Category Archives: Natural History

History blossoms at 14 gardens planted around Connecticut

weir Farm National Historic Site

The Weir Farm

Connecticut offers its history up to visitors in many forms, shapes and colors. The most familiar might be museums, battle sites, house museums and, yes, colorful gardens that grace Connecticut’s landscape and accentuate its past.

Connecticut’s Historic Gardens , a group that promotes this part of the state’s history, has highlighted 14 of them.

The Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton — the only national park devoted to American painting– is perhaps the best known, given that it was home to three generations of Weir family artists, starting in with J. Alden Weir, a pioneer in the development of American Impressionism.

If there were an award for the historic garden site with the most interesting name would go to the Thankful Arnold House Museum in Haddam, which features the Wilhelmina Ann Arnold Barnhart Memorial Garden.  Itmay be the garden with the longest name.

The other 12 historic gardens located throughout the state are:

Bellamy-Ferriday House & Garden,  Bethlehem  06751Butler-McCook House & Garden, Hartford 06103;   Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme 06371; Glebe House Museum & The Gertrude Jekyll Garden, Woodbury 06798; Harkness Memorial State Park, Waterford 06385Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT 06105; Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington 06032; New London County Historical Society & Shaw Mansion, New London 06320; Osborne Homestead Museum & Kellogg Environmental Center, Derby, CT 06418; Promisek at Three Rivers Farm, Bridgewater, CT 06752;  Roseland Cottage, Woodstock 06281; Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum , Wethersfield 06109;

Pequot Trails take walkers through historic land

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Mister Samuel Clemens was rightly known for his skills as a writer, but he also developed a reputation as something of a walker.  It’s not possible to say with certainty, but if the Pequot Trails had been cut through the woods then, the writer we know as Mark Twain just might have ventured here from his Hartford home along with his friend, the Rev. Joseph Twichell, to take one of their famously long walks.

The seven miles of trails, developed on historic land by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, extend past the tribe’s museum and research center, along the edge of the historically and culturally important Great Cedar Swamp. Most of the trails are on level ground and easily navigated. For those up to it, a climb to the top of Lantern Hill will be rewarded with some great views from its 491-foot peak.

There are historical references to the hill back to 1653. It provided a vantage point for the Pequot sachem Sassacus to watch for approaching enemies.

In the War of 1812, it was also a lookout point known as Tarbarrel Hill. It took its name from the practice of hauling barrels of tar there and igniting them as a warning that enemy ships were approaching.

Later, portions of the hill were mined for its pure silica until the Pequots bought the property in 1996 and commenced a reclamation project.

Comprised of granite-gneiss bedrock with quartz deposits, the land was once part of Avalonia, a micro continent that started driving away from Africa about 500 million years ago. Sister formations can be found today in Africa and Newfoundland, Canada.

In telling the Connecticut story, we usually speak about the people who came here. This is an instance where “Connecticut” came to Connecticut. In more ways than one, this is a walk through the past as stimulating as it is fun for this is in a very real sense Connecticut in its natural state.

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The trails can be reached by following the pink paws on the ground from:

The Great Cedar Hotel lobby at Foxwoods;

The entrance to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center;

The parking lot at Two Trees Inn adjacent to Foxwoods on Route 214.

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Connecticut in its natural state is on display at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Torosaurus latus by Kim Zolvik

Torosaurus latus by Kim Zolvik

If your desire to see Connecticut in its natural state collides with the reality of limited time, too many other commitments, and high gas prices, then the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History would be a great place to visit. It’s all there.

The Peabody may be known for its pre-historic creatures, including the 21-foot life-size bronze statue of a Torosaurus latus  that greets visitors outside and impressive permanent exhibits and special showings inside.

Although small by comparison to the rest of the Peabody’s offerings, the display of Connecticut’s biodiversity is hard to beat.

Tucked away on the third floor between some engaging North American dioramas and adjacent to one on life in ancient Egypt, you will find Connecticut in all its natural beauty. You will see examples of 128 ecological community types, each with a distinctive combination of animals and plants.

There are the birds of Connecticut, insects and herpetology samples displayed in the exhibit. There’s the geology, with its colorful samples gleaming in the display cases. There’s even a meteorite display, and not just any old rock from outer space. This one was among the first recorded rocks that rained down on our part of the world. It fell to earth in 1807 in Weston Connecticut, leaving a ten-mile path of space debris in its wake.  The collected samples let you get an up-close look.  No Hubble telescope needed.

There’s even a section devoted to Connecticut’s Native American past, with a map, Circa 1625, whose features include sachemdoms, Indian trails and villages of the peoples who lived here before Connecticut was “discovered” by European settlers. 

Dioramas almost bring to life the state’s various regions. Displayed in eye-catching fashion are the significant variety of habitats Connecticut possesses, from the coastal salt marshes to the hardwood forests of the northwestern uplands.

Visiting the Peabody is an excellent way to explore nature before setting out to experience Connecticut’s natural history, all 3,000 sq. miles of it under one roof. _______________________________________________________________________________________

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History    

170 Whitney Ave.

New Haven, CT 06511

203-432-5050

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Talk About Getting Back to History’s Basics

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Taking in the natural beauty that helps define today’s Connecticut, it is difficult to imagine that this state was once covered by a mile of ice.  Granted, that ended something like 13,000 years ago– more than 4.7- million days back in time.

Certainly there’s been a lot of natural change since those frigid days, and thanks to the Audubon Society of Connecticut you can take in the major showcases of that change.

The Connecticut group, an independent organization, founded in 1898, has a major presence in locations around the state.

There are 19 Sanctuaries from Pomfret in the Northeast to Fairfield in the Southwest.

If that doesn’t quench your thirst for all things natural here, the Society has five Centers, including a museum, sprinkled all over the map.

You can start your journey to any of these locations right Here.

Connecticut River Museum in historic Essex Focuses on a New England Treasure

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(Photo:  Jody Dole)

If water could speak in a language we understood, what a tale the mighty Connecticut River could tell. For starters, it just might point out there are two significant anniversaries this year that involve it.

It might note that it is the largest river in New England, one that begins a 410-mile run to the open waters of Long Island Sound from modest beginnings in Pittsburg, New Hampshire, some 300 yards from the Canadian border.

It would tell about the history that has grown up around it, and if in an expansive mood, it might even point out that it is one of a few in the U.S. to have been designated an American Heritage River. The mighty Connecticut might even be coaxed into relating how the Nature Conservancy has named its tidelands one of the Western Hemisphere’s “40 Last Great Places.”  Well, maybe not since through history the Connecticut River has been content to let its actions speak for it.

Also speaking for it these days is the Connecticut River Museum in historic Essex. It is devoted to sharing the river’s past, present and future in colorful and interesting ways.

Visitors to the museum can learn about those important anniversaries: How in 1614 Adraien Block, the Dutch explorer, became the first European to map the river that runs right by the museum, and two hundred years later how the British during the War of 1812 came up the river in the dead of night and burned about two dozen American ships located at and near the what is now the museum site.

They can inspect a copy of the Turtle, the world’s first submarine documented to have been used in combat that was invented by David Bushnell of nearby Old Saybrook, and used in New York harbor during the Revolutionary War.

At different times of the year, museum visitors can cruise the Connecticut River on the historic schooner Mary E, enjoying the river’s natural beauty during the warm weather months and in February getting a look at the majestic bald eagles as they winter nearby.

Those and many other delights await visitors to the Connecticut River Museum.

It’s Been Called the Quarry that Built Boston and New York City

brownstone zip           Brownstone little boy

It’s fair to say that not too many recreational water parks are designated a National Historic Landmark, which places it on the National Register of Historic Places. Well, Connecticut has one and it is steeped in history.

Today, the site, located in Portland not far from the Connecticut River, is known as the Brownstone Exploration and Discovery Park  and it is a recreational facility.

But as far back as 1689, the site was used to quarry the distinctive reddish-brown sandstone that was used in landmark buildings in some of this country’s major cities, including the well known “Brownstones” that line street after street in New York City and elsewhere.

Commercial quarrying didn’t begin here until 1783.  At its peak, in the latter half of the 19th century, 1,500 workers were employed in the difficult and sometimes dangerous tasks.  The stone cut out of the ground there was found to contain the tracks of birds, dinosaurs.

U.S. Rep. John Larson made that latter point in a letter supporting the National Register application. Who knows, he may have heard that from his great grandfather who as an immigrant from Sweden worked in the quarry.

Today, it’s all about fun. The adventurous can zip line it over the water after climbing the 80-foot rock wall. There is scuba diving, or just chilling out on or near the water.

Thinking about the history that came out of the ground here is optional as you have fun on the water.

Connecticut State Museum of Natural History & Connecticut Archaeology Center

The Connecticut Museum of Natural History.

                                                                                        Photo: Peter Morenus UConn

This fascinating museum on the UCONN campus in Storrs is located just a long in-bound pass from Gampel Pavilion where UCONN basketball reigns supreme.

Although small in size, it uses a mix of tools, including video, in a series of story stations that relate the Connecticut experience, its people, its environment and how each affected the other.

There’s even a femur of a giant mastodon, a creature that became extinct some 10,000 years ago. There’s also a series of informative panels about archaeological digs that uncovered interesting aspects of our state’s past.

Visit and you will learn why Connecticut had no summer in 1816 and why stone walls that stitch the Connecticut landscape are only hip high.  Plus much more.