At the tail end of our spring break time together, Paul and I got into a good habit: working in the mornings, then reconvening in midafternoon to go on a long walk. We took to picking out a nearby state park, trying a new one each afternoon. We did this three days in a row, making trips to a section of the Air Line Trail, George Dudley Seymour and Hurd State Parks, and Millers Pond State Park.
George Dudley Seymour and Hurd State Parks are located on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River, above and along a spit of land called Haddam Neck. We’d never explored this area before, but were drawn to George Dudley Seymour State Park in particular because of the description of the vestiges of native grasslands that remained there, as well as the promise of ruins. The location was once the family estate of an agricultural implement manufacturer, a fact which only made the spot more interesting to me. Apparently, the company used to test its equipment on what must have been fertile bottomlands. The area is now also a wildlife management area for the state, and its swampy areas attract a great deal of bird life.
We parked our car at the end of a steep road, crossed a very old bridge, and descended toward the river through the woods along an old paved road that ran alongside a beautiful rushing stream. When we reached the open, grassy areas, there were huge hawks and vultures soaring overhead, making great circles. The breeze was blowing swiftly, but it was sunny and not too cold. After traversing a muddy area without getting our feet soaked, we made it down to the river, where I was able to stick my hand in the waters of the Connecticut for the first time. Even though we live in a town right on the river, the present configuration of highways makes it almost impossible to get to from where we live. On the opposite bank were grand old houses, and we could spot the abandoned rail line that runs along the western shore, as well as a trestle that presumably crosses a stream that flows into the river.
Heading south along a path that skirted the bank, we made our way along essentially an overgrown sandbar with the river on one side and swamp on the other. The spit of sandy land narrowed until the trail opened up onto a clearing: a sand pit that is clearly a recreational area for ATVs. This was a signal to us that we’d passed beyond the boundaries of the park, so we retraced our steps and headed north along the river towards Hurd State Park.
Our route took us uphill into the woods once again, and then wound along under some power lines. We spotted the turkey vultures and hawks again, and a three-quarters moon was high against the blue sky. When we reached the top of the ride, we mounted some granite boulders to get a peek at the lovely river vista below us. I found a fragment of ceramic insulator on the ground that gave my my first up-close look at those spindle-shaped insulators you always see on high-tension line installations. As we planned our route back to the car, we first missed our turn, but eventually found our unblazed trail and made our way back to the old roadway along the stream, past some lovely beech woods and across smaller streams and freshets running with spring melt.
When we returned to the car, we decided that, since we hadn’t explored the area much, we should continue to drive down Haddam Neck, to see what there was to see. We made our way south, as close to the shore as we could manage, past a mix of old clapboard houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, and a fair bit of new construction, mostly pretty high-end. I was navigating using our trusty Connecticut and Rhode Island Gazetteer, and figured we could make it down pretty close to the end of the neck. But not long after we had turned onto the colorfully named Injun Hollow Road, we reached a sudden and surprising dead end: a set of gates and a chain-link fence that indicated we were not to travel further. Although the gates were open, they and the fence were covered in forbidding signs saying things like, “It is a federal crime to trespass on this property” and “Do not enter” and all manner of go-away, intimidating language. “What is this place?” Paul asked me, as he slowed to a stop. “I have no idea,” I replied. Nothing on the map seemed to indicate that there would be any such impediment to our arriving at the tip of the neck. The signs were clear in their message, but said nothing about who owned the property or what it was. “Weird,” Paul said, as he executed a three-point turn, and we headed uphill again, thoroughly puzzled.
Despite our sudden need to turn around, we did explore a bit more of the neck before we headed back over the bridge and home. Mostly, it seemed to us, Haddam Neck was filled with high-end homes, some new, and plenty of historic houses. We got wrapped up in pointing out the interesting ones (and grimacing at some of the huge new ones), and forgot about our strange encounter with the fence and gates. We came home, made dinner, watched a movie, and went back to our computers to put in a little more work before bed.
As I sat at my machine, I decided to take a look at Google Maps to see a bit more about where we had been. First I was interested in learning about the sand pit, and seeing how far we had walked in the end. Then I took a look at the power lines, to see if they marched toward the two power plants on the west side of the river as I had figured. And then I got to thinking, hey, what about that place at the end of the road? What was that? I decided to test my landscape-reading skills from above and panned over to where we had been stopped short.
What I saw was this:
First I looked to see where we had been forced to stop on Injun Hollow Road. I located the spot: just before the road got close to the shore, there was a small pond, and immediately northwest of that was a structure I recalled seeing when we had turned around. I followed the road down, past where we had been forced to turn back. Here was a big empty space with a small parking lot beside it. The grass had the recently-resurfaced look of a former industrial site. At the opposite end, a road named Canal Road split off, along an inlet. Now this was starting to look very industrial: kind of like a power plant. I continued on. This inlet flowed back into the river further down. It reminded me of the Columbia Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Portage, WI, which I had visited as part of a Place-Based Workshop on energy back in 2010. Hm, I thought. This is interesting.
Then I had my revelation. I panned up a bit on the map to follow Canal Road to its terminus. There I saw something I recognized: a rectangular concrete platform covered in cylinders, something that, from above, looks a lot like a clump of capacitors from the inside of an old stereo. Suddenly I knew what I was looking at. This had to be nuclear waste. On the same Place-Based Workshop that had brought me to the Columbia station, we had also visited the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois. There, we had seen the dry-cask storage system that housed spent nuclear fuel that had finished its time in the spent fuel pool, or that they didn’t have room for in the pool anymore. (Primer here: nuclear waste is a huge problem, and every nuclear power plant is doing its own piecemeal thing to deal with its accumulating waste. Since there is no national disposal site for spent nuclear fuel and other nuclear waste, most plants just deal with it as they can.) I had definitely seen this kind of thing before, from the ground. This used to be a nuclear power plant.
Where were the nuclear plants in Connecticut? A quick internet search turned up two. And the one I’d heard of, Connecticut Yankee, was what I was looking at, what had forced us to turn back on the road. It was built in 1968, and the decommissioning process, begun in 1998, was completed in 2007, the year my map had been printed.
“Paul,” I called downstairs. “Do you want to know why we had to turn around today? Do you know what is there?”
“What?” he asked.
“Come up here. You have to see this.” I heard his feet on the stairs. He came to stand beside my desk. I looked up at him. “It’s the Connecticut Yankee nuclear plant. Look.” I showed him the satellite images, took him to the web site. “Well, holy shit,” he said. We then proceeded to scour the site, looking at pictures of the final deconstruction, including workers removing the core, and the incredibly involved process of demolishing the massive concrete containment building. The core and the reactor pressure vessel were shipped quietly away on a barge, bound for burial in Barnwell, SC. Eerie.
So we spent the next hour or so completely transfixed, looking at the satellite views, browsing the web site, reading about the plant. I kept oscillating between pride at having figured it out and deep uneasiness at the proximity of the plant to where we had been (not to mention where we live now), and its invisibility. I had had to do some digging — not a lot, but enough — and exercise both my curiosity and my experience with power plant sites to figure it out. This is all within recent memory. There is a social group for former plant employees that meets monthly. I am sure our neighbors could tell us all about it.
After we figured out the secret of Haddam Neck, we thought differently about the houses we had seen, and our impressions of this somewhat well-to-do area along the river. We understood why there were so many homes for sale there, why all the houses dated from either before the mid-twentieth century or just a few years ago. We understood better the path of the power lines and the deliberately scary yet uninformative signage. And we had a striking reminder of the landscapes of energy in this country, the way our power system is inscribed upon the landscape, and connects distant places like a spit of land jutting into the Connecticut River and a small town in South Carolina. It also made us think about durability, and lifetimes, and half-lives. 30 years. It’s not a very long time for a power plant to be around. Especially when its legacy is buried in the landscape, in several places, for a long time to come.
But, hey, if you’re interested in buying property on Haddam Neck now that the nuclear plant is gone, you don’t have to settle for a 19th-century farmhouse and a piddly few acres. You want 7,500 feet of river frontage? 582 acres of land? Archaeological sites on the property and proximity to cultural attractions? Connecticut Yankee could be yours. Check out the fact sheet for more info!