Residents of the Lower Housatonic Valley are lucky to have access to three good, local nature centers right in our own back yards. These are great places to visit whether you want to go for walk, wear out your kids, or just sit and read a book. One is operated by the state, one by a town, and one by a private organization so they offer their own unique aspect of the river valley for the public. There are also links to other nature centers around the state that cover aspects of the river environment, local tourism information, and local history museums in the area.
There is a fine book by Carol F. Henshaw titled Natural Wonders of Connecticut & Rhode Island; A Guide to Parks, Preserves & Wild Places, 1995, Country Roads Press; that has a nice description of all three centers. This is unusual because most writers overlook this area in favor of Litchfield County or eastern Connecticut. The book covers other parks within the upper watershed and is well worth the $10 purchase price.
The Ansonia Nature and Recreation Center is located in the northeastern corner of Ansonia. A local family donated their 104 acre farm to the Town in the 70's and since then the town has managed the land for multiple uses including: a soccer field, softball field, baseball diamond, tot playground and the nature center. The nature center is an octogon-shaped building that is set up as a cozy location for school field trips. My son Ryan (4 years old) gave me a tour through the center when we visited (he had been there on a field trip recently). They have stuffed animals, terrariums, trees, birds, and a bee hive with real bees (Ryan was real excited to show me that). The center has a maze of trails (about 2 1/2 miles worth) through the open meadows, upland woods, swamps, and around the pond.
Currently the Friends of the Ansonia Nature Center, Inc. are constructing a new building called the Red Wing Pond House which will house a children's learning center, among other things. The new building is being constructed by volunteers including Town employees and students from O'Brien & Platt Tech Schools. DiGiorgi Roofing and Siding Company recently took a day out and completed the roof before the winter arrives - all volunteer! The Friends are still seeking about $75,000 in donations (tax deductible) to complete construction, call 203-736-9360 for information. There are also plans to add about 45 acres of neighboring watershed property that is being sold by Birmingham Utilities.
The Center is one of about 20 places around the Lower Naugatuck Valley where computers for public access to the Internet are available, free of charge. The Electronic Valley is a community offshoot of United Way and is trying to improve the quality of life in the Valley by improving communication and making town facilities more accessable. Be on the lookout for an upcoming web site by the Center.
Upcoming Events (call 203- 736-9360 for information):
Access: You have to drive through residential neighborhoods in order to reach the center but there are several signs along the way; take Rt. 243 (aka Pulaski Highway or Ansonia Road), go north on Benz Street, right on Ford St. then left again on Benz Street, right on Milan Road and veer left up the hill (this is Deerfield Lane) at the big nature center sign.
Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center at Milford Point is located on the barrier beach at the mouth of the river overlooking the Sound and Nells Island. The Center is owned by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and leased to the Connecticut Audubon Society who manage and operate the building. The 8 acre site used to be an old hotel which was removed in 1995 to construct the Center. This is one of the best places on the river to observe wildlife because the main building is elevated on piles (for floodproofing) with a wrap-around porch and a 70 foot high observation tower. There is also an observation deck overlooking the marsh and a boardwalk onto the beach.
Inside the center offers great views overlooking the salt marsh through large windows and spotting scopes. The 840 acre marsh is part of the Wheeler Wildlife Management Area and is one of the largest marshes on Long Island Sound. The marsh is heavily used by waterfowl and shorebirds during migration along the Atlantic Flyway. The center also contains an exhibit area, classrooms, a 3-D puzzle of the entire Housatonic River watershed and a tidal marsh touch tank for the kids.
The Center sponsers interns during the summer months to do research on wildlife, including shore birds such as the Piping Plover, an endangered species which nests on Milford Point and Short Beach in Stratford. Please avoid disturbing the areas fenced off for the shore birds during the nesting season.
There is a small fee for using the Coastal Center, but access to the landscaped grounds are free. The grounds are open sunrise to sunset. The Center is open Tues.- Sat. from 10-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m..
Upcoming Events (for further information and fees call Liz Gay at (203)-878-7440):
Access: Naugatuck Avenue to Milford Point Road, the Center is at the end of the road. Please drive slowly past the densely packed beach cottages, park at the Center on the right and avoid going down the driveway to the last few houses on the Point.
The Connecticut Audubon Society is headquartered at 118 Oak Street, Hartford, Connecticut 06106, (860) 527-8737. There are several other nature centers and regional chapters located around the state.
Kellogg Environmental Center is located within Osbornedale State Park in Derby on the hillside above the Housatonic River. The 350 acre Osbornedale State Park was donated to the State by Frances Osborne Kellogg in 1956. The park is one of the most chaming and least crowded parks in the state with hiking trails, open fields, restrooms, 2 ponds, picnic areas, and other features. The park is big enough to let kids explore nature and run around, or leave the kids at home and enjoy some peace and quiet.
I highly recommend visiting the several outstanding websites written by the Derby Parks and Recreation Department about the Center, the park, and the Osborne Homestead Museum. They are so jam-packed with information that it would be redundent for me to repeat it. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection also has the DEP Kellogg & Osbornedale web site.
The Center has a display on local history, birds, an indoor pool, a concession stand for field guides, and some scenic outdoor gardens. The Center is one of only two in the state that is staffed with naturalists year round who present educational workshops for teachers and the public.
Upcoming Events, contact them at (203) 734-2513 for information:
Access: For Osbornedale State Park take Rt. 34 north to Cedric Avenue, take a right onto Hawthorne Avenue, then left onto Chatfield Street (this is the main access at Pickett's Pond. To get to the Kellogg Environmental Center and Osborne Homestead Museum take a left from Cedric Avenue from Hawthorne Avenue (the entrance for them is on the opposite side of the park from the main entrance and there are no thru roads).
In addition to the above local nature centers there are several very good attractions in the surrounding region that I think are worth visiting if you're interested in the River. Also check the Parks & Attractions page for more information on local parks:
The Electronic Valley publishes the Arts & Recreation Guide for a variety of attractions throughout the Lower Naugatuck Valley. The Electronic Valley is creating a searchable index of upcoming events that you'll find helpful.
The Norwalk Maritime Aquarium in South Norwalk has great displays about the life of Long Island Sound. There is a section on salt marshes, and a series of tanks showing fish found at different depths in the Sound. There's also a touch tank for the kids, along with otters, seals, and the shark tank. The Aquarium is planning a major expansion in 1998-99 so there should be more good things to come. The Aquarium located at 10 Water Street is one of the main reasons that SoNo is undergoing an urban revival along the harbor. Try to visit some of the nearby attractions including restaurants, The Small Boat Shop, and Veteran's Park. Call (203) 852-0700 for information.
Beardsley Zoo, 1875 Noble Avenue, Bridgeport has undergone extensive renovations in the last couple of years and is really improved, particularly in exhibits for children. They've got a number of exhibits on small animals and reptiles found in the area in addition to the larger, exotic animals. The recently restored carosel is also a treat for kids (and sometimes for the adults). There is convenient access off Exit 5 of Route 8, call (203) 394-6565 for information.
Connecticut River Museum in Essex is dedicated to preserving the history of the Connecticut River and it's maritime heritage. It would make a good destination for a day trip, particulary if coupled with a cruise along the Connecticut River.
Mystic Seaport in Mystic is a recreation of a 19th century harborfront. They have a tremendous website with a lot of information if you're planning a day trip to eastern Connecticut.
There are almost an infinite number of restaurants, parks, and attractions around the area. The Lower Housatonic River falls on the boundaries of several tourism and planning agencies so I've included links in case you want to explore what's available in the neighboring towns:
The Greater Bridgeport Business Council also has a listing of Area Attractions for Stratford, Bridgeport, Monroe and the surrounding area.
The Guide to the Upper Housatonic Valley contains links and listings of attractions around upper Fairfield, Litchfield, and Hartford Counties. You can also visit the Housatonic Valley Tourism Office for more information.
The Greater New Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau has a large guide to area events, attractions, and nature centers for Milford, Orange, Shelton, Derby, Ansonia and the remainder of the New Haven area.
There are a number of local history museums in the area that are usually run by volunteers who maintain and open the buildings for the public. For those interested in history, they offer a view of how our communities evolved along the River:
Ansonia has a number of historical buildings in downtown and the Derby Historical Society has developed a Walking Tour of the Historical District for those interested.
Boothe Memorial Park, Main Street -Putney in Stratford. A 30 acre park with historic buildings, a museum, and picnic areas. The museum contains a number of old farming tools (pre-diesel), and there is a recreation of a blacksmith's shop. The grounds, particularly the flower gardens, are picturesque. Call (203) 381-2046 for information.
The Derby Historical Society, 37 Elm St., Ansonia Ct. 06401 (203) 735-1908 maintains the David Humphreys House along with two other historical houses. They offer a varity of exhibits, school programs, and workshops.
Osborne Homestead Museum;Derby; is a museum describing the history of the the Osborne family and their dairy farm. The family donated Osbornedale State Park to the state.
Shelton History Center, 70 Ripton Road, Shelton, CT 06484 is maintained by the Shelton Historical Society, Margaret Coughlin; pres. (203) 929-7963. They sponsor periodic events throughout the year. In addition, there is a Shelton History page by Bonnie Schultie on her Spirit of Shelton web site.
There are some books available in local libraries that detail the founding and evolution of the towns along the river. Some that make interesting, (and some times amusing) readings are:
Howell, Kenneth T. & Einar W. Carlson, Empire over the Dam, The Pequot Press, Chester, Connecticut, 1974. This is a history of the waterpowered industries that flourished in Litchfield County, particularly around Washington, from colonial days to 1900. Believe it or not, Litchfield County was once one of the country's leading iron producing areas. This book gives a lot of background information about a number of old mill dams along the Shepaug, Bantam, and East Branch Aspetuck Rivers.
Smith, Chard Powers, The Housatonic - Puritan River, Rinehart & Company, Inc. New York, N.Y., 1946. This is an old book that is available in the reference areas of many local libraries that describes the settlements of the various towns along the Housatonic River. It's dry but kind of funny because a number of the towns evolved either from various Puritan groups that couldn't get along together so they moved upriver (no current parallels) or from traders that wanted to get the indians drunk and take advantage of them during trading (the opposite of today's scene at Foxwoods).
Send comments to Terrance Gallagher