Many people who travel in and around Manchester probably have no idea where Bigelow Brook is. And they probably cross it hundreds of times a year if they travel along busy roads like Broad Street, West Middle Turnpike or Adams Street.
But if you really want to see it, go to St.James Cemetery on Broad Street and look over the edge of the northern hillside. This is where the stream twists and turns on its way from Center Springs Park to the Hockanum River through a forest filled with huge oak and beech trees.
Visitors must look beyond the desolate, abandoned portion of the Manchester Parkade shopping mall deteriorating in the background. And look past the half-submerged shopping carts in the middle of the brook and the discarded tires and trash lining the banks.
This is what Doug Smith does. Smith, chairman of the Hockanum River Linear Park Committee, sees the potential for something magnificent. Each time he views the stream he sees the future: the Bigelow Brook Greenway, an 8100-foot linear walking path from Center Springs Park to the Hockanum River.
He sees a path where on one end there is Bigelow Village. This part of the brook, which passes behind the Parkade from Broad Street to West Middle Turnpike, would have a promenade that would be lighted and heavily landscaped. Any new development -- residential, retail, office, restaurants and outdoor dining or entertainment -- would not turn its back on the brook, but make it a central feature. The brook would become an attraction and not a place known as the great shopping cart graveyard.
"This abandoned big-box and all this asphalt is all very depressing," Smith said recently as he took me on a walking tour of his vision. "Before the big mall on the hill was built, these were doing fine. This could all be cleaned up and restored. It could become like the San Antonio River Walk."
Having visited San Antonio, I have an easy time imagining what Smith is talking about. The San Antonio version is a network of walkways around the San Antonio River linking major attractions and shops one story beneath downtown San Antonio. With the river flowing past everything, it never feels like a highly developed area.
On the other end of the path, Smith sees something that is disappearing in this heavily developed part of town: a forest. After going under Middle Turnpike, the river seemed to be reborn as we entered a stretch of woods owned by the Purdy Corp. A path, created when the sewer line was put in, is a natural link from the turnpike to Adams Street. There are more than 20 acres of heavily wooded, mature forest where Hilliard Pond once existed before the dam broke. Smith hopes Purdy will give some kind of easement over the property or donate the land to the Manchester Land Trust.
Although shopping carts still dot the brook, the stream runs clear through the meadows and the forest before emptying into the Hockanum River. Someone with a sense of humor has put up signs noting we are walking along "shopping cart river." But under Smith's vision, the carts would disappear and improvements would be made to the brook to enhance fish habitat.
Our last stop is a visit with Sean Hogan and Peter Bonzani, who are restoring Hilliard Mills on Hilliard Street, one
of the oldest woolen mills in the country. Here the brook passes right up against the sides of the mill before a final
twist into the Hockanum River. The developers plan to attach a walkway to the sides of the mill for visitors to walk
along the brook under the shade of the hemlocks. During our visit, Hogan noted the neighborhood great blue heron had been
snacking in the stream again.
"We liked the idea of having something like this and showcasing it," Hogan said. "It really is a beautiful stream and something that needs to be brought to people's attention."
For now that is what Smith is trying to do -- bring attention to a forgotten waterway. As a member of the town's conservation commission, he is talking about his vision with anyone who will listen. The town and commission recently applied for a feasibiilty grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection "as a start."
Smith's group has been creating, building and maintaining trails in Manchester, East Hartford and Vernon for years. This latest effort seeks to link an urban area with the wilderness -- a plan he hopes will not only preserve open space, but also help the town's economy.
This is a delightful brook," he said. "It's spectacular wilderness right here in the center of Manchester. An amazing wilderness."