With the Mill River restoration, wildlife set to return to the heart of downtown Stamford
On an early afternoon in August, freelance photographer Sue Sweeney got a call that something unusual had turned up along the Mill River’s western bank in downtown Stamford.
Within minutes, Sweeney, a nature lover who can rattle off a list of plants and animals around Stamford, was standing by the West Main Street Bridge with her camera and long lens.
She spied something she had never seen outside a zoo — below the bridge was a lustrous, long-bodied creature swimming in the brackish waters. After undulating beneath the surface, the animal popped up, clenching a slippery, green eel that seemed to measure at least a foot in length.
“I thought, ‘This is the most awesome fisherman I’ve ever seen,’ ” Sweeney said with a chuckle.
The animal was a mink, native to the area but rarely seen in the past few years because of the river’s deterioration. Minks live around freshwater shores and eat fish, birds, rodents and frogs.
“Now that a more healthy ecosystem is returning to the river, I dare say we will begin seeing more of them,” said Jessica Curtis, a wildlife management specialist for the Mill River Collaborative, a nonprofit group partnering with the city to expand and renovate Mill River Park.
As work on the city’s most ambitious and long-awaited urban park forges ahead, the linchpin of the redevelopment — an $8 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to restore a river that has not flowed unimpeded for more than 100 years.
is ready to unleash dramatic changes in the city’s habitat.
“It’s really about bringing nature downtown,” said Milton Puryear, director of the Mill River Collaborative. “This park is for people, but it’s also really for the wildlife.”
Puryear, who is also spearheading an initiative in Brooklyn, N.Y., to establish 14 miles of waterfront greenway, likens the process to “taking the river from behind our backs and making it the focal point.”
The river restoration, which started in March, is expected to be completed next summer, the first phase of a larger initiative to create what the collaborative calls “a world-class park.”
Over the past few months, a semblance of a river, its central component, has taken hold. The once-decaying concrete walls surrounding the pond have been removed. In July, giant steel sheet pilings were installed as a temporary device to divert the river to one side as workers put rocks on the river bed to create the pools and eddies that characterize streams. Tree plantings are to begin in the spring.
The idea of putting a river in the forefront of an urban downtown goes back decades.
In 1929, Herbert Swan, an influential urban planner in New York, wrote a plan for Stamford that saw a park surrounding the river. An 8-mile river stretching from the North Stamford Reservoir to Stamford Harbor, the Mill River was named after mills installed along the river bank beginning in the mid-17th century. It is part of a longer river, an almost 38-mile watershed of the Rippowam River, that originates in Westchester County, N.Y.
In the late 1990s, Robin Stein, the city’s land use bureau chief, began researching various “river renaissance” projects that were taking hold across the country.
Stein attended a conference in San Antonio, Texas, where the 2 1/2-mile Riverwalk that courses through the downtown is surrounded by shops and restaurants.
“It was a tremendous spur to economic development,” Stein said. “If you go to San Antonio, you go to see two things, the Alamo and the Riverwalk. That’s not an exaggeration.”
Another impetus for the project was the cost associated with the dams. The city estimated that it needed to spend $1.5 million every three to five years to dredge the pond and millions more to repair flood damage made worse by the dams.
Aquatic and vegetative life suffered. In Stamford’s case, two concrete dams, one near the Pulaski Street Bridge and another near the West Main Street Bridge, made it virtually impossible for various species of saltwater fish to swim upriver.
Curtis and others attribute the arrival of the mink and other animals to the removal of the Pulaski Dam in April. Continued sightings of animals are promising harbingers for a park that has long been seen as underutilized, memorable primarily for a former grove of cherry trees whose soft pink blossoms brought flashes of beauty to an otherwise desolate place.
While the mink created the greatest stir among wildlife observers, birds such as herons and egrets are now frequently seen along the riverbank. Footprints of muskrats, raccoons, possum and skunks have been discovered as well, Sweeney said.
With a greater supply of fish in the river, the animals are “having the best summer they’ve ever had,” Sweeney said.
The news bodes well for longtime fishermen such as Johnny McClain, 76, who looks out on the river from his living room, where three fishing poles lean against the wall.
McClain has fished in the ariver for more than 20 years, catching trout, catfish and suckerfish. In recent years, he has reeled them in from a wheelchair.
This past year, construction and illness put a halt to his beloved pasttime, but the tantalizing thought of returning to a river crawling with fish made the Alabama native grin.
“If I be living, I’ll be there next summer,” McClain said.