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Artists Canoe Underground To Explore Buried Park River In Hartford

Does The Long Buried, Nearly Forgotten Park River Running Beneath Hartford Have A Place In The City's Future?

By Rick Green

July 29, 2011

HARTFORD A concrete crypt snaking beneath the city is irresistible art for Joe McCarthy and Peter Albano.

So is the prospect of bringing new life to the largely forgotten and very buried Park River that flows far beneath Hartford, sealed in cement, before it dumps into the Connecticut.

I waved goodbye one afternoon this week when they descended into the forbidding tunnel that buries the Park a.k.a. Hog River just off I-84 in Pope Park. The two guerrilla artists from Middletown were headed out again, Indiana Jones style, on another subterranean expedition for their Hog River Revival Project. I thought about snakes, rats, sewage and an inky-dark, confined space and went back to my cubicle in the newsroom.

But these two young men couldn't stop talking about the magnetic, mystical attraction of a two-mile tunnel beneath Hartford that holds an almost forgotten river and dim memories of what once was. PHOTOS: The Buried Hog River

"It's not a trip down a river. It's something to be noticed," McCarthy told me when we first met with at the Buttonwood Tree gallery in Middletown, where the two men are displaying pictures and other artifacts gathered during their outings beneath the city. "The echo is so crazy. Dripping water sounds like a waterfall."

"This could go very far. In Providence, they unburied the river." He's right. A whole city's revival has been built around the resurrected Providence River.

Obviously, this is activist art: The two twentysomethings want to build support for bringing running water back to Bushnell Park. They'd even like to see the infamous Hog brought back to the surface an absolute nonstarter, according to Metropolitan District Commission CEO Charles Sheehan, who reminded me the city buried the river decades ago to stop chronic flooding of the filthy creek.

Much as I'd like to see another river in the city, Hartford needs young and creative risk takers even more. These two Connecticut natives hope their underground expeditions bring new attention to the arts community's iQuilt project and other efforts to make Hartford more livable and attractive.

"We set out to make people aware that the river is at least out there,'' said McCarthy. "We went down there with headlamps and started taking pictures. You go right under the corner of the Capitol building. It goes right under the [Soldiers and Sailors] arch. There's even a small waterfall."

"We want to make people stop and think, 'Hey, there is a river there.'"

Unexpectedly, the Park River, muddy, polluted and entombed, still inspires. Largely unnoticed today, except for the occasional guerrilla canoeist, the Park took on the name Hog River because of its dirty, smelly composition during the 19th century. By the time it was buried in the 1940s, it was little better than a flowing sewer.

During the 1990s, a Canton entrepreneurial venture, Huck Finn Adventures, briefly led canoe trips before nervous lawyers from the city of Hartford put a stop to the organized outings, citing a danger of natural gas leaks, steam discharges, and the difficulty of rescuing stranded spelunkers.

Recently supporters of the iQuilt project, which would link Hartford's downtown museums, parks and other attractions, have suggested restoring a waterway to Bushnell Park. It wouldn't be the Park River, but a simulated river that would be pumped through portions of the park.

"It was one idea that surfaced that everybody thought 'wow, this could be transformative,'" Tyler Smith, a local architect active with the iQuilt initiative, said. "Water is magical. It's a draw. We like to look at it, we like to play in it. We like to be mesmerized by it."

Using a dented canoe McCarthy found while kayaking on the Connecticut River, the two 24-year-old explorers have made numerous trips. Inside the tunnel, it is pitch dark, with a faint rumble of the elevated highway far above. In some sections, there are giant steel doors poised to slam shut. McCarthy and Albano came across an old car on one trip and a baby duck during another voyage. Beneath the Park Towers, there's a massive room where the two men set up a base camp.

"We are raising interest in art and this river at the same time," said Albano, who has a degree in printmaking from the University of Hartford. "When you tell people about this, they say you are going into the sewers. It's not. It's running water. It's open space."

We forget that Hartford grew at the confluence of the Park and Connecticut rivers, where Indians found fertile soil and colonists built mills to grind corn. For hundreds of years, the river flooded and was filled with filth. Now, a couple of young people think it's a mistake to have forgotten and buried something so vital to the city's past.

McCarthy and Albano are stirred and motivated by a lost river under Hartford. I find more inspiration and hope in that than any catchy slogan marketers and brand-manager can come up with for the city even if, like me, you have little interest in sloshing around a dark concrete cave filled with water.

The first trip you just "keep paddling," Albano said. "The second time you know what to expect. The third time you can't wait to go again and see what treasures you can find."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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