With its low self-esteem and high urban blight, Hartford is the ultimate underdog city. Sad City Hartford documents the joys, sorrows and eccentricities of New England's Rising Star.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Sad City Readers Take On The Park River

(Ed. Note Sad City spent last summer trying to navigate the Park River. While we never got underground, some readers recently made the journey and sent us a description)

Cruising the Park River in Hartford became a minor obsession for me ever since I first
read about it on Sad City. I never knew that a river once ran through Hartford, let alone
that it is now encased in a massive cement conduit that goes underneath the city.

And that’s no surprise. Most people have never heard of it, even the longtime area
residents. But everyone’s eyes widen when they hear that it’s possible to canoe in an
underground river. And absolutely everyone called me crazy when I told them that I was
going to do it. It is, after all, basically a sewer.

The Park River itself is sad and forgotten. It was buried by the Army Corps of Engineers
via a series of projects beginning in the 1940s as a method of flood control. It used to be
a main feature of Bushnell Park. In fact, the Bushnell Park arch was the headpiece of a
tiny bridge that used to span the river. Now it just looks out of place.

A team of us made the trip a few weeks ago. The southern branch of the river goes into a
concrete channel alongside I-84 East before going underground near Pope Park.
We put our ships into 18 inches of water and cruised at a good clip, dodging various
pieces of trash as we made our way. Several shopping carts, loads of tires, and a
presumably stolen bike. But although the river is used like a garbage disposal, we also
saw a fair amount of wildlife. A dozen fish (carp, I think) a family of ducks, and a
snapping turtle.

Getting to the part where the river goes underground was a surreal experience. There’s
a ton of graffiti and absolutely no light after you travel 100 yards into the tunnel. It is
very dark in there. It is probably the darkest place I have ever been. Even a moonless
and cloudy night will still have some ambient light. There is no such thing 60 feet
underground. But there wasn’t much to see, although we still had to dodge various river
garbage and rocks (this time with 5 seconds notice, due to the light limitations), until we
made it to the junction room.

The junction room a large underground space reminiscent of a train station, where the
north and south branches of the river meet. The northern branch of the river winds along
through the University of Hartford campus before being pushed into its own concrete
tunnel near the Mark Twain house. From the junction room, the river continues for about
two miles under the city – beneath the grounds of the Capitol and the Hartford public
library – before it dumps into the Connecticut River just south of Route 2. It’s important
to take the RIGHT tunnel from the junction room, as going left gets tricky because of
geysers of water that shoot out of the wall from Hartford Steam. Supposedly, the water
sprays at high speed without warning, and greatly increases the speed of the river. It’s
also important not to fall into the auxiliary tunnel, which is a pit on the right-hand side of
the junction room. It is a separate cement tunnel that goes straight to the CT river. Think
of it like the drain at the top of your sink – it’s an overflow precaution.

After the junction room the tunnel picked up speed but the water level dropped, so our
canoes scraped along until the channel leveled out. That’s about when we saw the car.
It was upside down in five feet of water. How a car could have gotten this far down the

tunnel is anybody’s guess, but I’m sure it was stolen. I imagine that someone drove it
pretty far down the tunnel before abandoning it, and a subsequent flood carried it the rest
of the way.

Even though we never really felt unsafe, hitting daylight again was a welcome feeling.
The trip definitely isn’t for little babies or people that might be claustrophobic. Cell
phones obviously don’t work down there and if anyone gets injured…well, you’ll have to
paddle your way out. But that’s true with a lot of things. Hiking in the forest is probably
more dangerous.

Recently, the iQuilt plans in downtown Hartford have suggested a possible rebirth of part
of the river in Bushnell Park. But that’s another story.

The city of Hartford currently disfavors anyone going down there, which is a mistake.
Establishing some routine tours down there would be a tourist attraction to some. That’s
what the Park River’s sister River – The Los Angeles River is looking to do. I’m not
certain that it’s legal here right now. But I am certain that it is a whole lot different than
what you would normally do on your average Sunday afternoon.


  1. I remember there used to be a group that took people on tours--the city shut them down. Too bad, I always wanted to do that!

  2. EH-Why do you think everything you saw down there was stolen? Sounds like a fun ride.

  3. Very Cool, thank you.

  4. Any chance that you would lead a group again? I live/work in Hartford and have desired to do this for years...but would like a guide. Any chance that you would guide a small group? Or, provide some more specific directions, if not?


  5. Art show about exploring the river is opening this wednesday, artical on

  6. This is freakin' fascinatin'. Is there any place you can get a map - a kind of overlay, I guess - that's shows exactly where the river flows underground? Is the Lily Pond in the park near the arch fed by the Park River?

  7. i've done this before. on 84, the river you see on the right hand side is the Park. when it was submerged, it was the largest project in the Army Corps of Engineers history.

    It's very dark in there, pitch black. You can't see 5 feet in front of you and it's 55 degrees all the time, so you need to have a skirt and warm clothes to change into. A rear blinking bike light is needed on the backs of your crews as well as glowsticks and headlights. You can walk the sides when the water is low.

  8. Find Pope Park on Google Maps and follow where the river runs before going underground. Drive along the road and you'll find a place to put your boats in.

    You don't want to go when the water is too high or the river will move way too fast. You'll probably want to check the exit too (to make sure you can get out).

    If you Google "life in a conduit", you can find a Powerpoint presentation showing where the river runs underground.

  9. Just to add to what the last commenter said... if you go during or right after a storm, you will probably die in there. Drain explorers die all the time. Do yourself a favor and keep an eye on the weather and the USGS North Branch Park River stream gauge at:


  10. I went on a Park River tour with the guy who did the tours, briefly (Huck Finn Tours out of Farmingon). It was indeed an awesome trip and I was happy to be with a guy who knew when and where to go. Then the city atty. (John Rose?) said it was "too much of a liability" and shut them down. Exactly the mind-set that makes Hartford the Sad City methinks. Anyway, it was an AWESOME day, great when you pop out on the CT River. But I'd be nervous about going on my own even though I am an experienced canoeist, simply because of the unknown timing of the water releases from Hartford Steam.

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