Windham Mills State Heritage Park
This riverfront pocket park in Willimantic is tucked in a sunny spot between Windham Mills building #2 and the Windham Garden on the Bridge. This is a restful place to watch the river roll by or discover the handsome granite structures in the mill complex.
From the junction of Jackson and Main Street (at the Frog Bridge) in Willimantic, go east on Main Street for a tenth-mile and turn right into the entrance of the Windham Mills complex. A parking lot and the park are to the right.
A short stroll around this park offers a variety of scenes, and all of them are handicapped-accessible. Cross the lawn to a large sycamore tree at the river's edge for views of the wooded shore across the river. A display panel by the river presents information about J. Alden Weir, who painted Willimantic scenes in the 1890's, including the mills.
The park offers a good view of an arched stone bridge next to the park and Mill #1. Both were constructed in 1857 by the Willimantic Linen Company. Mill #1 has been refurbished by ArtSpace as studios and apartments. The steep bank across the river reveals the rock that was used to build the mills and the bridge. To quarry the rock from the river bed, the water was temporarily diverted to run down Main Street!
The double-arched bridge was designed to better resist the river's floods, which had destroyed previous wooden bridges. Today, this old bridge is still standing after 150 years. The smaller of the two arches allows water flowing through Mill #1's race (water channel) to return to the river. The water flow in this race powered the mill until steam engines arrived in the 1880's. Later, the mills were run by electricity, some of it supplied by small hydroelectric plants in the river. An old turbine can be seen from the stairs up to the bridge. This bridge carried vehicles until it was replaced by the "Frog Bridge" in 2001. It is now the Windham Garden on the Bridge, which can be reached by climbing the stairs or by walking out to Main Street and up to the bridge entrance.
The Willimantic River is almost at the end of its run here, and its flow is heavy with all the water draining from its 225-square-mile watershed. Wilimentuck, meaning "land of swift moving waters," refers to this part of the river because it drops 90 feet as it rushes through the city of Willimantic. Native Americans fished at a series of waterfalls until colonists built dams, which created a series of mill ponds (six dams remain). Because of the river's water power, Willimantic attracted various types of mills, notably for textile and thread production. Mills and mill owners have succeeded and failed along the banks of the river since the first mill in 1702.
View of Park from Bridge
The mill building next to the park is Mill #2, the largest of the granite structures in the Windham Mills complex. It was built in 1864 by the Willimantic Linen Company. The American Thread Company bought these mills in 1898 and operated them until they closed in 1985. Since then, the mill buildings have been converted to other commercial uses. Two brick mill buildings were torn down on the site of this park. Walk along the wall at the back of the parking lot to see a 120-foot-long mural depicting tools and processes used in the mills to make thread. Then take a stroll along the front of Mill #2 to appreciate the craftsmanship in this granite structure. The smaller stone building next to Main Street was the mill office. Beyond Mill #2 is a former stable. The area between the mill buildings and the river is not open to the public.
To discover more about these mills, visit the Windham Textile and History Museum across Main Street from the park. It is always worth stopping in see changing exhibits about the mills and the life of those who lived and worked here. The museum's entrance is in the former mill store and library for mill workers.
Thanks to Tom Beardsley and the Windham Textile and History Museum for their assistance.
Top Photo: V. Wetherell; Bottom photo: P. Vertefeuille
This Willimantic River Greenway Parks and Trails Guide was produced by the Willimantic River Alliance and WINCOG. Information in this guide reflects conditions and features as of Spring, 2008. Since conditions change over time, the Alliance is not responsible for changes at this site. This guide was funded with support from the The Last Green Valley (formerly known as the Quinebaug-Shetucket Heritage Corridor, Inc.).