Norwich to replace steep Sachem Street concrete stairs to Uncas Leap area

Norwich — Centuries ago, members of the Mohegan tribe made their way down the steep slope from the tribal burial ground to the Yantic River and what is now known as Uncas Leap gorge.

When modern streets and development reshaped the area, residents, students and likely workers took the same shortcut up and down the ravine, and at one point, decades ago, a narrow concrete staircase was built to make the path less treacherous.

Now, the concrete is crumbling and mossy stairs are overgrown with brush, and a large tree branch has fallen across the well-worn gravel path that leads from the stairs to Yantic Street and a parking lot across from the Mill at Indian Leap Apartments. The city erected a sign saying the stairs are closed, but city officials know many people still use them.

City and Mohegan tribal leaders are cooperating on a plan to replace the staircase and add new railings up to modern building codes. The City Council recently approved $90,000 in the capital improvements budget to replace the stairs to complement the $500,000 master plan development of the historic Uncas Leap area.

City Historian Dale Plummer said the current stairs probably date to the early 20th century, but people have been making their way through the ravine to the falls for centuries.

“You’ll see accounts from the early 19th century of tourists going down to the falls,” Plummer said. “People were using that area as a path to get to the falls.”

The project initially wasn’t funded in the 2019-20 budget, despite some support earlier this spring. Mayor Peter Nystrom said that changed after city officials spoke to Mohegan tribal representatives to gauge their position on the sensitive historical tribal area between the burial ground and the Yantic River.

The Tribal Council endorsed the project and offered to assist with staff members and an archaeologist.

“The Tribe is looking forward to working with the city to restore the stairs in a manner that assures that no culturally significant areas are disturbed,” interim Tribal Chairman James Gessner said in an email statement.

City Planner Deanna Rhodes said the stair replacement is not part of the $500,000 state grant-funded project to enhance the Uncas Leap area. But she said it would expand the project by connecting the Mohegan burial ground, now a tribal memorial park at the corner of Sachem and Washington streets and the new Uncas Leap heritage park.

The park plan will start by creating a gravel parking lot on the property where the city tore down a rundown modern duplex taken for back taxes.

Then the major construction piece, removing the upper walls of an early 19th century granite mill building to create ruins of the bottom story and paths through the structure. The granite blocks removed from the building will be used to build an amphitheater on a sloped portion of the property, where the city tore down a partially collapsed brick building. Walking paths and landscaping will be created in what is now a parking lot with crumbled pavement.

Rhodes said the Uncas Leap project is being overseen carefully by the state Department of Economic and Community Development and the state Historic Preservation Office.

City Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin said the stair replacement project will take a while to design and coordinate with tribal officials. He said construction likely wouldn’t be done until next spring.

c.bessette@theday.com

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