Ice Skating at the Park, early 1900s
This Windham town park is an athletic facility with a wooded riverside area. A paved quarter-mile loop offers easy walking with handicapped access. The wooded area offers trails along the river and through an old mill site.
The park is near the intersection of Route 66 (Main Street) and Route 14 (Windham Road) in Willimantic. The main entrance and parking lot are on Route 14 just south of the intersection. Another entrance on Main Street by the tennis courts has only pedestrian access.
At the main entrance on Route 14, drive between the stone pillars and park near the entrance. Walk to the right around the curved pavement, which was once a horse-racing track. In 1883 the Willimantic Linen Company leased the field to an agricultural fair association for the Willimantic Fair, complete with horse racing and a midway. The horses ran around the track pulling sulkies (small one-person carriages) with jockeys perched on top. In 1913 the American Thread Company (which now owned the area) canceled the lease and created a park for its employees and the public. The park offered courts for games of tennis, quoits and roque. In winter, skaters glided around a flooded field. In summer, there were band concerts. The first of Willimantic's baseball leagues began playing here, a rivalry that continues today. Currently, the park features baseball and soccer fields. Tennis and basketball courts are also available.
1915 Map of Mill and Park- Enlarge Map, 133k
When you reach the wooded area, take a path to the edge of a stone-lined channel. This was a natural place to create a mill race (water channel) to cut across the river bend and divert river water to the mill (see map). Although there is little evidence remaining, this was an active mill site for more than a century. In the 1800s there were a series of textile mills here, powered by a water wheel in the race. Willimantic's first cotton mill was built here in 1822. The Welles Company built a three-story granite mill poised across the race in 1845 (see map). When the Willimantic Linen Company took over this mill in 1877, it became Mill #3 of their mill complex. After several renovations, the mill's final size was 175 feet long by 40 wide and five stories high. For more information about Willimantic's mills, see Windham Mills State Heritage Park.
The mill building was torn down after World War One. Now the race ends at a concrete wall pierced by a large pipe. A hydroelectric plant was built on the site in 1928. Water flowed through the pipe and turned a turbine to produce electricity. The turbine was housed in the round concrete structure nearby, and there is a great view of the river rounding the bend from there. A short distance downstream, the Willimantic River joins the Natchaug River at the headwaters of the Shetucket River.
Cross to the far side of the race, where short loop trails invite a leisurely walk by the river under the trees. As you approach Main Street, look for a stone structure across the end of the race. This held gates that controlled the amount of water entering the race. A dam extended across the river here, and the millpond behind it ensured a steady supply of water for the mill. The dam washed out in 1955, but the stone abutments remain next to the gate structure and across the river.
Walk back to the turbine, then along the path on the other side of the race. Near the stone pillared entrance, there is a fine view upstream, including Mill #2 on the right, a waterfall over its mill dam, and a bridge that once provided access to Mill #4. This is a great place to enjoy the river with whitewater rushing over rocks, wooded shores and summer swallows soaring overhead.
Walk to Main Street through the entrance between stone pillars with an original park sign, "Recreation Park 1915." Turn left and stroll along the sidewalk, where you can enjoy a great view of the river turning to flow away from the street, then curving left around the edge of the park. As the river roars around the bends, remember the name Wilimentuck, "land of swift running water." Now that Nature has reclaimed these shores, this scene looks something like it did when Native Americans fished here and early colonists sought to harness the river's power.
Thanks to Jamie Eves, Tom Beardsley and the Windham Textile and History Museum for their assistance.
Top photo: Courtesy of the Windham Textile and History Museum.
Map by Associated Mutual Insurance Co., "Tenements, the American Thread Co., Willimantic Mills, Willimantic, Conn.," surveyed 6 Dec., 1915, by T.C. Fisher, ser. No. 12294. Courtesy of the Windham Textile and History Museum.
This Willimantic River Greenway Parks and Trails Guide was produced by the Willimantic River Alliance and WINCOG. Information in this guide reflects conditions and features as of Spring, 2008. Since conditions change over time, the Alliance is not responsible for changes at this site. This guide was funded with support from the The Last Green Valley (formerly known as the Quinebaug-Shetucket Heritage Corridor, Inc.).