A little Mystic history will slip away

When I first heard of plans to remove the remains of a rotting barge from a shore of the Mystic River, I felt a small pang, a loss.

No doubt this was from the romantic in me, the one who can let charm and nostalgia trump decay and disintegration.

I remember, not long ago, coming upon a little house on a back street in an old New England whaling town that was completely overgrown by branches and vines.

An older gentleman, who I took to be the owner of the house, was out on the sidewalk, using an electric trimmer to gingerly neaten up and cut back some of the ends of branches of the enormous vines and roots that were clearly growing right through the house.

The house was adorable, its owner either a proud romantic or in total denial.

Now take a dilapidated building and put it on the water and you've really got the makings for romance.

Mystic of the 1970s had some of this kind of irreplaceable charm, sunken wrecks, houseboats and derelict barges along the waterfront, before waterfront property became so expensive. In the old days, incredibly, people sometimes just let waterfront houses go ramshackle.

Some of the last remnants of decaying waterfronts around here are along the Thames River, in Norwich and New London. In New London, the little piece of Fort Trumbull that wasn't torn down, where you can still tie up a boat to a tilting, rotting dock and then sail it out past a landmark known as Junk Island, littered with, well, junk.

But the part of me that is not a romantic can happily report that the cleanup of the barge on the Mystic River is a good thing.

In fact, it's a nice story, one that involves a lot of community spirit and pride, volunteerism and generosity.

It turns out the barge that will be removed soon has long since passed from the charm stage to a nuisance period.

The organization dedicated to cleaning up Fishers Island Sound and its many coves, inlets, harbors and rivers, Clean Up Sound and Harbors (CUSH,) has encountered up and down the river big pieces of the barge, which has been lodged on the bank of the river so long it is deteriorating and breaking up.

It's about a third shorter than it used to be, and pieces of it floating in the river have become a hazard to navigation.

It is located behind the parking lot for an ice cream stand on Route 27, just north of Mystic Seaport. The fence that has been erected to keep trespassers off also blocks a pretty spectacular view of the Seaport and the river for passers-by.

Removing the remains of the barge, spearheaded by CUSH, is no easy task. A survey was done to make sure it is in the public waterway. A removal plan had to be devised and permits obtained from the town and state.

Local dock design and dredging companies have agreed to donate a lot of time and effort for the project. Surrounding property owners, including the seaport, have donated to the effort. The harbormaster has taken part and signed off.

The project, which must be completed before spring, will cost, even with all the donated work, about $13,000. A big part of that has been raised, with Mystic businesses that depend on boating and tourism contributing.

Another $4,000 or so is still needed, and CUSH will welcome donations of any amount, either through Paypal, on their website, cushinc.org, or by mail: P.O. Box 883, Stonington, CT 06378.

It's a little easier for the romantic in me to see a charming old derelict barge go away, since it has no name that no one knows of.

There is also no clear history that anyone has been able to pin down - how it got to where it is or exactly when it sank. One lore in town is that someone dressed as Santa Claus used to board the barge every year at Christmas and hand out presents to kids.

It was used as a dock for a while. There were some plans, never realized, to make it into a restaurant.

But that was a long time ago.

CUSH plans to hold a ceremony sometime soon to mark the removal of the old barge.

I expect at least a few politicians will turn up, even if there is no shovel in the ground or ribbon to cut.

Who would miss a barge raising?

This is the opinion of David Collins

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