The Shepaug -- Now and Then
Curtis S. Read is the President of Hydro Technologies, Inc., a CT Certified Environmental Testing Laboratory in New Milford. He is also Chairman of the Litchfield County Soil and Water Conservation District. He is past Chairman and twelve-year member of the Bridgewater Conservation and Inland Wetlands Commission. Mr. Read serves on the Board of Weantinogue Heritage Land Trust.
This article contains a portion of a presentation made for the Washington Garden Club on October 4, 1998 at the Gunn Memorial Library.
See also: Timeline.
By Curtis S. Read
The PresentImagine yourself as a time traveler perched somewhere above the Shepaug watershed. The middle of this 133 square mile region may be on top of Mt. Rat. You can see up north past Goshen where little streams course down from the heights of 1,668 foot Ivy Mountain, through Tyler, Woodbridge and Bantam Lakes, and wind southward through Washington and Roxbury to the confluence with the former Housatonic River, now impounded in a green algae lake just 200 feet above sea level.
You can see the controversial Shepaug and Cairns reservoirs sap the strength of the northern flows. Below you is the Bantam River flowing down from the northeast. Litchfield influences this branch with its road drains and sewage effluent. Looking south, down the valley, you see preserved hillside farmland, Hidden Valley and the ancient Clam Shell of Steep Rock.
The Shepaug beckons us to ponder: Can our River be better? Can it be environmentally healthier in the future? Does it have a spirit which affects those of us who know its course and moods? Can we help bind its wounds? Can our appreciation of its unique beauty galvanize us to make amends for its mistreatment?
The PastRivers are good allegories for the passage of time. Let us look back to the Shepaug's recent and distant past to judge how we have treated and mistreated our cherished Shepaug River.
Traveling back about 250 million years in time, the drifting continents of "Proto North America" and "Proto Africa" formed a Pre-Cambrian sandwich around old "Avalonia" and the "Iapetos Ocean". This great tectonic crunch forced about 3000 miles of ocean floor and islands of lost Avalonia to be folded into the earth below or thrust upward onto the land. "Cameron's Line", now inactive, was a major fault line of this process and it now defines much of the western boundary of the Shepaug watershed.
Imagine Mt. Rat as lofty as the Himalayas. Eventually, the "proto" continents fracture and part to form the Atlantic Ocean. Then the slow, relentless process of erosion by wind, rain and cold begins. Some granites and schist are tough enough to become the ribs of our now gentler landscape. Although geologists are uncertain why or how many ice sheets have come and gone, the last one was estimated to be 5-10,000 feet thick and melted away approximately 10,000 years ago. Just a wink in geologic time.
The continental glacier smoothes the hills and grinds the native rocks into our Charlton, Paxton, Hollis and other glacial till soils. It moves rocks south, distributing them across the land. Raging meltwater eventually carves a path of least resistance through vertically tilted rock strata, exploiting weaker rock formations, folds and bedrock cracks, establishing the Shepaug's present course. The Clam Shell demonstrates the unique and twisted path water and gravity devise to get through the unusual complexity of nature's rock foundations.
Traveling forward in time, Native Americans, who give the river its name, appear to the first settlers as wild as the surrounding land as they climb the hill from Woodbury and cross the watershed divide into the Shepaug wilderness.
The settlers cut the virgin trees to supply heat, timber for building, charcoal and to clear land for farming. They plow and graze the fragile hillside soils. Mill wheels turn to process newly-cut timber, wool, grains and iron. Washington Depot develops as an industrial town, flushing its waste downstream.
After the Civil War, the Shepaug Railroad pushes north from Hawleyville to Litchfield hauling freight and passengers, opening the area to further settlement.
Man's degradation of the Shepaug River continues through the great flood of 1955 and the passing of the railroad, and it persists on into the present day.
Return to the PresentToday the Shepaug is a branching network of tributaries with some wild and romantic names: Marshepaug River, Moosehorn Brook, Bee Brook, Hop Brook, Fox Brook and Sucker Brook. The upper reaches of these tributaries are fed by bogs like Battle Swamp and Bear Swamp. Yet the current water supply is inadequate to maintain a healthy river. Today the Shepaug's very existence is threatened by thermal pollution and outright drought.
It has not taken man long to "tame" these magnificent wilds and waters. Will we act responsibly, as conscientious stewards of a precious and vulnerable natural resource or, despite our growing intellectual and environmental awareness, will we allow monetary gain to cloud our actions and desecrate the Shepaug. Armed with knowledge, heart and resolve, we share a rare opportunity to make the right choice: Save the Shepaug!