On the east side of Waterbury, the post-industrial Connecticut city that used to manufacture brass products and clocks, there is a partially covered stream with a crazy name. Its flow once powered the mills that made Waterbury prosper but after the mills departed in search of cheap labor, nature returned to the banks of Mad River.
The covered portion of Mad River flows beneath a shopping center’s parking lot, a missed opportunity for daylighting. In other places, it is obscured by highways running along its course, such as McMahon Street, which itself is in the shadow of Baldwin Street, seen above.
Sources of Mad River
The Mad River watershed covers an area of approximately 13,024 acres in the western central area of Connecticut.
Its furthest source is Cedar Lake in Bristol, nearly 11 miles from its confluence with the Naugatuck River in Waterbury.
The city’s fortune as an industrial center was shaped by Mad River.
Originally known as Cedar Swamp, the river’s source was dammed in 1907 to serve mills downstream while the impounded wetland became a lake ringed with upscale cottages. The lake is privately owned and maintained by the Cedar Lake Owner’s Association.
At the time of the dam’s construction, the stream was regulated by the Mad River company, a coalition of local mills that harnessed its water for industrial purposes. Continuing south roughly along Wolcott Road, the river picks up water from tributary brooks. Nearly four miles downstream, the river widens into Scoville Reservoir, which is also fed by Lindsley Brook.
This 121-acre lake was formed in 1917 by Scovill Manufacturing Company, which channeled some of the water to its massive brass factory further downstream. As one continues downstream, Scovill’s presence becomes more prominent in the river’s history. Today this lake is also known as Woodtick Reservoir after the nearby village and is ringed by a park that allows for boating, fishing, and swimming.
Two and a half miles downstream from Scoville Reservoir, Mad River enters the city of Waterbury and encounters another dam in the Fairlawn neighborhood. This one was also built by Scovill. A mile down from the dam at Homestead Avenue, the river accepts water from Beaver Brook and meets Interstate 84 (Yankee Expressway) which then follows the stream towards Waterbury’s downtown.
Along the Highway
As rivers run on the bottom of valleys, their banks are often used for roads. At its confluence with Beaver Pond Brook, Mad River is followed by Yankee Expressway, which itself runs atop a former railway route running between Waterbury and Meriden. At this confluence of two streams and a highway is another road with a stream-related name: Harpers Ferry Road. Its namesake is the West Virginia town where in 1859 militant abolitionist John Brown attempted to organize a slave revolt.
In 2014, the state announced plans to straighten a half-mile S-curve on the section of the highway that crosses Mad River. The project included the realignment of the river and and improvement of its fish habitat on the river and its tributary brook. The highway project has a detailed website with photos and maps of the highway realignment as it relates to Mad river and Beaver Pond Brook.
At Harpers Ferry Road, the river now runs through a naturalistic rock-covered course where it meets Beaver Pond Brook and then follows the highway eastbound to Hamilton Park. Both streams run on courses designed to attract wildlife and absorb runoff from the surrounding landscape.
At its entrance to the park, the highway project provided a new pedestrian bridge across Mad River, along with noise barrier walls to shield the forested park from the expressway. With the straightening of the road, its former path has been planted to appear natural.
Mad River turns away from the highway and enters Hamilton Park beneath a new pedestrian bridge that was built as part of the highway straightening project.
This 93-acre park gets its name from local resident David Boughton Hamilton, whose widow donated land for the park at the turn of the 20th century. Then namesake was a prominent local silverware manufacturer. Silver Street at the northwest tip of the park also honors Hamilton’s memory. The tributary Carrington Brook, which flows through the park was channeled into a controlled stream and its marsh in the park’s center was carved into a pond for public swimming, dubbed Indian Basin.
The park has an Olmstedian appearance akin to Central Park and Prospect Park. Its designer George Pentecost previously collaborated with Samuel Parsons, Jr. on parks in Ashville and in Washington. The 1907 postcards above show Hamilton Park as nearly identical to Olmsted’s urban parks.
Brass Mill Center
Leaving the park at Silver Street, Mad River skirts the north side of Brass Mill Center, a massive shopping mall built on the site of the abandoned Scovill brass factory. In contrast to Manhattan’s Chelsea Market, the mall’s appearance offers few hints to the property’s rich history. Unlike Queens Center Mall, there are no architectural decorations that give it a sense of place. It is a generic design that could appear in any place in America. Only the cogwheel designs on some of the floor tiles offer a clue to its past. Why not have some of Scovill’s buttons, fasteners and medallions on the walls?
Finally, in contrast to City Creek Center in Salt Lake city, this mall offers absolutely no hints of Mad River flowing behind and beneath its buildings. Such a missed opportunity!
The mall opened in 1997 amid much expectation of it as a sign of economic recovery for the post-industrial city. But with online competition, this mall must reinvent itself to stay in business. I recommend Albany’s Crossgates Mall as an example. With its indoor playground for children, bar, comedy club, and other nontraditional tenants, it is truly a place worth visiting. As Queens Center Mall shows, an architectural makeover can also help attract customers.
John Dees Pond
One reservoir on Mad River that is no longer functioning was John Dees Pond, located along East Main Street. Its namesake John D. Johnson dammed the river and used its water for his metal business which operated between 1833 and 1848. Next to it was the Abel Porter brass mill, founded in 1848. Over the years this company grew and became the Scovill Manufacturing Company.
Near the site of Johnson’s dam, Scovill later built a pedestrian bridge across the river as a shortcut for its workers.
The company sold its mill in 1974 to Century Brass. With competition from plastic and cheap labor in other states and countries, the mill closed in 1986. It remained abandoned until its demolition in 1996.
The river was cleaned up as part of the Brass Center Mall project. But it is an afterthought as it flows behind the parking garages and loading docks. Nevertheless the public can access the river from the mall property along an access road that has a sidewalk. Now if only it had benches for sitting and admiring the river.
At the site of the earlier footbridge, a replacement crossing was built. The dam that formed John Dees Pond is long gone, in its place a naturalistic river bed serving as the northern moat for the mall property.
The 1921 property map of Scovill’s East Plant shows Mad River on the same course as today skirting the northern edge of the manufacturing campus, running parallel to East Main Street.
Scovill Manufacturing and Mad River
In the above promotional photo of the Scovill factory, Mad River flowed through the company’s East Plant and beneath its West Plant, and then under Interstate 84 before returning to the surface. The industrial complex functioned as a self-contained city with its own security and firefighters, among other services. None of the buildings above remain today, except one lone remnant, which I will describe below.
Looking at an 1868 map of Waterbury, Mad River encounters five dams within the city, with the Scovill factory at the top of this arc-shaped curve in the river. The hill causing this bend is labeled Abrigador. The name’s origin is a mystery. It is a Portuguese term, with the surrounding neighborhood having an Italian and then an Irish immigrant population during the city’s industrial period. From 1955 through 1984 this hill hosted Holy Land park, a set of model replicas of places in biblical-period Israel built by a Roman Catholic. The only item remaining of this defunct operation is the hilltop crucifix lit up at night.
Scovill marked its 150th year in Waterbury in 1952, an important thread in the fabric of the city. But as it celebrated its long decline was underway as brass faced competition from plastic, and cheaper wages in states down south and countries overseas.
I was not able to determine the year when the river was concealed beneath the West Plant but in the 1921 map above, its underground section appears as two dotted lines. Today the mall parking lot lies atop the river, giving a trace of hope that it can yet be daylighted.
On the southern edge of the mall, the river briefly experiences daylight and then goes dark under the Yankee Expressway. Nearly is the lone remaining factory building, preserved for a wristwatch museum. Failing to attract visitors, the Timexpo Museum closed in 2015. What were they thinking? Another roadside oddity is the foam replica of an Easter Island (Rapa Nui) monolith. No one’s is sure what this Polynesian giant has to do with clocks, brass, shopping, or New England. It faces east towards the mall parking lot and this peek-a-boo piece of Mad River. It is a scene worthy of another Mad- the magazine!
Along River Street
Where an overpass briefly follows Mad River the shoreline below could accommodate a walkway.
Nearly a century earlier the stretch of Mad River below Baldwin Street and Yankee Expressway had the single-track Meriden, Waterbury & Cromwell Railroad running along the water’s edge. As industry and passenger use of railroads declined in the second half of the 20th century, Connecticut has many rusted rail lines throughout the state. A few were revived but most are either rail-trails, abandoned, or used by museums.
American Mills Company
At East Liberty Street the river flows past an empty lot that used to have the American Mills factory. At some point after 2012 the abandoned complex was demolished. As a New Yorker, I’m used to seeing industrial properties repurposed as residences, artists’ lofts, shopping centers, and tech start-up offices. In most American cities however, the real estate isn’t as hot and there isn’t as much appreciation for the historic brickwork of such buildings. Notice the Holy Land crucifix in the background. It’s something you can expect to see in a heavily Catholic country, but not here. Rio de Janeiro has its Christ monument, Montreal as its Mount Royal Cross. As for New York City, my guess would be the cross in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, right alongside Whitestone Expressway.
Washington Avenue Bridge
The most unique crossing on Mad River is the Washington Avenue Bridge, constructed in 1881 using a lenticular truss design. Under engineer William O. Douglas, the Berlin Iron Bridge Company built more than 90 percent of New England’s bridges in the period between 1878 and 1888. The firm’s bridges exemplified the industrial heyday of the region. Although a steel beam has since been added to hold up the roadway, the arch remains and the bridge is listed on the National Register of historic Places. The triangular building abutting the bridge is in a tight property bound by the river, Washington Avenue, and South Main Street. I would describe it Waterbury’s humble counterpart to New York’s iconic Flatiron Building.
Mouth of Mad River
A quarter mile to the south of this building, Mad River flows into the larger Naugatuck River, itself a tributary of the Housatonic, which empties into Long Island Sound. Although it is currently difficult to hike to this confluence, the city is working on a plan to build a series of waterfront paths along the Naugatuck that could include a new pedestrian-bike bridge at the confluence. In the slide above, the example shown is that of Starlight Park on the Bronx River.
In the course of my research on Mad River, I haven’t been able to find the origin of its name. Perhaps it’s an abbreviation of Mattatuck, the native name for the surrounding land, or maybe a description of its currents. Adding to the online confusion is that there’s another Mad River flowing through Waterbury, Vermont, and then another Mad River in northern California, and another in Ohio! But they are not as urban as the one flowing through and beneath the Brass City.
Other Streams of Waterbury
As the city’s name suggests, there are plenty of other hidden streams within the city’s borders, such as the two ponds of Fulton Park, Great Brook, Steele Brook, Turkey Brook, Wattles Brook, Hancock Brook, and Hopeville Pond Brook. Would I relocate to Waterbury? Certainly if there’s work available that relates to administering the city’s parks, teaching history, or providing government relations. In recent years, the city has been experiencing a population rebound as Latinos, Albanians, and Orthodox Jews have been drawn to its affordability and scenery. The city is nearly as diverse as New York. I must revisit it.