The major snowstorms that have battered Connecticut this winter brought travelers to a standstill on many state highways. It was a reminder of how the fury of New England's winter weather can wreak havoc on travel.
Before the days of paved interstate roads and highways, though, very cold winter weather often rendered Connecticut's earliest ``highway'' impassable.
``The Connecticut River served as a highway into the 19th century,'' said Nicholas Bellantoni, the state archaeologist. ``The river was a way to get you from one place to another.''
The 410-mile river served as a gateway from the sea, through Long Island Sound, up through Connecticut and Massachusetts to the New Hampshire/Vermont border. Colonial settlements were established along the river because it was much easier to travel south and north on the river than east and west through the hilly sections of the state, Bellantoni said.
When the river froze, travel came to a standstill until spring, halting commerce and port action, he said. It also put loggers on hold. They used the winter months to stockpile lumber along the river. When the river thawed, the loggers would float their timber to the sawmills. The Connecticut River was reputed to be the longest log drive in the world, according to Evan Hill in ``The Connecticut River'' (Wesleyan University Press, 1972).
For Native Americans living along the river, winter was a time to move their villages to valleys where more animals could be found for food.
``When the river freezes over, it was not the most attractive place to be,'' Bellantoni said.
With winter also came great danger on the river.
Ice dams destroyed three spans of the Enfield-Suffield toll bridge on Feb. 15, 1900. The covered bridge, constructed in 1826 and funded by a lottery, spanned 1,000 feet.
The bridge had been considered unsafe for nearly a year. Bridgekeeper Hosea Keach had the misfortune to be inspecting the span when a large portion of it collapsed. Luckily for Keach, crew members on a passing train saw him floating down the river, hanging on to a piece of lumber from the bridge. The trainmen alerted train agents at the Warehouse Point depot, and as Keach floated under the Warehouse Point Railroad Bridge, the agents threw him a rope and pulled him to safety, according to Franklin Sheldon's ``Nonsense, Common Sense and Insense'' (1926).
Rescuing those stranded in the frozen river has come a long way from Keach's day. Five years ago, an East Windsor resident became stranded on an ice floe. Rescuers from the Poquonock Fire Department used a hovercraft, which floated about 6 to 8 inches above the choppy, icy water.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bollard is one reminder of the importance of the Connecticut River's transportation use. The Bollard plows ice to make way for vessels traveling on the river, a task especially vital for the delivery of home heating oil by barge. This winter, the Bollard has made a run up to Wethersfield to break ice as thick as 18 inches before returning to Middletown, where it is stationed during the icy season.
About 16 barges travel up the river each month, carrying heating oil, kerosene and jet and diesel fuels, said Paul Jefferys, a machinery technician on the Bollard. About three fuel barges make the trip to Middletown each week, and a fourth travels to Wethersfield once a month.
``Winters have seemed to have lost their bite,'' said Mel Goldstein, director emeritus of the Weather Center at Western Connecticut State University. ``We have had -- over the last 20 years -- a dozen of the warmest years on record. This warming trend has been a national, global trend. We are into a warm period. Cold years seem to be an anomaly.''
Cold winters during the late-1800s were more the rule than the exception.
Residents would often seize the opportunity to enjoy some outdoor fun when the river froze over. According to a 1895 account in the Thompsonville Press, hundreds of residents skated on the Connecticut River, which was frozen for almost a half-mile south of the Enfield-Suffield toll bridge, as part that year's New Year's celebration.
``Weather always is sort of like a spring,'' Goldstein said. ``There may be a stretch in one direction, but then we see weather patterns that revert back to those like the old days. Now, we're having a real winter. It's been colder now than it has been in five years. I wouldn't put away my skates just yet.''
First published March 9, 2001Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times