Take an easy mile-long walk along the river in Willimantic, beginning with a stroll across the footbridge next to 700 Main Street. (Park on Riverside Drive behind this building.) At the entrance ramp, there is a plaque with a brief history of the footbridge, built in 1905-6. This 635-foot-long span first passes over Riverside Drive. The former train depot was located here, just to the right of the bridge. After crossing over the railroad tracks, the bridge leads into the treetops along the river's banks. Here you can enjoy a scenic view of the river below. In the rapids upstream, a great blue heron may be perched on a rock watching for lunch to swim by. Downstream the water is smooth and placid because it is held back by a former mill dam by the Frog Bridge.
The footbridge ends at a sidewalk leading to Pleasant Street, which is lined with residences whose owners campaigned to have the bridge built for easy access to the downtown area. On the hill across the street is the grand hall built for the Elks Club in 1927. Turn right past a brick building. This former armory was built in 1912 and is now converted to apartments. As you walk by homes of the 1800's and 1900's, note the variety of architectural styles. At the junction with Mountain Street, turn right and head down toward the river.
In a short distance, turn right onto Bridge Street. Pause here for a view across the stone bridge to the low buildings of the Cooperative Oil Company and the River Plaza. If you had stood here in the early 1900's, you would have seen instead the high walls of large cotton mills. On the right side of the bridge was the Smithville mill, built in 1822. On the left was the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Co. mill built in 1828. Both complexes of granite-block buildings ran along the riverside (like the existing Windham Mills building downstream). The boom-and-bust cycles of textile production kept the ownership of these mills on a roller-coaster ride until they both failed in the 1926, and the mills were torn down. All that remains of the Smithville mills is the company store, a three-story granite building visible in front of the brick Windham Town Hall.
Walk to the fence to for a closer look at the arched stone bridge, with its base firmly set on bedrock at the river's edge. This was the second bridge built by Lyman Jordan in Willimantic (in 1868), and, like its mate next to the Windham Mills, it has withstood floods that have washed out most other local bridges. As you cross this bridge, take time to enjoy the view downstream, where another former mill dam (now breeched) extends across the river. At the end of the bridge, turn left into the River Plaza parking lot and walk along the fence by the river. There is a good view of the graceful arched bridge, and also of the layered rock in the opposite bank, which was easy to quarry for building the mills and the bridge.
Walk along the fence and discover a scenic view of the river spilling over rock ledges. Beneath the wall of Jonathan's Restaurant (a former mill building), note the water emerging from a tunnel under the building. This water flow powered a water wheel that was suspended in front of the tunnel to power the mill operations. To the left of the Plaza building, is the former Windham Cotton Company freight office, a square brick building with a mansard roof. This is now part of the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum, which is open on weekends from May to December.
When you return to Bridge Street, cross the railroad tracks, walk up to Main Street and turn right. If you walk along the left side of Main Street, you can observe the intricate brick work in the 1800's and 1900's commercial buildings across the street. Take a break for a meal or shopping along Main Street on your way back to where you began this walk by the footbridge. The Windham Textile & History Museum has more information about the history of Willimantic's mills and bridges. Thanks to Tom Beardsley and Meg Reich for information and assistance with this Ramble.