Down by the riverside

The annual New London Neighborhood Day celebration took place in Riverside Park last May. This event, which occurs on the Sunday just before Memorial Day, was instituted by former mayor Daryl Finizio and is hosted by The Riverside Park Conservancy. I’m sorry I missed it, because this park meant a lot to my mother, Elizabeth. It was a short walk from her cottage on Grove Street, and as a little girl she spent many happy hours there.

The city established the park for the public’s enjoyment in 1893. By 1910, it had expanded significantly, thanks to the generosity of some of the area’s most successful men: Elisha and Edward Palmer, mill owners and Civil War veterans; Sebastian Lawrence, president of the National Whaling Bank; and U.S. Senator from New London, Frank Brandagee.

Elizabeth played there between 1914 and 1920, years before the Coast Guard Academy became a neighbor. She remembered how popular the park was for swimming, outdoor games, fireworks displays, and viewing the Yale-Harvard Regatta. Families picnicked under beautiful chestnut trees, which had not yet been struck by a devastating blight. Kids gathered the abundant nuts for their own immediate consumption and for their mothers to bake in delicious pastries.

Among all the good times, two of Elizabeth’s childhood adventures were naughty, even dangerous, but that made them even more entertaining to recount from the safe distance of adulthood.

On one carefree summer day, Elizabeth and her playmates, Billy and Richie, were sailing paper boats in the park’s large fountain. When their little navy bobbed out into the middle of the pool, Richie used a long branch to nudge the boats back within reach. Suddenly, he lost his balance and fell into the water. Richie, who couldn’t swim, began thrashing frantically about. He went under twice before Elizabeth was able to haul him out.

The children had strict instructions to seek permission prior to visiting the park and to always go with a responsible older person, so fearing parental wrath, they pledged eternal secrecy and trudged home. They were busted when Richie’s mother demanded an explanation for his wet condition and then called Elizabeth’s mother to express gratitude for Richie’s rescue. Elizabeth remembered the consequences as vividly as the incident, because being punished for saving someone’s life isn’t something a kid forgets!

Recently, I found one of the late Carol Kimball’s charming columns written for The Day in 2007. In it, she chronicled her childhood memories of Riverside Park and illustrated the article with the image of a 1910 postcard featuring the infamous fountain!

On another occasion, Elizabeth was accompanied to the park by a slightly older boy named Savilion, whose maturity and good judgment her mother apparently trusted. In a spectacular display of really bad judgment, the kids decided it would be fun to kick off their shoes and walk the train trestle over the cove. They were about half way across when a train whistle sounded and the tracks begin to vibrate under their feet. There wasn’t time to outrun the train, so Savilion swung down under the trestle to the supports beneath and held out his hand for Elizabeth to follow. Frozen with fear, she was immobilized until, at the last minute, with the train almost literally on top of her, she finally jumped into the shallow side of the cove. She landed on a piece of glass and cut her foot but was otherwise unhurt. Shaken, the children went home. Elizabeth’s eagle-eyed mother immediately spotted the bloody foot, but this time there was no punishment.

The advent of Interstate-95 in the 1950s isolated the park and adjacent neighborhood from downtown, leading to years of decline. In 2011, the Riverside Park Conservancy was formed to revitalize the park and restore it to a welcoming space for city residents. Showcasing their efforts to date and the natural beauty of the area, the organization will hold its 9th annual Down by the Riverside Festival on Saturday, September 14, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Activities for kids of all ages will include a picnic, live music, a magic show, artists painting en plein air, and a chance to enjoy this treasure with friends and neighbors.

Mom would be pleased!



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