The river starts in the town of Cheshire, flows through Hamden and New Haven, and discharges into New Haven Harboron Long Island Sound. The river’s length is 17.4 miles (28.0 km).
Indigenous peoples had hunted and fished along the river for centuries when English colonists established the first mill in 1642.
The mill river is rich in cultural and economic history. The Mill River got its name from the Mills that were built on its banks that utilized the running water to power machinery.
A mill for grinding corn was built near East Rock in 1642. This mill was a grist mill and was tremendously important to the economy of the area. By 1780 there were eight mills. In time the river provided power for Eli Whitney’s gun factory, now the Eli Whitney Museum. The many farmers were able to rent time at the mill to grind their grain and sell/use it for their needs.
Other minor mills were also established during the 17 and 18 centuries—a carriage factory, a mill to make carriage wheels and axles, a brass factory, a mill for fulling cloth and a paper mill. Other minor establishments also utilized the river for hydropower.
In 1798, this mill became even more prominent in the areas history when Eli Whitney bought it and the grounds to erect his arms factory.
Whitney increased the height of the dam from 6 feet to about 27 feet in 1860, and 31 feet in 1866. In 1916, it was raised another 19 inches to the current height. The original dam was wooden, but Whitney Sr. and his son Eli Whitney Jr. changed the dam to masonry, with many advancements for increased utility and safety.
For almost 130 years, Lake Whitney provided a sizeable amount of water to the water supply of New Haven County. Some 15 mgd (millions of gallons per day) are safely extractable from the reservoir according to the Regional Water Authority.
From 1860 till 1991, the LakeWhitney created by the dam was used as a public water supply. The Mill River has continued to add to the public water supply even since 1991 due to four wells in Hamden and Cheshire that use the stratified-drift aquifer in the upper Mill River basin . The upper Mill River is strictly regulated for this reason, and all industry has been removed from the river above the reservoir. Flora and fauna have thrived in this situation, and the water quality has remained pure.
In 1883 the river had a notable guest, the Fenian Ram was a very early armed submarine prototype that was designed by John Philip Holland for the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Due to a disagreement the IRB stole the Fenian Ram and stored it in a shed shed on the Mill River, across from the lot presently occupied by the District. Today the submarine can be seen at Paterson Museum in New Jersey.
In 1900, a city commissioned plan by Olmstead called for an “inner circuit” of parks, parkways, and reservations connected by paths that would not have to cross highways and streets. This would strike a harmonious balance between urban demands and nature. Even then pollution was an issue especially at low tide. Olmstead’s plan called for a buffer of land around the river to avoid the artificial vertical walls that would be built to control the river and its direction.
The industrial scene along the Mill and Quinnipiac rivers in the 18th century was made up principally of companies that were taking advantage of running water to power machinery on the riverbanks. On the Mill River, this consisted of Christopher Todd’s
gristmill, a carriage factory, a mill to make carriage wheels and axles, and a paper mill. In
1798, Todd’s gristmill was purchased by Eli Whitney to build an armory.
As the number of manufacturing works in New Haven increased in the 19th century, the importation of coal replaced the export of food as the dominant activity in New Haven harbor. By the early 1900s, a number of factories had settled on the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers. This notable increase in heavy manufacturing activity caused tension with the oyster industry because of their negative impact on water.
The New Haven Electric Light Company, had decided in 1924 to “seek less confining quarters than their location on
College and Crown” as one result, the English Station was erected on filled land in the tidewaters of the Mill River. . The discharge of waste materials from factory sites into the Mill River posed a serious threat to the health of the oyster beds that formed a perimeter around the
industrial area. The transition of use of the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers from largely oyster-based and residential activity to manufacturing works in the late 19th century was not the result of a city plan for a change in urban landscape. Rather, it was a private market reaction to
the new economic opportunities that the steam engine allowed manufacturers. This was an ideal location for factories because of the easy supply of nearby labor and connectivity to a transportation
The Mill River is a small stream flowing between Fair Haven and New Haven. Prior to 1900 the natural depths of the Mill River were 4 1/2-5 feet up to the fork between Chapel Street and Grand Avenue. In 1913 under the Act of 1899, Congress allotted the necessary funds and a channel in the east was widen to 100 feet and on the west a width of 125 feet.
In 1942 New Haven city planners first considered locating an arterial road over the Mill River headed through East Rock, and this was “intermittently considered” into the 1950s. In 1959 and 1960, all parties seemed in agreement over the general purpose and location of the connector. But a few years later, the East Rock Connector became a flashpoint in controversy between city officials, residents, and park groups, who called it a waste of good park land, and the state highway department, who called it an integral part of the state highway system.
A tidal gate “appeared” around 1930 in the river.
It was seen in the late 1960s that the Mill River had suffered a history of institutional neglect resulting in heavy pollution with little accountability. A long term cleaning plan was tossed around as was dredging the river. By 1970, the river was four times past the legal limit for being able to swim in. Since that time the receding industry along the river has allowed the river to start recovering.
In the reach south of the tidal gate the river has more evidence of historical industrial use. Notably, English Station is an abandoned thermal power plant. It occupies eight acres of land on Ball Island in the Mill River. It was constructed from 1924 to 1929.
The plant operated as a coal- and oil-fired power plant for United Illuminating until it stopped electricity-generating operations in 1991.
At many points residents have tired to start a trail along the river. Notably Tom Holahan and friends, established portions of the trail between Humphrey and Grand. Evidence of this work can be see seen as benches along the bank of the river.
Throughout history the river has sustained human, plant and animal life. Today its history and natural beauty make it an unparalleled recreational asset in the heart of the city.
Contributions from notes by: Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, New Haven Museum 6/27/16
Source Mill History: http://ctrivers.wikispaces.com/Mill%20River%20%28New%20Haven%29
Source East Rock Connector: http://www.kurumi.com/roads/ct/eastrock.html
Source Eli Whitney Image: http://connecticuthistory.org/the-whitney-armory-helps-progress-in-hamden/
Source: http://iaspub.epa.gov/tmdl_waters10/attains_waterbody.control?p_list_id=CT-C1_023-SB&p_cycle=2012&p_state=CT&p_report_type=T and http://iaspub.epa.gov/tmdl_waters10/attains_waterbody.control?p_list_id=CT-C1_023-SB&p_cycle=2012&p_report_type=#sources
Source: Centenary of Hamden, Connecticut: 1886. History of the town of Hamden
Source: The Bed in Which They Lie: A Systems Approach to Understanding What Happened to the Oysters, By Sinye Tang