PART XIV:  More About Colebrook River

Colebrook River in 1914

The following is an account written by Herbert T. Nixon, a former resident of Colebrook River, some thirty years ago:

“Our house was next to the last one on the Riverton Road below the Spencer Bridge.  From our windows we could look down the river, which flowed past our back yard and see in the distance through a gap in the trees, the house on the other bank, which was on the farm that later became the Gilbert Home camp (Happy Valley).  I do not know who owned the property during those years, but that information of course may be found in Colebrook land records, nor do I know what years the various occupants lived there.

The William Spindler family was there when we first moved in, during the summer of 1914. The Children used to wade across the river sometimes when the water was low, (those were the days when you went everywhere barefooted in summer) and with the Seymours, who lived in the last house down the road, we walked to school together, a distance of a little over a mile. When the river was frozen, they sometimes crossed on the ice.  Otherwise, they had to walk up the road on Woodruff Hill and down and across the Spencer Bridge.  The private road from the house to the Woodruff Hill Road must have been nearly ½ mile long. The land around buildings and along the river and back to the foot of the hills was quite a large area of flat, mostly tillable land.  It was probably the largest such flat area as any farm in the village.  It was sometimes called ‘the flat.’ Mr. Spindler farmed it with a team of horses. He had cows, chickens and pigs.  He wove baskets from the willows that grew along the riverbank for children to carry their lunches to school in.”

“The next family was that of Charles Gernaunt.  I believe he had one daughter.  They used to joke about him mowing his potato patch before he could dig the potatoes, the weeds were so high.  They eventually moved up into the village to a house on the Tolland Road.

I think the next family was that of George (Tim) Bull.  I believe he had five daughters and one son. He moved down to the farm from a house in the center of the village.  He was a teamster who hauled lumber from the sawmills around the area to Winsted.  One of his daughters was Florence Albrecht, who lived in Riverton.  I do not know his other married daughter’s names or where they lived.”

“I never knew the name or much about the last family who lived there except that it was a Polish family.  It must have been a Saturday in the autumn of 1924 when my mother looked out our kitchen window and saw flames coming out around the eaves of their house.  She called out that the house across the river was on fire and ran to the telephone, which was on one of the party lines of which there were then two in Colebrook River.  The line was busy, so she broke into the conversation with the news.  The word quickly spread all through the village.  I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled up to the Euerle’s house just above the bridge. Fred Euerle was just cranking up his truck to go, and I jumped in with him. We got to the fire with Arthur Vonn and Wilfred Roy from Vonn’s Garage right behind us.  Mr. Seymour came wading across the river.  People were standing in the yard looking helplessly at the burning home.  Calvin Humphrey handed a stack of water pails to men in his store and they were put to use bringing water from the river to throw on the woodshed to keep the fire from spreading to the barn.  We carried most of the furniture out of the first floor before burning plaster falling from the ceiling drove us out.”

“Then Wilfred Roy and I picked up a two by four that was laying inside the woodshed and used it as a battering ram to knock the boards off the end of the shed nearest the house. The chimney was all that was left of the house, but the sheds and barn were saved.
The family moved to Robertsville and we later heard that the Gilbert Home had bought the property for its summer camp.  Edwin Merritt put up a large building where the house used to stand for the camp.  A year or two later the barn burned while the Home children were in the camp. A fire truck came out from Winsted that time.”

This photo shows the west side of the main cottage that Ed Merritt built at Happy Valley Camp, owned by the Gilbert Home in Winsted.  Several hundred children, residents of the home, attended the camp throughout the years.
Historic Bytes ~ Bob Grigg


Colebrook River, Thumbnail Sketch

Height of prosperity was when the Sawyer Cotton Mill was in operation (1840-1890)
Scythe works erected by Eliphalet and Daniel Mills in 1804/05
Timothy and Elihu Parsons (Per-sons) operated a tannery on the east bank of the river near the Mass. line; it was mainly for sheepskin. The brothers lived across the river, Timothy in Conn., Elihu in Mass.
On the west side of the river, north of the road leading to the George Whipple property, was a carding mill run by Chauncey Perry. Above the bridge was a clock shop operated by Lewis & Ives, and north of that, a gristmill and saw mill.
William Manchester had a sawmill and turning shop on Slocum Brook.
Over the state line, near the DuBois farm, was a silk mill, which was later a turning mill.
Daniel Mills conducted a store on the corner, north of the Tolland Road. Later this was remodeled into a dwelling.
Daniel DeWolf had a store at the same time as the Mills’ store. It stood opposite, across the road. This building burned down.
Henry Sawyer built the store that is remembered by later generations. It had been in operation for more than 100 years when torn down in 1944.
The cotton mill was in operation for about 40 years and employed as many as 200 people, although the number averaged closer to 100. Cotton was shipped to Winsted by horse and wagon. Both heavy and fine cotton duck, bags and belting were made. This also was carted to Winsted and shipped by train from there.
The ladies’ Aid Society of the church made money by hemming these bags, receiving one cent for each.
The building south of the bridge (the factory, or iron bridge) was connected to the mill by a tunnel under the road. The north part of the mill was a gristmill in 1840, operated by Charles Sawyer, brother of Henry. Later it became part of the cotton mill. The mill closed down about 1890. Many of the workers moved to Torrington
The parade ground was in front of Union Church (planned at the first meeting of the Union Society of Colebrook on April 26, 1815.) Loren DeWolf was in charge of the military company.


Colebrook River Lake

The Metropolitan District Commission, a company providing water and other services to the Greater Hartford Connecticut area, with the thought toward providing water resources for the future, in the 1930’s, began buying up available land in the watershed area of the West Branch of the Farmington River. Essentially, this meant the village of Colebrook River would be drowned by the waters behind a dam constructed at a narrow gorge known as “The Hogback”, just east of the Colebrook town line in the town of Hartland. Here is a chronology of the events leading up to the elimination of Colebrook’s eastern population center, and the creation of the body of water known today as Colebrook River Lake:

June 11, 1945 The M. D. C. now owns 75% of Colebrook River land.

October 13, 1945 The M. D. C. continues clearing land at Hogback.

Sept. 26, 1947 A number of prospective buyers were in Colebrook River looking over houses and other buildings there that the M. D. C. now owns and which are being offered for sale. Purchasers demolish and carry away the lumber and other building materials salvaged. It was understood that the M. D. C. now owns 80% of the valley.

January 21, 1949 The Methodist Church and its property was sold with the right to occupy it for 3 years until Jan. 13, 1952.

May 24, 1949 Despite an aggressive fight against the Hogback “water grab” bill by many throughout Litchfield County, it passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 117 to 84.

August 31, 1949 The M. D. C. plans to spend $10,000,000 for the Hogback Dam. The main expenditures as proposed by their finance board are:

Dam & appurtenances………………. $4,400,000

Clearing land………….…………….. $385,000

Relocation of highways & cemeteries… $605,000

Constructing tunnel to Barkhamsted Res. $2, 750,000

(This was never done.)

Interest (on money) during construction $355,000

Unallocated expenses…………………. $705,000

William Wurts, district manager, urged that construction for the reservoir be started in 1950. The M. D. C. hoped to have the reservoir completed by 1955 to fulfill the secret contract with riparian rights owners such as the Collins Company, Stanley Works, and others.

4,411 acres are already acquired with a projected 575 additional proposed. Capacity of the completed dam will be 6,500,000,000 gallons. It will back up 4 miles, be 116 feet deep maximum, and cover 550 acres. Besides purchasing additional land that will be filled with excess water during flood stages, the M. D. C. will rebuild about 3½ miles of State Highway along the west shore of the reservoir.

July 29, 1953 Residents of Beech Hill were shaken when blasting for the construction of the re-aligned Conn. Rt. 8 caused damage such as cracked ceilings and walls as well as disruption of water flow. (Springs and wells were affected.) An arrest was made.

July 31, 1953 The M. D. C. is preparing to remove existing cemeteries in Colebrook River to a new location now under construction on Eno Hill. Persons interested in arranging for the removal of the remains of relatives to locations other than the new cemetery are requested to communicate with the Chief Engineer of the M. D. C.

February 18, 1954 The M. D. C. has recently acquired the final piece of property needed for the construction of the Hogback Dam. This was property owned by Austin and Hazel McCormack of N. Y. C. It consisted of an 18-room dwelling, large barn and 64 acres located just north of the church property on Route 8. The Commission now owns 4,106 acres. The next-to-last property sold was Eugene Bourquin’s 89 acres, sold on November 15, 1953. All bodies from the old cemeteries have been moved. A number of the graves were from former inhabitants of Tolland Mass.

1955 The M. D. C., barely finished with the construction of the Goodwin Dam at Hogback, began planning for the construction of the Colebrook River Dam. In 1965, the Army Corps of Engineers took over the project, explaining that the valley and the towns below needed adequate flood protection. They cited the damage caused by the 1938 and 1955 floods. They constructed the

1969 Colebrook River Dam, dedicated on June 27, 1969. The total cost, including 7 miles of Rt. 8 in Conn. and Mass. was $14,400,000.

The maximum amount of water stored behind this dam is16 billion gallons, although the normal amount is 10 billion, the rest being an emergency reserve in case of flooding.

When the pool (as they call the body of water behind the dam) is at its maximum, (the height of the spillway on the east end of the dam) it stands at 761 feet above sea level. This gives it a water surface area of 1,210 acres, extending 6 miles upstream and into Massachusetts. This is about where present day Route 8 crosses south of New Boston. The depth of the water would then be about 200 feet. The dam that can be seen from Rt. 8 is 1,300 feet long with a maximum height above the streambed of 223 feet. An earthen dike, 1,240 feet long with the access road on top, stretches from Rt. 8 to the opposite hillside. A 243-foot high control tower houses 3 service gates and 3 emergency gates, all hydraulically operated. The controlled reservoir outlet is through a 10-foot diameter tunnel, and is 778 feet long. The drainage area served by this dam is 118 square miles.

1990s A power generating plant was added at the dam, its output being added to our electrical grid.


Colebrook River Roads

The first road to access the valley of the West Branch of the Farmington River came southward from New Boston and did not penetrate into Connecticut more than a few hundred yards. The gradient of the river was greater in Massachusetts, thus providing for better dam sites to power the mills necessary for the sustainability of a community, but the valley didn’t begin to open out and thus provide for agricultural endeavors until entering Colebrook. Right near the state line, both of these conditions were met, and the first dwellings and mills were constructed during the mid 1780’s.

Before progressing further, a word of explanation is needed concerning the land ownership patterns as established by the original owners, known as the Proprietors of Windsor. The future township was laid out in eight generally north – south-tending parallel strips three-quarters of a mile wide. All of our tiers, as they were called, were established parallel to the Norfolk town line; this gives not only the shape of our east and west boundaries, but our internal ones as well.  Immediately this was responsible for the political identity of the village of Colebrook River.  The reason was that the position of the line dividing the seventh and eighth tiers extended east of the river as it entered Colebrook.  Internal divisions were established as school districts, which had far greater importance than just being concerned with schools; they were the districts all able-bodied men had to register in for military drills and other duties, as well as the district you were taxed in. In 1786, when the first residents of what we call Colebrook River began to establish themselves, there were only two schools in town, neither of which was accessible to the residents of The River. Therefore a third school district was formed named the Beech Hill School District.  The schoolhouse was located on Simons Pond Road at a point about one half mile north of the convergence of present Beech Hill Road and Simons Pond Road. The boundaries were established as the Massachusetts border on the north, and the tier line between the seventh and eighth tiers on the northeast.  It is for this reason that the pioneers of the valley were residents of the Beech Hill School District.  The rational behind this eluded us until the lost school ledgers appeared and maps were constructed based upon the survey figures provided by them.  A road leading to this schoolhouse was created a few hundred yards south of the Massachusetts boundary on the west side of the river that mounted the steep mountainside in a shape reminiscent of a lazy “S” that eventually connected with Simons Pond Rd. Two pioneering families established farms on this road, which assumed their names, thus Bush and Griswold Road became the first “Beech Hill Road”, and the first link with the rest of the residents of Colebrook.

By 1794, the population center in the valley had shifted southward toward the central section close by the confluence of Slocum, or Sawmill Brook. Mills were soon constructed along this brook, which provided several excellent sites, some of which remained active until the Metropolitan Water District bought up all the property prior to the flooding in the mid twentieth century. The first accepted town road ascending this brook was in October 1796 and went almost due east into Hartland. Immediately a road branched off to the north following Sawmill Brook and entered Massachusetts.  In 1805 another road to Massachusetts was constructed going up Harvey Mountain and on to connect with Mass. Rt. 57. The name Harvey is derived from the family name of Sarah Harvey, a painter of scenery during the last century who enjoyed a well-deserved reputation.  Several examples of her works exist today in Colebrook and particularly in Winsted at their historical society.
A relatively short, dead end road that always went by the name “Peck Road” extended south from the Hartland Road close to and parallel to the Hartland line. Peck was a prominent name in these parts during the nineteenth century, and in all probability, although I can’t prove it, the site of learning in Colebrook’s Mountain School District. This district contained few scholars, but from the 1830’s through 1857, functioned as a district with school conducted in a private home.  My guess is that it was in John F. Peck’s house, probably taught by his mother.

The southward shift of population necessitated the construction of a replacement for Bush and Griswold Road, now inconveniently located well to the north. As Colebrook River received her first school in 1796, there was no longer need to travel up the mountain to attend the Beech Hill School. Thus we see present-day Beech Hill Road accepted as a town road in December of 1797.  This road connected with the road on the west side of the river. This was always a secondary road, with the main highway on the eastern side the river.  It began in Massachusetts and had it southern terminus near the Spencer, (or cement) bridge, near where a modern traveler can see the old Rt. 8 plunge beneath the waters of Colebrook River Lake.

The main road, situated on the east side of the river initially never crossed the river, but followed along the east bank down to and over the narrow, steep constriction that acquired the apt name of “The Hogback”.  This, in my estimation, was the most beautiful river gorge in southern New England.  The river had carved a passage through solid rock creating a narrow (50-75 foot), deep (100 feet or more) gorge.  The road passed over this solid ledge defined by its pointed crest after a steep climb, followed by an equally precipitous descent until it came back to the edge of the river upstream from the village of Riverton. For most of the first half of the nineteenth century, this road was named the Farmington River Turnpike and even had two toll stations; one was very close to the Mass. Border, the second in a private house about one quarter of a mile downstream from the Spencer Bridge. To all natives, it was just “the Hogback Road”.

This leaves but one road to complete the list for Colebrook River, and eventually it became and remained the most important link to the outside world. We are talking of the connecting segment of present Route 8 beginning at the point where it left off south of Woodruff Hill and ending at the Spencer Bridge. Until 1852, the road passed Woodruff Hill to the east, but the route was precipitous, and drew loud complaints from residents at every town meeting.  Finally a new route was devised on the west side, just to the right of present day Rt. 8 if traveling north.  It remained a difficult section to traverse, however, and was a major obstacle for the economic viability of the Sawyer Brother’s Cotton Mill. When the railroad came to Winsted, it left a nine-mile gap in their transportation route. They finally folded up shop in 1890, unable to compete with other cotton mills.

When the Metropolitan District Commission bought up Colebrook River, the town abandoned all roads. The roads were: West River Rd., Tolland Rd., Ramsey Rd., Tilles Rd., Peck Rd., Farmington River Turnpike, Mead or Whipple Rd. and Rose Rd.


Colebrook River Recreation

The boat launch site off of Conn. Route 8 is a busy place year around, particularly in the warm summer months. We take the second and third grade students from the Colebrook Consolidated School there every year just before summer vacation, and it is a very popular trip. Each year the same questions are asked – where was the village, where were the roads? Sometimes someone has been told about the ski jump; where was that?
The next time you visit Colebrook River Lake with a boat, perhaps it might make it more interesting if you had some sense of what you will be passing over.  Here then is a short history and guided tour of what used to be the most populous village within the town of Colebrook:
“The River”, as Colebrook residents knew the village, was the last geographical region to be inhabited in town. What is now the Robertsville section had easy access to Winchester, and had a dynamic watercourse in Still River, the site beginning with 1771 of a major forge with 10 support buildings and followed by important industrial enterprises down to and including the present day power generating plant.

Colebrook Center, besides having a central location, also had a stream which flowed year around with a sharp drop in elevation, making it suitable for the construction of mills with water wheels. 1765 witnessed the beginnings of its industrial era with the construction of a lumber mill on this stream.

Colebrook River had to wait until the late 1790’s. Population arrived from the north along the banks of the West Branch of the Farmington River, but once in the valley, there was no easy way out except by the route they arrived on. Where the two dams are now located was a steep-sided, narrow gorge culminating at a high, sharp ridge – thus the name “hogback”. Although you don’t realize it while driving north on Route 8 near the entrance to the Colebrook River dam, the land originally presented difficult obstacles, particularly in the vicinity of the small, Hemlock-covered hill that we call Woodruff Hill (named for a local character who lived there in the nineteenth century known as Billy Woodruff). The location of the first north-south road was along the east side of this hill, through the present day beaver dam.  It was a steep and precipitous route.

The valley in which the future village was to be built was quite broad and fairly flat. This lent itself to the construction of roads and the creation of farmland, although spring floods and heavy rain events always posed a threat.

With one exception, no significant dam was ever built across the Farmington in the valley. This was a large wooden structure, constructed in the 1830’s to supply power for a gristmill. In 1840 the site was expanded to include a cotton mill. This was the largest industry Colebrook was ever to have. It averaged 100 employees, although at times as many as 200 worked there. The location of this mill was immediately upstream from the iron bridge that is visible during low water, near the north end of the reservoir.

As you stand on the boat launch site facing east, directly across the lake, imagine that you are looking at the face of a clock, with12 o’clock straight ahead. Raise your left arm and point at the imaginary 10 o’clock position. You are pointing at Slocum Brook, usually referred to by old timers as Sawmill Brook, because there used to be two, and sometimes three sawmills operating along this stream at any given time. This is the largest stream emptying into the Farmington as it flows through the valley of Colebrook River. Also, about three-quarters of the way to that brook from where you are standing is the location of the main section of the village.  Here once stood a school, two churches, two lumber mills, a store, post office, automobile garage, private homes and rentals. There were cultivated fields and fruit orchards, roads and intersections, some lined with stately American Elms.

Just south of the village center was a suspension footbridge, wide enough to ride a bicycle across without barking your knuckles!  That bridge, which had to have been 100 to 150 feet long, could be made to undulate by walking a short way out from an abutment and applying a rhythmic pressure with your feet.  On the east side of the bridge, across the road that was then Conn. Route 8, was the home of Mrs. Burke, who saw herself as the self-appointed guardian of this footbridge. At the first false move on the part of a crossing youngster, her living room curtain would be pulled aside for a second, then released, followed seconds later by the door flying open and the shouted words “You kids cut that out!” We always did cease our indiscretions, because we were afraid of her, but our fears were really baseless, as she never pursued the issue, and except for correcting youthful exuberance on the bridge, never bothered us in any way.  I suppose these were the days when children were taught to respect their elders (and themselves), and to accept correction graciously.

On the east side of the valley there used to be several roads that led to Tolland Mass. and Hartland Conn. One of the principal roads emerges from the waters of the lake alongside the southern bank of Slocum Brook These roads make wonderful trails for hiking and exploring this long-abandoned section of Colebrook. They are passable by foot from the top of the cliff overlooking Colebrook River Dam on the south to two abandoned roads that pass into Tolland on the north, and into West Hartland on the east.

Proceeding northward along the eastern shore, east of the iron bridge, you will come to another road that emerges from the waters and wends its way up a hill known as Harvey Mountain, the summit of which is in Tolland Mass. This was named for the family of one of its best-known residents, Sarah Harvey, the acclaimed artist, who left us some wonderfully accurate paintings of Colebrook River in its hay day.

The ski jump, previously mentioned, was situated on the east face of Spencer Mountain, which has the first rock cut that Route 8 passes through as one travels north into the valley. As you stand on the boat launch facing east, the ski jump was on the hill ninety degrees to your right, the one with the notch for Route 8 going through it.

This ski jump was a gigantic undertaking in the early 1930’s, when it was built. Interest was so great that on opening day, the worst traffic tie-up ever to occur in the state caused cars to be backed up as far south as Thomaston. Physically, it was of a length comparable to the distance between the Colebrook Consolidated School and the Colebrook Post Office. It did not prove to be financially successful however, and after a few short years was abandoned. As those of us now in their 70’s grew up, we watched it slowly disintegrate, until by the time the M.D.C. cleared out all wooden structures, there wasn’t much left.

Due east from the ski jump site was the Spencer Bridge, a cement structure that once carried Conn. Route 8, named for a prominent farming family with land on both sides of the river. Standing with Spencer Mt. behind you and looking toward the dam, beneath the waters to your right lies the site of “Happy Valley”, summer home to the Gilbert Home children, and truly a happy place for them.

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