The Thames and its rivers: 'A narrow arm of the sea'

A recent aerial view of the Thames River looking toward Long Island Sound. A mere 15 miles in length from its mouth to the shores of Norwich, the Thames is actually an estuary, a span of brackish water that ebbs and flows with the tides.
A recent aerial view of the Thames River looking toward Long Island Sound. A mere 15 miles in length from its mouth to the shores of Norwich, the Thames is actually an estuary, a span of brackish water that ebbs and flows with the tides. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

The Thames is a river that helps shape our daily lives, but one we sometimes forget. This series will take you out on the river and introduce you to its people and places.

If the Thames River can be said to have a source, it would be the brown and shallow weed-choked pond tucked behind the Traveler Restaurant just off Interstate 84 in Union.

Too small to have a name on most maps, this pond, says Neil Provost, "is called Goodall."

Provost, a burly, gimlet-eyed man with a lot of iron in his beard, knows the pond and its seasons well. Just around the corner from the Traveler, his shingled house backs up on it.

"The people that have lived here all their life, 60 or 70 years, have really never caught anything in this water," he says. "Maybe some bass, maybe some, uh, what are they called? The monsters with the teeth? Pickerel."

As to the water itself, he says, "Once we've got a drought, you won't see it flowing no more. Then it'll drop about two feet, and then it's just nothing but a mudhole more or less."

Goodall, Goodall's or Goodhall Pond, depending on who you ask, that "mudhole more or less," is the source of the Quinebaug, the largest of the rivers in the Thames River watershed.

Turn back past the Traveler's towering sign - "FOOD and BOOKS" - cross the highway overpass, and you're looking at the first humble trickle of the Quinebaug into the Hamilton Reservoir across the Massachusetts line.

From there, the Quinebaug will grow, bending its way north and east to pass through Holland, Brimfield, Sturbridge, Southbridge and Dudley before crossing back into Connecticut, where it will end, in Norwich, by joining the Shetucket.

It is a reunion of sorts. The source of the Shetucket is not 200 yards from the Quinebaug's, across a narrow bridge of land dividing Goodall Pond from the broad and deep and ultramarine cold of the mile-and-a-half-long Mashapaug Pond.

A web of rivers

On their way down to the Thames, the two rivers will acquire tributaries: The French, whose headwaters begin at Town Meadow Brook in Leicester, Mass., joins the Quinebaug in Thompson, followed by the Little, the Five Mile, the Moosup and the Patchaug.

Meanwhile, the Hop, the Willimantic, the Fenton, the Mount Hope and the Natchaug feed the Shetucket. And lastly from the west, fed by its own network of brooks, comes the Yantic to the Thames.

This web of rivers comprises the Thames River Basin, a watershed that drains 1,478 square miles of land in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island into Long Island Sound.

Together, on a dry spring day such as this, the Yantic and the Shetucket pour into the Thames at the rate of some 10,000 gallons per second.

But for all the fresh water pouring into it, the Thames remains mostly salt. For the river is, in fact, no river. A mere 15 miles in length from its mouth to the shores of Norwich, the Thames is an estuary, a span of brackish water that ebbs and flows with the tides.

Or, as Benjamin Tinkham Marshall put it in 1922, in "A modern history of New London County, Connecticut, Volume 1," "The Thames is not so much of a river as a narrow arm of the sea, thrust far up inland as if to search for tributary streams."

To understand how that "narrow arm" was formed, and the courses of the rivers that feed it, you have to look deep, to the very bedrock beneath them. For it is that ancient stone that shaped them, that they, in turn, could shape us.

Indeed, were it not for the structure of our rocks and rivers, we likely would be white Yankee Protestants today. Eastern Connecticut wouldn't bristle with the spires of Catholic churches, nor would its towns and cities be the home of people of Irish, Scottish, French Canadian, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, Latvian and Puerto Rican descent.

Our geography has been our destiny.

Avalonia

Ask Janet Radway Stone how the Thames watershed was created and she smiles as she answers, "Other than by God?"

Stone, a research geologist with the Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., has mapped Connecticut's skeleton, its bedrock and its glacial till.

She stands before a billboard-sized copy of that map and traces a red line down from the northeastern corner of the state, a line that bends and turns to run, several miles inland, parallel to the shoreline, crossing the Thames around the Mohegan Sun and jogging down to the Connecticut River.

"This big fault here," she says, "is the Honey Hill fault, which is the boundary between the Avalonian continent and what was the North American continent."

Avalonia, she explains, was a small continent, "something like Australia is now … that got squished between the African-European continent and the North American continent when they came together" some 300 million years ago.

Then, when the continents separated, Avalon was torn in half. The other half of Avalonia can be found on the northeastern coast of Africa.

All that squishing and tearing created the faults that became the channels of the Thames and its rivers.

"Those rivers are in valleys that are in the bedrock," Stone says. "They are fractures and fault zones."

Big ice

Then, beginning about 2.5 million years ago, came the glaciers, the last of which reached Long Island about 22,000 years ago before beginning its retreat.

"At that time, the ice over Connecticut would have been at least a mile thick if not thicker," Stone says. "And, of course, it covered all of the northern half of North America."

The glaciers reshaped the landscape, but not in the way many people think. The ice did not gouge out the river beds; it filled them with sand and gravel.

"Don't think of it as a bulldozer plowing it," says Stone, "but, rather, the base of this huge ice sheet contained a lot of dirt that it had picked up as the glacier moved forward and then all that stuff is left behind, either by just dropping out or literally being smeared onto the bedrock surface as the ice is moving forward."

And, as the last glacier retreated, it left behind a freshwater lake in what is now Long Island Sound.

Since sea level at the time was 350 to 450 feet lower than it is today, there was a long distance between this lake and the sea. But, Stone says, the lake was like a bathtub, with one low corner, where water was leaking out. As the water leaked out, it carved that gap deeper and deeper.

That gap, of course, is what we now call The Race. And, when sea levels began to rise, it was the way by which the sea flooded into the Sound.

But even as the sea level rose, so did the land. As the immense weight of the ice that had pushed it down melted away, all of New England "popped up." And the whole of New England tilted, with the northernmost regions rising higher than the south.

The sea "came very quickly into Long Island Sound about 18,000 years ago, and it came almost up to what it is today," says Stone. "Then, gradually, that rate of the land popping back up again slowed down, and sea level continued to rise, so the sea level outpaced the rebound and the sea came in and drowned everything."

And so the Thames, which had been a freshwater river, became what geologists call a "drowned river valley," one swallowed by the rising level of the sea.

Liquid capital

Into this landscape came the earliest settlers from England, who found themselves faced with a forest primeval, filled with wolves and wildcats and Indians who didn't want to share their land.

The settlers first began carving a place for themselves on the western bank of the river in 1646. They called their settlement Pequot or Nameaug, and they called the river the Frisius, the Great, the Little Fresh, the Mohegan and the Pequod.

In 1658, the settlement took on the name New London, and the river became the Thames. The legislature, giving the new name its stamp of approval, noted that the settlement, sheltered as it was from the open sea, was "an excellent harbour and a fit and convenient place for future trade."

Indeed, what began as a plantation soon became a port. It wasn't long before all sorts of goods, including sugar, rum, molasses and slaves, were passing through New London.

Chief among those goods was whale oil.

According to Marshall's history of the county, New London's stake in whaling reached its peak in 1845, when out of 171 vessels anchored in the harbor, 78 were dedicated to the hunt for the whale.

The only port more heavily invested in the industry was New Bedford.

Records from those days show that, from 1820 to 1851, whalers brought 765,432 barrels of whale oil and 110,980 barrels of sperm oil into New London.

You can get a rough sense of the value of that trade from the records for 1851, when the ships brought in 67,508 barrels of whale oil and 2,914 barrels of sperm oil. The value of those imports was estimated at $1,109,410, roughly equivalent to $32 million today, a lot of liquid capital to invest in other ventures.

The mills

As New London was becoming a thriving port, settlers were moving upriver, settling Norwich in 1659, and, following the rivers north, clearing the land to farm, and using the rivers to power their gristmills and sawmills.

But when, in 1793, Samuel Slater built the first successful water-powered textile mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, R.I., he changed everything. Soon, mills were being built on rivers large and small.

According to U.S. Census records, in 1810 there were just four mills in Connecticut. Ninety years later, the 1900 census reported, "The cotton mills of the state are clustered on the streams that flow into the Thames at Norwich. In Norwich, Thompson, Putnam, Plainfield, Killingly, and Windham are located more than seven-tenths of all the cotton spindles in Connecticut."

Indeed, state tax records show, there were more than 100 textile mills on the rivers of eastern Connecticut.

And the money to build them came from shipping, says Jamie H. Eves, assistant professor of history in residence at the University of Connecticut and collections manager for the Windham Textile & History Museum in Willimantic.

"The shipping industry: That was where the money came from," says Eves. "The shippers created the wealth, and an awful lot of that was the slave trade."

But, beyond the capital, there was the landscape itself.

"When I try to explain why the Industrial Revolution began here and not in the South, there are two main reasons," says Eves. "One of them is the liquid capital was here, the money. The other reason is this is where the energy source is, here in New England, thanks to the glaciers, the hills and the abundant water power."

Why not build the cotton mills in the South? Eves asks. Because between the hills and the seaports there is a long coastal plain. There is no "drop" in the rivers close to the sea. And it's not the size of the river but its "drop" that is key to powering a mill.

"The Industrial Revolution came to the small rivers, not to the big ones," Eves says. "You had to have drop. The Willimantic River dropped more than 90 feet in less than a mile. It's the drop that creates the power, the little rivers that came down the narrow rocky gorges," gorges created by the faults in the bedrock that had, with the passing of the glaciers, risen up from the sea.

And the fact that these gorges were so close to the sea, that you could ship cotton up the Thames to Norwich and, from there, carry it by horse and wagon up the rivers to the mills, made transportation cheap and convenient. It only got better when they started building railroads to link the mills to the Thames.

"The railroad came in as the result of industrialization," says Eves. "You've got to bring in vast amounts of cotton. Here in eastern Connecticut, the two major ports were Norwich and Providence."

Ships would bring the raw materials up the Thames to Norwich, where they would be taken by rail to the mills, then the rails would bring the finished products - cotton, mostly, but wool, silk and linen cloth and thread as well - back to the Thames, from where they could be shipped all over the world.

The color of the day

As the mills multiplied, so did the need for cheap labor. From the beginning, that meant children. Slater employed children as young as 7 in his mill at the start. And the first mill owners in Connecticut would employ whole families, hiring farmers, their wives and their children.

Soon, as the need for workers outstripped the local supply, the ships were importing something besides raw materials: workers, refugees, the dispossessed from all over the world. They came in waves, beginning with Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine.

"In Willimantic alone there were 26 different immigrant groups who moved to the mills," Eves says, "in succession, one group after another, until in the mill towns the immigrants or their children made up the majority of the population."

From 1860 to 1920, census data shows, the number of foreign-born residents in Windham and New London counties increased by 61 percent. Statewide, the population of foreign-born residents increased even more, from 80,556 in 1860, to 376,513 in 1920.

"One of the things I learned here is that most of my students here are overwhelmingly Catholic," says Eves, the UConn professor. "That wouldn't have been the case without the mills, because so many of those immigrants came from Quebec or Puerto Rico or Catholic countries in Europe."

At the height of it all, when the mills dominated the landscape, they, in turn, reshaped the rivers, not just with dams and sluiceways and great water wheels, but by dumping everything from human waste to dyes into the rivers.

People who've lived all their lives in Willimantic say that you used to be able to tell what day of the week it was by the color of the river.

"They would start with the lighter color dyes in the beginning of the week," says Eves, "and then go dark."

Links to the Thames River:

The maximum tidal range of the Thames is moderate: 4.95 feet in Norwich and 4.16 feet in New London. If you'd like to check on the tide, as well as the wind speed, air pressure and air and water temperatures, go to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's site:
http://tidesonline.nos.noaa.gov/geographic.html

Another way to check the water temperature, both on the surface and near the bottom, along with the salinity and dissolved oxygen levels in the water, is to look at the University of Connecticut's Department of Marine Sciences' Thames River station monitor. The monitor is located just north of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and transmits new data every 15 minutes. www.mysound.uconn.edu/thameslo_wq.html

The U.S. Geological Survey's Connecticut Water Science Center in East Hartford monitors streamflow at dozens of stations on rivers throughout the state. To see how much water is flowing in the Yantic, the Shetucket or the Quinebaug at any given moment, go to:
www.waterwatch.usgs.gov/?m=real&r=ct&w=map

Want to do some history? For example, to see what the streamflow was during the big flood in March? Go here: www.waterdata.usgs.gov/ct/nwis/current/?type=flow

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