Old roads recall forgotten stories

My mother wasn’t pleased when Main Street in New London was renamed Eugene O’Neill Drive in 1972. She admired the playwright but thought that the 1938 Hurricane and urban renewal had made more than enough changes to the city she loved. Mom might not have known that, very early in New London’s history, Main Street was simply called Town Street.

For better or worse, lots of roads undergo name changes and sometimes completely disappear. Even boundaries that look so permanent on a map can be squiggly things that move around.

For example, Lyme separated from Saybrook in 1665, when their boundary was established by an agreement known as “The Loving Parting.” A little later, a less than loving parting occurred between Niantic and New London (an area now within Waterford), when men with pitchforks and scythes disagreed about haying on disputed land. The issue was whether Bride Brook or the Niantic River should be the border between the two areas, and it took several years, a legal opinion from Hartford, and, according to some sources, a fistfight to finally settle the matter.

The boundary between Rhode Island and Connecticut was a bone of contention for years because an 1840 survey of the border was flawed, with the result that some houses were built straddling the state line. The old survey holds the weight of custom, but the issue isn’t forgotten. As recently as 1997, The New York Times published an article about it, in which a North Stonington town official joked that the size of a resident’s tax bill might depend on which side of her house she slept in.

Roads can be as fickle as boundaries. I grew up in Old Mystic on a road originally referred to as the Road to Mystic Bridge. While I lived there, letters reached my family addressed to Old Mystic Road, Whitehall Avenue, Greenmanville Avenue Extension (which I think was wrong, but it worked), and sometimes just plain Route 27.

Plenty of local roads have had multiple personalities. In New London, for instance, Coit Street used to be Cove Street before landfill relocated the waterfront. Jefferson Avenue was originally known as New Street and then Cape Ann Lane, when building lots were laid out for the Rev. Blinman and his followers, who moved here from Gloucester. Before State Street received its current and presumably permanent name, it was variously known as Fort Hill, Church Street, Broad Street, King Street, Congress Street, and Captain’s Walk, showing flexibility with the changing times.

Other towns offer examples, too. In North Stonington, Pendleton Hill Road used to be Pauchunganuc Hill. Long ago, according to legend, an Indian was hunting for game when he spotted a flock of geese flying overhead. His first arrow hit the lead goose, who fell from the sky, honking wildly, “Pong-hong-gong-noc! Pong-hong-gong-noc!” The boulder the young man had been standing on, as well as the general area, became known as “Pauchunganuc” in imitation of the bird’s death cry. In 1842, an unsentimental government postal official found the name too hard to spell and renamed the road Pendleton Hill, after the town’s postmaster.

Waterford’s former town historian, the late Margaret Stacy, once wrote an article about Clam Lane, a byway that connected Chesterfield, West Farms (Waterford), the Lakes Pond District, and Niantic. She believed that it was the oldest road in Waterford and that it derived its name from the abundance of clam shells strewn along its path. Stacy’s essay evoked images of Indians and colonists snacking on nature’s bounty as they walked home after a day of clamming in Niantic.

Clam Lane has vanished, but once upon a time, not so long ago, it was real, and real people like you and me enjoyed the pleasure of a leisurely commute along a woodland path bathed in golden summer sunlight.

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