Atlas of the Waters

It’s just three feet across, but once upon a time this little arch carried the weight of a valley’s commerce on its back, like the Greek titan holding up the sky.

Did you ever wonder what happens when a stream and a canal cross paths? You can’t just connect them if the canal is above the level of the stream. And there’s not much point in building a lock to a waterway too small for a boat. In many cases the canal would pass over the other waterway on a bridge of some kind, usually of stone. But if the other were very small, a simple culvert of stone would be built, dirt piled atop it, and the canal built above that.

This little arch is all that remains of one such culvert, located in Hamden, Conn., along the Farmington Canal Trail. The path above in the former canal bed now crosses the stream on a footbridge, and the stream is once again open to the sky. Most of the culvert is long gone, stones scattered by seasonal floods. But this small bit appears to have weathered the storms (assisted, it must be said, by a modern concrete culvert to one side that will have diverted spring floods in recent decades).

This stone culvert was once part of a canal that ran from the coast at New Haven, Conn. more than fifty miles inland to Northampton, Mass. The canal only lasted twenty years, and was fully in service for about a dozen, before its towpath was recycled into a right of way for a railroad, the fate of many of early America’s canals. The railroad fared better, but was gradually abandoned during the twentieth century (a very small stretch apparently remains in use) and the right of way repurposed once again, this time into a rail trail. Although not yet complete end to end, large sections of it have been paved and are usable. In places both the trail on the former towpath and the canal bed itself are paths (the latter unpaved and allowing hikers to keep clear of bicyclists). And along this stretch, the old canal bed carries a buried fiber-optic line for AT&T, as a third era of interstate commerce makes use of the same right of way.

The stream here is actually crossed by two bridges, one for the paved trail, and a smaller, lower, pedestrian one in the old canal bed.  I took this photo from the pedestrian bridge a couple of weeks ago, at f/16 with a 1/30 second exposure at ISO 400. The lens was set to 24mm for the widest picture I could get from my vantage point on the bridge, a few feet from the arch.

I like this photo; the arch showing its age, but yet unbroken, even as nature claims any gap in the stones. The framing might not be optimal, the mud and plants along the top could have been removed by a closer view, and losing the extreme right edge in the process probably wouldn’t have hurt the photo. But I tried a couple of crops to see what that would look like, and the stone arch became too dominant, and lost the feel of being surrounded by nature that I see here. On reflection, I think I’m rather glad I took it this way.

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