Anastasia Hufham, Contributing Photographer

On Monday afternoon, New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker joined city officials, representatives and stakeholders to break ground on the fourth and final phase of construction on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail in New Haven. 

After the final phase is completed, likely in December 2022, the trail will be one step closer to connecting New Haven to Northampton, Massachusetts, with New Haven Harbor as its terminal point — a distance of 84 miles, compared to the trail’s current length of 80.2 miles. Speakers at Monday’s press conference emphasized how the trail will benefit commuters, the environment and recreation in New Haven.

“For me, the most essential infrastructure is our parks and trails,” said Aaron Goode, a board member for the Farmington Canal Rail-to-Trail Association. “They let us exercise our bodies and clear our minds, they take us to interesting places and teach us about our cultural heritage. They create a sense of place and they bring us joy.”

The Farmington Canal opened in 1828 but was replaced with a rail line soon afterward, which remained in use until the 1980s. In 1986, members of the Farmington Valley Trails Council and the Farmington Rail-to-Trail Association campaigned to construct a paved trail over the former canal route. Now, the trail is primarily used by pedestrians and cyclists. 

The overall trail is currently 90 percent complete, Goode wrote to the News, and the majority of the trail in New Haven was completed in 2009, stretching from Hillhouse Avenue to the Hamden Line. Phase four will conclude the trail’s construction in New Haven, but there are still portions of the trail in other parts of Connecticut that have yet to be completed. For example, in Southington, Connecticut, one 8-mile section has been fully designed but has not received a bid for construction, Goode said. Another 5-mile gap in Plainville, Connecticut, has been fully designed, but its three phases of construction are not expected to begin until spring 2023. 

The section of the trail already completed in New Haven ends at the Temple Street Bridge. The new phase will extend the trail through Wooster Square, under Temple Street and under Whitney Avenue to end at the Canal Dock Boathouse. The trail will cross the Orange and Grove Street intersection before following Olive Street, Water Street and Brewery Street to the waterfront. While the path of the original Farmington Canal goes through the New Haven’s FBI office on State Street, the trail will follow city streets toward the boathouse. 

 

Graphic courtesy of Louie Lu, Production and Design Editor and Google Maps

According to Michael Piscitelli, economic development administrator, phase four is “more complicated” than previous phases of the trail, as it passes through a parking garage and under roads.

Piscitelli said that as there are 20,000 jobs centralized in downtown New Haven, he hopes that the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail will enable pedestrians and cyclists to commute safely and sustainably to work.

“It activates space, enables safe, sustainable transportation, preserves history and provides beautiful spaces in spots that feel very rural and in other locations, like here, has the vibrancy of an urban setting,” said Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth.

Elicker — a cyclist himself — said he has been waiting for the completion of the trail for “a long, long time.” He also emphasized that in addition to its environmental benefits, cycling is a less expensive means of transportation when compared to driving. For those who already cycle, Elicker said, they will now be able to do it in a safer environment.

At the press conference, city officials also noted that the popularity of the Farmington Canal Trail is spiking considerably. The Connecticut Trail Census uses infrared counter technology to track usage levels on trails across the state. It released a report last summer that boasted significant hikes in usage for most segments of the Farmington Canal Trail. According to the report, the Cheshire branch saw the biggest spike, with a 177 percent increase in usage in 2020 compared to 2019, while the New Haven branch was the only one not to change significantly, with a usage increase of 1 percent.

New Haven’s portion of the trail currently includes the William Lanson Statue, which honors the Black engineer, entrepreneur and activist who was pivotal in the construction of the original Farmington Canal. This section of the trail is also on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, which highlights Black history in the state.

“Lanson did not just do this for personal economic gain — he actually did it out of financial loss — but he did it with zeal and great respect because he understood [the canal] was for the benefit of the citizens of New Haven,” Charles Warner Jr., chair of the William Lanson Statue Dedication Ceremony, said on Monday. Warner also serves as chairman of the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

Milone & MacBroom, Inc., now SLR, designed the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail with Dean Sakamoto Architects. C.J. Fucci, Inc. served as the general contractor for the project.

 

Owen Tucker-Smith contributed reporting to this story.

Correction, Sept. 15: The story has been updated to reflect that Roth said the trail “preserves,” not “serves,” history.

ANASTASIA HUFHAM