Monday, March 16, 2009
The Ruins of South Branch Park, Part 2
Well, if you've followed me this far from The Ruins of South Branch Park, Part 1, you've seen the remains of the old hockey rink and Camp Angelina at South Branch Park in Sixteen Acres, places that at one time were bustling with activity, but are slowly but surely being repossessed by mother nature.
I cannot fully explain my interest in areas where nature is reclaiming land once used by man. I'm not alone: a TV show with a huge following, The History Channel's Life After People, speculates what population centers would look like if humans were extinct. Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us, is also selling well. Maybe I like the notion of nature fighting back after seeing such places as the woods around White Cedar Swamp in Wilbraham being lost to development. Maybe it's a fascination with post-apocalyptic landscapes. Did I watch the Planet of the Apes movies too much when I was a kid?
It's time to stop asking questions and press on to the waterfall.
In the spring and summer the brush is usually too thick to hike to the waterfall from the Camp Angelina site, and there is no longer a bridge crossing the stream from the camp to the other side—one usually has to double back to the golf course and cross a bridge there. But, it being late winter, I am able to bushwhack my way through the leafless growth upstream, and when I hear the rapids, I know I'm getting close. This branch of the Mill River cuts a dramatically deep gorge, and this part of the hike resembles the wilds of New Hampshire and other remote areas. The steep terrain and ledges are not the landscape you’d associate with Sixteen Acres.
Here is a video of the Mill River as I near the falls. You know, one of these days I’m going to use a real camera and a good video camera instead of a cell phone. Then I’ll replace these videos with quality video. But for the time being, use your imagination.
There! I finally reach the Parker Street lot. (The waterfall is above.) I actually had to walk along the edge of someone’s yard for about 30 feet to get there, because the gorge is too steep to traverse in the woods. So don't follow my idiotic path from the Veterans Golf Course lot. This is really the lot you want to start your hike from. Just park across the street in Sixteen Acres Center near Blockbuster Video, cross Parker Street, and then cross the footbridge over the falls. Here is some cell phone quality video of the falls, which supplied power for, over the course of several hundred years, a sawmill, a gin distillery, and a gristmill. Below photo of the rapids taken from the bridge.
According to an old legend, a man who owned the sawmill in the early 1700s became rich with gold, but, crazed with greed, he killed his wife and children when they discovered where he buried his fortune. Now his ghost can supposedly be seen on the flood plain of the South Branch, obsessively digging up and reburying his gold.
The walk into the woods from the back of the Parker Street lot momentarily takes me away from the stream, but then I hang a sharp left and hook up with the South Branch again and follow it. At one point, when I’m on the opposite side of the brook (the eastern side) facing Camp Angelina, I take another left on an old trail that leads to a place where there used to be a bridge back to the camp. But it’s long gone (below).
There was a pretty study wood bridge here when I was a kid, but now all that’s left are the foundation blocks on both side. The stones are native red sandstone are were undoubtedly cut from the numerous former quarries in the area—possibly the quarries that formed Wilder Pond across the South Branch Parkway, or Red Stone Lake to the south.
Where, oh where, is the freshwater spring I used to stick my bare feet in when I was a kid? It was next to the brook, but the location escapes my memory, and it's probably hidden by dense vegetation now.
I follow the brook until I get back to the golf course, and then I walk across the course, keeping Plumtree Road on my right, to another patch of woods that, surprisingly, has a brand new trail, courtesy of a Boy Scout Project at the Pioneer Valley Christian School. I used to play in this section of woods as a kid, but until recently those trails were long overgrown.
Below is the Pioneer Valley Christian School as seen from the edge of the woods. The building, which has expanded in recent years, is the former Ursuline Academy, which I attended from 1969 to 1977. (Actually, my first three years were in the scary-looking Ursuline convent building on Madison Avenue, and the last five were here.) Ursuline closed the school and sold it in the mid-1980s—I always thought its demise was due to the last of the Baby Boomers graduating at the end of the ’70s, but this Christian School seems to be thriving, adding a wing a few years ago.
It was into these very woods I fled when I was in high school, after my friends and I decided to pay a visit to my brother's Ursuline eighth grade dance one Saturday Night. We were hanging around the woods behind Glickman School with nothing to do, so we decided to cross Plumtree Road and peek through the windows of the Ursuline cafeteria to check out the dance floor action. Well, there was quite an uproar, and the school janitor, armed with a flashlight, chased us into South Branch Park. So let's follow my "flight path."
A trail behind the school heads toward the tee on the golf course’s 14th hole, a big keg party spot in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It was a good site to hold a bash because a fire couldn’t be seen from Plumtree Road. Then again, a lot of teenagers used to park in the Emmanuel Church lot next to Ursuline, and once in a while the cops used to get wise to this fact. The police were quite certain that these cars weren’t owned by Saturday night churchgoers, and they were right.
So, moving on, I stay to the right on the course and cross two wood bridges (meant for golfers, not hikers) and then disappear back into the woods, keeping the South Branch of the Mill River on my right. I head towards Bradley Road.
Holy crap! I stumble upon the mummified remains of some kind of fanged animal. A fox? A fisher? Damn! Can anyone identify this critter?
If you ever attempt this hike and you’re up for more tromping by the time you get to Bradley Road, why not cross Bradley and continue on the stretch of the South Branch Parkway that is closed? You can extend your hike and hop back into the woods, because this section of the South Branch Parkway has been off-limits to traffic for several decades. I hear that it’s quite confusing for delivery people, who don’t know that if they want to continue on the Parkway (from both the Sixteeen Acres and East Forest Park sides) they must use the Plumtree Road permanent detour. The city closed this unpaved section when illegal dumping and drinking became a problem there.
After I hike to the end of the ghost road and hit pavement, I turn around and take a photo of the dirt road, where it’s blocked by boulders (below).
Now it’s time to head to my car. After crossing Bradley Road again, instead of following my tracks along this stretch of the brook, I decide to hike on the other side, nearest the redstone bridge that was built in 1933 as a WPA project during the Depression. It's also time to ponder the history of the South Branch of the Mill River, which was integral to the settlement of Sixteen Acres in the 17th Century. In 1680, when a deed was given to five men for a tract of land at the waterfall off what is now Parker Street, Sixteen Acres became more than just a farming community because the settlers built a sawmill at the falls.
The South Branch begins in Hampden and winds through a part of Wilbraham, the northeast corner of East Longmeadow and, along the North Branch, eventually meanders into Watershops Pond. From there the Mill River flows through Springfield, where it gets murkier and much smellier through lower Forest Park, and empties into the Connecticut River on Mill Street. The water is amazingly clear in Sixteen Acres, however: you can easily make out the brands on the golf balls that dot the stream bed, forever hiding from their enraged owners. In the 1970s, I was elbow-to-elbow with countless fishermen and kids on the Bradley Road portion of the South Branch on the first day of fishing season every April. Now that fishing is allowed year-round, the opening day fiasco is just a memory, but the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife still stocks this stream with trout.
Although the South Branch, as it winds pleasantly through Sixteen Acres, doesn't by any stretch of the imagination contain the natural beauty and drama of, say, The Flume in Franconia State Park in New Hampshire, it cut quite an impressive ravine over the millennia, and it did grab the attention of one famous landscape painter: Roswell Morse Shurtleff (1838-1915). He was known for painting the Adirondacks and the Keene Valley in New York, but from 1868 to 1870 he lived in Hartford and summered in the Keene Valley. He probably traveled by the South Branch falls via Parker Street when Route 21 was a major north-south road (its former name was the "Road to Dartmouth College"), noticed the falls, and was spellbound enough to paint either the falls or the gorge. According to an inventory of American Paintings by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Shurtleff's South Branch painting is in the hands of a private collector in Florida, but her address is unclear.
Below is the last leg of my walk, with Veterans Golf Couse parking lot straight ahead, on the hill I originally descended to begin the hike. I take a photo of a pond as I cross a bridge.
Well you’ve seen the ruins of South Branch Park, including the ghost rink, the abandoned camp, the phantom bridge, and the road to nowhere. But don't worry, it’s not that scary, except for the spooky rink maintenance house—and, of course, the frightening animal skeleton.
Check it out sometime. You might even find the park's sublime beauty worthy of a painting. Roswell Morse Shurtleff did, and he was no slouch, with his works hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, along with the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. I'd love to see his South Branch painting. Then again, I always have the opportunity to take a short trip into Springfield to see the real thing.
Read The Ruins of South Branch Park, Part 3, in Spitting to All Fields, Part 1.