Capitol Connection: Venice Under Hartford, the Almost Floating City

August 13, 2014

The Park River in 1920. Credit: The Encyclopedia Americana, WikiMedia Commons

Venice is not the only floating city. Hartford too floats – with a little help from one of Connecticut’s most incredible pieces of infrastructure: the Park River conduit system.

Long ago, just steps away from the Connecticut Capitol stood a river that ran through the city of Hartford.

Today you won’t see that river in the center of the city, but beneath the streets it still flows.

The Park River is a subterranean urban river that runs partially under our capital city, but it wasn’t always underground. In the early 1940s, the river was buried by the Army Corps of Engineers as a solution to annual flooding. The river was covered and directed into tunneling conduits under the city, a historic engineering feat that still stands to this day.

Originally, the river was called Hog River and it moved the city’s waste. It often carried disease and bacteria as a result. And during the rainy season, high water levels flooded nearby areas with devastating effects.

When Bushnell Park, the first ever public park in the United States, came to Hartford in the mid-1800s people were quick to rename Hog River to “Park River.” The river still flowed freely through the park during the construction of the nearby Capitol in 1876. But in the 1900s, there was a push to eliminate the severe flooding problems.

The final straw was the combination of two massive floods. One in March of 1936 was caused by pouring rain and melting snow (photos of the historic flood are available from the Hartford Courant). Another flood in September 1938 caused even further damage, pushing Hartford to explore options to protect the city from future devastation.

The Hartford Department of Engineers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned a system of dikes and conduits to direct the Park River underground and away from the city center. The underground tunnel construction was estimated to cost between $3,500,000 and $4,000,000, according to reports in the Hartford Courant, and the bill was to be divided between the city and federal government.

After years of construction, the main conduit was completed in November of 1943 and described by then Governor Baldwin as “the greatest single public improvement the City of Hartford has ever rejoiced over.”

Today, the Park River conduit measures over 10,000 feet and is part of a much larger water project including pumping stations, concrete floodwalls, and three other conduits. While most of the project was completed in the 1940s, additions were made in the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s, extending from the Hartford-Windsor town line to the Hartford –Wethersfield line.

Our Capitol and the grounds around it are rich with history, and the disappearing river is just one of many instances in Connecticut history that continue to inspire innovation today. Streets, buildings, traffic and city life now sit atop a river. That accomplishment still amazes me.

Knowing what we accomplished over 70 years ago, I can only imagine what Connecticut’s great minds will create next.