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Madison's Historic Trails

Within the boundaries of Madison lie many trails with links to Madison's industrial and agricultural history. Many of these trails are maintained by the Madison Land Conservation Trust (MLCT), which has purchased these open-space properties for the use and enjoyment of all citizens. Other trails are on town-owned land or Cockaponsett State Forest land.

Some trails cross private property, and the owners of these properties have generously opened limited portions of their property for public use. These easements and rights-of-way deserve---indeed require--our respect. When walking these trails, please stay on the marked blue-blazed trails to avoid trespassing on private portions. Respect the forests and meadows, the rivers, streams, and marshes, the trails themselves, and other hikers. Please stay off any walls or ruins that you may find. Keep dogs leashed, and pack out all your trash. Be sure to "take only memories and leave only footprints."

The trails are open dawn to dusk year-round. Please use caution on all trails; wear proper footgear (sneakers or hiking boots) and consider carrying drinking water. A whistle or a flashlight can also be helpful.

The blue-blazed trail system is used on all of the MLCT-managed trails described below. Wooden signs mark the trailheads of MCLT-owned trails. Trails that are not on MLCT property but are maintained by the MLCT are also marked with an aluminum sign at the trailhead that identifies the trail as a Trust trail.

Paper Mill Trail

View of water running over stones at the Papermill Trail.

Tucked alongside the banks of the Hammonasset River, not far from the edge of Green Hill Road, lies a little-known portal to Madison’s past. On property owned and maintained by the Madison Land Conservation Trust, the Papermill Trail begins at the eastern side of Fawn Brook Circle, just yards north of its junction with Green Hill Road.

Through a sun-dappled forest dominated by beech and oak, this mostly easy blue-blazed trail winds past the ruins of a paper mill that once harnessed the power of the Hammonasset River. Now the river slides lazily by this site, close by the Green Hill Road Bridge.

In the nineteenth century, sometime around 1865, a stone dam was built here, creating a huge lake of sorts within this upper portion of the Hammonasset River. The collected water was then directed through a narrow stone sluice, which created the energy to turn iron turbines within the wooden mill building.

Local farmers sold straw to the owners of the Cooper Paper Mill, and steam-powered machinery processed this raw material into a pulp. The pulp was pressed out into large sheets of coarse “strawboard” that was primarily used to manufacture shipping boxes for other industries. This product, according to research noted by the Madison Conservation Land Trust, was commonly used in the period between the earlier era of rag-based papers and later papers made from wood pulp.

At one time, the steep south-facing embankment to the north of the trail edge, just above the ruins, was apparently used as a drying area for the huge rolls of damp paper that came off the presses. Historic records indicate that a drying house was here as well.

According to documents at the Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives, records of the 1880 U.S. Census reveal that eight local men worked at the mill in that year. Zenas Cooper is listed as a paper manufacturer; Ralph Goddard is listed as a paper seller; and George Brannan, Pat Corrigan, William Cranker, Carelton Grave, and Joseph and Warren Ackley are recorded as employees.  

The mill closed around 1890. Sometime after the turn of the twentieth century, its machinery was removed and sold. Beams and siding from the wooden mill building were recycled in the construction of two cottages built on Middle Beach Road. The stone dam was partially removed, and the huge millpond drained downriver toward Long Island Sound.

Today, this mill site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Much of the stone headrace (the sluice that directed water into the mill) remains apparent on the eastern bank of the river, in Madison. Some fieldstone footings are apparent; these are imbedded with some threaded iron rods, which may have supported machinery.

Also remaining on the Madison side are parts of the tailrace, through which water was conveyed away from the industrial site after use. Two deep pits indicate where paper pulp vats may have been located in two mill buildings. On the western side, in Killingworth, a good portion of the dam and other stonework remain. The dam remnants are 14 feet high, 20 feet long, and six feet wide.

When the paper mill closed, this site was used for a lumber operation, and the old stonewalls that lace the second-growth woodlands here indicate that this area was at one time cleared land, used for pasture or agriculture. The Papermill Trail continues past a small pebbly beach at the riverside, which provides access for anglers and waders, and then winds for another mile or so into the woods along the river. Along this route, hikers can imagine the tranquil millpond in this wide-spreading flood-plain area of the river.

Here too are new dams created by Madison’s very busy resident beavers. A large beaver lodge is a highlight of a journey along this path, as are the evident logging activities of these industrious creatures. Mallards nest in the marshy shallows of the floodplain at the river bend, and other native and migratory bird life is abundant. An observation point on a short loop trail, which traces the knob of the mostly red-cedar uplands, offers some great river views—from late autumn to early spring, at least. Some large sycamores tower at the riverbank, and in spring, the wildflower display is lovely.

Directions: From Durham Road (Route 79) in Madison, head east 1.6 miles on Green Hill Road, traveling 1. miles, toward Killingworth, to Fawn Brook Circle. Take a left onto Fawn Brook and park at the side of the road immediately after that turn. A white Madison Land Conservation Trust sign marks the trailhead. Google map

Bog Iron Works

A short walk with several moderate climbs and descents, this 1.7-mile trail leads through meadows, rocky hogback ridges, and valley bottom lands to the foundation of a bog iron works dating from the late 1700s or early 1800s. In the late 1700s, Henry Hill, Joseph Pyncheon, and Medad Stone acquired a four-acre mill site on Joshua Blatchley’s farm and ran a sawmill there for a few years before converting it to a small iron works.

Bog iron ore is an impure deposit of ferric hydroxide that forms when iron-bearing groundwater emerges from the woodlands as a spring and meets the oxic environment at the surface of ponds, swamps, or bogs. The iron-rich water of these shallow waterways and wetlands are also saturated with organic acids from the great amount of decaying woodland vegetation. These acids and fixing bacteria percolate down into the lower layers of mud and soil, leach out the soluble iron, and bring it to the surface. The reddish-brown iron-ore deposits collect in layers at the banks of these wetlands or form smallish round clumps ranging in size from a quarter-inch to two inches or more in diameter. The iron ore is collected and washed, and then is fired in a charcoal-fueled forge hearth at an iron works. The hearth at the Old Iron Works site was fairly petite.

According to Madison’s Trails: A Guide to Their Use and Enjoyment, it was “about three feet square and 1.5 to 2 feet deep, with an open top.” The forge building was 16’ x 30’, with a charcoal house next to it, about 14’ x 22’. Probably powered by an overshot wheel about 10’ x 4’ wide, the nearby mill had a large bellows and a heavy trip hammer and anvil.

As described in Madison’s Trails, “[i]n operation, the charcoal-fired forge reached high temperature aided by a continuous blast of cold air from the waterwheel-powered bellows.” Fed directly into the 2600- to 2700-degree fire after being washed, the raw ore was separated from the silicon-based impurities that melted away and formed a liquid slag. The molten slag was raked off or otherwise drawn away from the iron ore. After about six hours in the fire, the small clumps of raw iron were spongy enough to form a larger, malleable mass that would then be formed into bars by use of a drop hammer. Bog iron was widely used in the New England colonies during the Revolutionary War period to make ammunition and armaments.

From the trailhead, hikers will travel 0.8 mile through meadow, second-growth hickory-oak forest, swamp, and ridges. Just past a stream 0.3 mile from the trailhead, the trail splits, and hikers should go north (to the right). Pass some vernal pools (visibly wet in the springtime) and ascend and descend several ridges. Keep to the blue blazes, passing the junction of a loop to the left that heads back to the trailhead. Continue north, using a step-stone crossing over a stream that later joins the Iron Stream and go onward to the site of the old smelter works and dam site, where the trail ends. Retrace the path to return to the junction. Hikers may choose to return along the same route, or, for variety, take the loop trail back to the trailhead.

Directions: From the traffic circle at Routes 79 and 80, travel 1.2 miles west on Route 80 to Race Hill Road. Travel north on Race Hill Road 0.6 mile to the trailhead on the left, just south of the small red horse barn near the base of the hill. Park off the road near the stone wall. Cross the stone wall into the meadow and walk about 600 feet on the path that runs parallel to the stone wall. The stone wall will be on your left; a fence will be on your right. At the southwest corner of the meadow, enter the woods and follow the blue-blazed trail. Round trip, it should take about 1.5 to 2 hours to walk the trail. Follow the blue blazes closely, as several trails and logging roads are in the same area. The trail can be muddy, so plan your footwear for the weather. Google Map

Rockland Preserve

North Madison’s Rockland Preserve, a large tract of woodland with several miles of trails, includes many sites used in the production of charcoal. The charcoal pits now appear as circular open areas, 30 to 40 feet in diameter, with somewhat blackened soil characterized by small remnant chunks of charcoal. In Rockland, a few crude stone fireplaces are nearby some of these vestigial pits, and near one or two of these are some crusted fragments of iron kettles or stoves that allude to the rustic life of the workers who labored here.

Historically, wood charcoal was used in the production of gunpowder and glass, but its primary use was as a fuel, because it burns both cleaner and hotter than ordinary firewood—and is less smoky. Widely used by blacksmiths, charcoal was also used for smelting iron in Connecticut’s bog iron hearths and blast furnaces, but it was replaced, for the latter purpose, by coke during the Industrial Revolution.

Approximately forty cords of hardwood—often oak, beech or hickory—would be harvested from a single acre of forest. Preferably, it was harvested early in the year or in the previous autumn so that it could age and dry. The best weather conditions for charcoal production were dry days with little wind, so the process was usually done from late spring through early autumn. Trimmed to 3- to 4-foot lengths and often further split into 1- to 4-inch widths called lapwood or smaller pieces called billets, the wood was transported by cart to a broad, open area of the forest work site. The soil in this area, which was sometimes called a hearth or a kiln, was leveled and slightly mounded—kind of like the pitcher’s mound in a baseball diamond. A ring of dirt surrounded the burn area, and leaves were piled outside of that.

The wood was stacked systematically, often on end, in a dome-shaped or conical pile that might be 10 to 14 feet high and 20- to 50-feet wide. The clearings that remain evident in the Rockland area are about 40 feet in diameter. Each pile had some means of controlling the flow of air to the fire, usually through a shaft or flue of sorts, constructed with wood around a center pole, or fagan. According to an article entitled “Fuel For The Fires: Charcoal Making in the Nineteenth Century,” in the Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association (June 1994), on the day of a firing, the pile would be covered with leaves and 1-3 inches of soil or sod. The central “chimney” was then filled with kindling to within a foot of the opening, and the pile was "charged" by dropping burning charcoal into the chimney and covering the opening with a "bridgen" of three billets. For the burn to proceed properly, the heat needed to spread downward and out, and the amount of oxygen needed to be controlled carefully so that the “fire” (but no flames) would spread outward gradually—very gradually. Charcoal production was a slow process: Depending on the amount and type of wood in each pile, the burns might continue for three to ten days or even up to two weeks.

The work was completed under continually monitored conditions. For this reason, the collier and a work crew stayed on site throughout the burn. They constructed shed-like shelters or huts for temporary housing, and they built roughly made stone fireplaces for warmth and cooking purposes. The collier was often monitoring numerous burns. (Several burn sites have been identified at Rockland.) He had to ensure that the wood became slowly charred, creating a solid byproduct that was nearly all carbon.

Uncontrolled burning or “blowouts” would reduce the woodpile to ash. If blowouts occurred, the dirt remaining in the surrounding ring was used to seal them. A collier judged the progress of the work by the color of the smoke produced at the pit. White smoke signified a good, slow burn; black smoke indicated that the fire was too hot and that the pile could catch fire, which would produce ash. In his effort to control the heat of the pile, the collier often had to cut or dig holes at various spots to ensure proper air flow.

Sometimes, especially in the first 24 hours of the burn, the collier had to “jump the pile,” which meant climbing atop the smoldering mound to compact the wood and thus ensure an even burn. He also looked for "hot spots”—areas of weakness in the covering of the mound. This dangerous process required the collier to mount a ladder against the pile and poke the mound with a pole, looking for soft spots where too much air could enter or too much ash could be created.

Salvatore Rossi atop charcoal wood pile, Rockland, CT

As the burn continued, workers used long-tined rakes to remove charcoal from the top and edges of the mound. Dirt from the surrounding ring was added to the mound to cover the raked spots, and the burn went on. Depending on both wood type and burn conditions, the average yield of a typical mound was 35 to 45 bushels of charcoal per cord of wood. As the charcoals cooled, they were loaded onto wagons, and later they were delivered to nearby forges, furnaces, and other customers.

Directions: From the Boston Post Road in Madison, take Route 79 north, past the Route 80 roundabout. The historic Rockland area centers on the Route 79 junction with County Road. The Rockland Preserve has two entrances. Take Route 79 to Dorset Lane, in the Northridge subdivision. Turn west onto Dorset Lane; then turn right on Devonshire Lane, and then turn right on Renee's Way. The Preserve parking area is at the end of Renee's Way. Another entrance, with a large parking area, is on the western side of Route 79, across from Samantha Lane, which is on the eastern side of Route 79. Maps of the Preserve are available at the trailheads and at the Madison Town Hall, Beach and Recreation Department (203.245.5623). Google Map

Credits: In addition to the above-mentioned article from the Chronicle of the Early Industries Association, this story relies in part on research recorded on the Town of Madison website, Rockland Preserve.

Resources: For more information, consult the Madison Land Conservation Trust’s publication, Madison’s Trails: A Guide to Their Use and Enjoyment, available at R. J. Julia Booksellers and at the E. C. Scranton Memorial Library.

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