Five local historians (William Devlin, Dr. Herb Janick, Judith Malin, Dr. Paulette Pepin, and Dr. Truman Warner) characterized the human history of the Still River in their 1995 booklet “The River Runs Through It,” which they prepared for a museum exhibit about the Still River. The narrative which follows is a condensation by Jack Kozuchowski, Danbury’s former Environmental Director and Project Director for the Still River Greenway. It includes some editorial additions and modifications that pertain to the environmental functions of the river.
The river’s history is categorized into five phases : Abuse, Revenge, Banishment, and Rediscovery.
Harmony Prior to human settlement, glaciation, which characterizes its geologic history, that established the natural contemporary setting of the river: a slow, meandering watercourse with undercut banks, bounded by wooded swamps and broad, flat floodplains. The Mill Plain Swamp, the wetland area near Sanfords Pond, and some floodplain areas in Commece Park show how the river may have appeared prior to human settlement.
Native Americans were the first to settle the area along the river. Henry Fenton, a local artifact collector, has archaeological evidence of Indian villages along the Still River. The first Europeans to move into the area settled the hills of the southern Berkshires (including Danbury), building towns in the river valleys. Both Indian and early Yankee settlers lived a simple lifestyle in harmony with the river. In return, the river provided a healthy sustenance for water supply, fishing and agricultural activities with its clean water, the fertile topsoil of its floodplains, and a healthy fish population. The river’s beauty provided a recreational outlet for boating, swimming, and casual enjoyment.
The transformation from a natural, vibrant watercourse to a sewer did not occur overnight; it gradually occurred over two centuries.
As early as the 1790s, dams were constructed for mill sites, providing the opportunity for water extraction and the development of industries along its shores. The Hat Manufacturing industry was prominent along the river, and the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s made Danbury the “hatting capital of the world”. Hat manufacturing requires a large extractive use of water, which results in the discharge of the pollutant-tainted process water to a receiving stream. The Still River became the “sewer” for hat and other industries that grew up along the river. The discharges were toxic to aquatic life, in addition to turning the river different colors.
Another form of pollution occurred from the sewage discharges of the borough of Danbury. Prior to the 20th century, the disposal of sewage was an individual choice - people either built rudimentary cesspools in their yards or spilled their sewage directly onto the ground or into a watercourse. An 1885 survey discovered that of the 2800 families in Danbury, 1100 discharged their sewage directly on to the ground or into the rivers of the city (all of which empty into the Still River). These discharges tainted the Still River with bacteria, viruses, solids and nutrients. It lost its pristine character; odors were common and solids were often seen floating in the river. In 1880, the city fathers proposed Danbury’s first collection of household sewage. It was designed with only a minimum level of treatment - liming the sewage for odor control. It took a series of citizen lawsuits to force the city to upgrade the design to include a rudimentary primary treatment system. This treatment system involved passing the collected sewage over a series of filter beds to remove solids and pathogens. Over the years, further improvements were made.
Finally, the urbanization of Danbury resulted in transforming the land in the watershed - the land that drains into the Still River - into a patchwork of buildings, roads, parking lots, farmfield and lawns. This urbanization has changed a large portion of the surface cover from natural floodplain, forest, wetland and open field soils (with their associated vegetation) to impervious concrete, asphalt, and cultivated fields and lawns. These surfaces channeled runoff from major storm events directly to the river, discharging oils, salts, fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants to the water. Impervious surfaces rush water from major storm events directly to the river, creating a fast swell of flood water in the main channel of the river, as opposed to the gradual rise in water that results when the sponge-like natural cover of soil and vegetation absorbs the first rush of rain.
The hat factory photo above exhibits an example of this abuse. All of these changes to the Still River took its toll on the natural function of the river.
The next stage of the river’s history is a story of how nature reacted to the massive human impact to its functions. Human abuse of the River took its toll, and the river struck back.
The most obvious result was flooding. As a result of developing land right up to the shoreline of the river, human settlements along the river became victims of the rivers tendency to flood over its channel during major storms in an attempt to flow out on to a floodplain which no longer existed. In place of the former floodplain, commercial and residential dwellings found themselves “in the river” during major storm events. The hurricanes of 1939 and 1955 were examples of the devastation that could occur, as a result of this flooding, as illustrated in the photos below.
Untreated sewage discharges to the river created viruses and bacteria that made the water a serious health hazard. Odors and the sight of sewage solids floating downstream ruined the once-idyllic appearance of the river. Industrial discharges caused mercury and other heavy metals, oils, organic solvents, solids, and other pollutants tainted the river. The fish, invertebrates, and fish-eating birds disappeared as the habitat was destroyed. By the middle of the 20th century, the river had one main function - it was a sewer, flushing Danbury’s wastes to the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound.
Due to the river’s revenge, Danbury had to take steps to live with the abuse of a growing population, which infected the river. The most visible manifestation of the Banishment was the concrete box that was constructed downtown after the 1955 floods to prevent future flooding. This channelization project, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, took the river out of its natural channel and placed it in a concrete sluice that extended from Main and White Street for approximately 1 mile to the location where the Still River crosses Caspar Street. This concrete sluice was wide and deep and designed to hold the flood waters from major storms to prevent them from flooding the businesses and residential dwellings along its shore.
Citizens also gave up on the recreational functions of the river. We were unable to use the river for fishing, swimming, or enjoyment of its former beauty. The river was ugly and lifeless, and people resigned themselves to the fact that the river’s only purpose was to convey water through the City and out toward the Housatonic River.
“New Life for an Old River” is the battle cry of the final stage of the Still’s tortuous history. The onset of the of the environmental age, in 1970, brought sweeping changes, nationwide, with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state environmental agencies, including Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, pro-active environmental health and restoration programs by local governments, strict environmental controls of discharges to waterways, new technologies to clean up water pollution that were installed by local industries and sewage treatment plants and citizen action, spurred on by the first Earth Day of 1970.
Industrial discharges were cleaned up and strictly monitored. In Danbury, and other area towns, all discharges to the river have to be permitted and the water of the discharge has to be pure enough to support aquatic life. A major breakthrough in water quality of the river occurred in the Danbury area in 1993 when the Bethel Sewage Treatment Plant was closed and joined with Danbury’s Plant which was upgraded with state of the art treatment to remove ammonia, which was the main culprit limiting aquatic life in the River downstream.
Finally, the City instituted a stormwater management program aimed at reducing the discharge of pollutants washing off of roads and parking areas that end up in the river.
The effort of the past 28 years has been a noteworthy success. The water is clear again. It is no longer tainted by toxic pollutants, solids and odors. And the fish are back !!!
But we can still do better. Our Environmental Restoration /Greenway project is all about the celebration of the Still River’s revitalization. Our theme song - a ballad about the river by Connecticut’s former State Troubadour Tom Callinan - says it all.
Still River History Wall
The Still River History Wall was created by the Still River Alliance and subsidized by DEEP, along with the help of the Danbury Museum & Historical Society, to educate visitors to the Greenway Trail about the history of the river. Three kisosks containing six panels guide the visitor thru the history of the Still River from pre-colonial times to today.
Oil Mill Pond, an impoundment near downtown Danbury
Lake Kenosia, an impoundment in west Danbury
Passive recreation was once
a trademark of the river
Courtesy: Danbury Museum & Historical Society
Courtesy: Danbury Museum & Historical Society
Courtesy: Danbury Museum & Historical Society
Photos Courtesy of the Danbury Museum & Historical Society