connecticut’s oldest synagogue building.

11.9 miles Church of the Good Shepherd was commissioned by Elizabeth Colt in memory of her husband and four of their children.

12.7 miles Colt Armory. Formerly the site of gun manufacture; now being turned into a national park.

I know I left places out, none of them intentionally. There is pretty much another entire route I could (and still may) put together focusing on the southern portion of the city. And even though Kevin the Turkey is no longer there to greet you, it is worth going a couple extra miles to visit Old Wethersfield. If it were a few weeks later, I would encourage you to ride to Rocky Hill and take the nation’s oldest continuously operating ferry over to Glastonbury. There you would ride past farms, and visit Nayaug, before continuing up to Main St and past the Old Cider Mill; the nation’s oldest continuously operating cider mill.

One time, while attending a conference in Chicago, I borrowed a bike from a fellow attendee and got in a few miles along the lakeshore. It was a great way to start the day. I also brought my bike to a conference in Burlington, VT a little over a year ago, which was equally fabulous. Depending on your needs, I might be able to help you out. You could also check with BiCi Co.

And if you’re looking for something to read, before, after, or during the conference, check out the news from the Hartford Courant, the nation’s oldest, continuously published newspaper. See a theme here?

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“Rediscovering Old North” at Hartford Public Library

Among my favorite things about Hartford are the parks. I walk through portions of Elizabeth Park on an almost daily basis. When biking downtown, I often ride through Bushnell Park (it is perfectly fine to ride on these sidewalks, it’s part of the East Coast Greenway). I don’t have too many opportunities to visit the others, but they are all beautifully designed.

Lately, at my “other job,” I’ve been working on a finding aid for the Hartford Parks collection. For this reason, I was quite interested when I learned the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library would be presenting a program on the city’s Old North Cemetery and one of its most famous inhabitants, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822. Yes, 190 years ago yesterday, the day of the program. This year (perhaps every year, I haven’t done the research) his birthday fell during National Parks Week. Neither Old North nor any of the parks in Hartford is a National Park, but they are all worthy of a celebration.

The program was to include three speakers: Norma Williams, Philip Barlow, and Andrew Walsh. Unfortunately, part way through her presentation, Williams, a landscape architect and President of the Connecticut Olmsted Heritage Alliance, became ill and was unable to continue. She gave us a brief overview of the history of cemeteries in New England, but did not get to the history of Old North. Brenda Miller, Curator of the Hartford History Center, and Andrew Walsh did go through the remainder of Williams’ PowerPoint slides, so we were able to pick up a few nuggets of information. What follows are my notes from the program. Please excuse anything I may have remembered incorrectly!

Cemeteries went through three stages of growth, all of which are visible in Hartford. The first style can be seen at the Ancient Burying Ground. The oldest cemetery in town, the Ancient Burying Ground holds the remains of Hartford’s original settlers. By 1806 there was a need for a new cemetery, and Old North was begun. Among those buried at Old North are Rev. Horace Bushnell, Olmsted and many members of his family, and members of the 29th Connecticut, Connecticut’s African-American regiment in the Civil War. As attitudes toward death and dying changed in the nineteenth century, so did cemeteries. The third style is evident in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Old North has been neglected over the years and now Philip Barlow and his firm, TO Design, are in the process of rehabilitating the cemetery. Among their tasks is restoring the iron work, including a seven foot high fence on the perimeter and ornate fences around family plots. Barlow was saddened to have to take down trees, but they were rotten and it was necessary. Nineteen trees were cut down and they plan to replace all of them.

The firm has also been reestablishing the historic driveways of the cemetery. Maps have provided some of the details, but they are also able to determine the paths based on the locations of markers and trees. Tree roots and water have proven to be obstacles. An arborist has been onsite to ensure no damage is done to trees as the roads are restored.

The original entryway into the cemetery contains two brick columns. Unlike columns today, which are made with a concrete (I think) core, these columns are completely made of brick. Old mortar is being removed and replaced. Broken bricks are being replaced with the most similar bricks they could find.

Roads in the cemetery are constructed of asphalt pavers. Authenticity being key to the entire project, Barlow and his crew requested that replacement pavers be “tumbled” (think clothes dryer!) to look older.

Three kinds of low mow, low maintenance grass are being tried at Old North. They plan to monitor the patches, and whichever works best will be used in the rest of the park system.

Next on the task list is the restoration of 87 monuments this summer. Barlow stated that this is a small percentage of those that need it.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College, provided background on Frederick Law Olmsted and his vision for parks. Olmsted’s Hartford was much different than 21st century Hartford. The families had all been there from the time of the city’s founding (Olmsted was the 8th generation of his family) and, more or less, had spent the previous 150+ years trying to transform the wilderness into farm land.

The key to understanding Olmsted, Walsh told us, is that he believed people shape landscapes. The land reflect peoples values. To that effect, Walsh related, when Olmsted was asked what a proper epitaph for New York’s Central Park might be, he replied, “See what our fathers have done for us.”

For Olmsted, exposure to nature was the essence of life. He had spent his childhood wandering around the Connecticut River valley. Park designs, both Olmsted’s and other designers, would ultimately reflect this.

Around the time of Olmsted’s birth, Hartford residents began to head west to the Connecticut Western Reserve (now Ohio). The city at this point was leaning toward manufacturing and was in need of workers. The labor shortage was filled by immigrants from Ireland.

There was a great amount of contention between Irish and Yankees. Hartford’s wealthy, well-established residents looked down upon the poor new arrivals. Rev. Horace Bushnell decided this needed to be changed, and set about to create a park where the newcomers would be able to see and emulate their more proper neighbors. Olmsted would ultimately be influenced by Bushnell, but was much more open to change.

Walsh continued by discussing images of the Connecticut landscape, as it might have appeared to Rev. Thomas Hooker and his followers when they first arrived. Unfortunately, at this point I had to stop tweeting (my source of note taking), and the details from that point on are fuzzy. The evening ended with a question and answer session.

The two books Walsh referenced during his talk were Changes in the Land by William Cronon and A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski.