In the canal-happy 1820s, a group of businessmen constructed a watery path from New Haven to Massachusetts. But soon train cars replaced canal boats as the preferred method of moving cargo. Finally, both gave way to multi-use trails. In its middle section, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail bisects one of Connecticut’s most appealing areas, where history and entertainment combine in places like Farmington, Simsbury, and Avon.
The Farmington River Trail forms a connecting loop; one highlight of that route, Collinsville, is included here. Whether you’re biking, hiking, or driving, you can spend a day (at least) enjoying the many charms of these towns.
From the former grist mill that houses Farmington’s , you can see the town’s namesake river. Memories of the past, too, flow through the town center. is one of 12 local sites listed on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
In 1841 it was the Samuel Deming Store, where the newly-freed Africans of the Amistad were temporarily housed and educated. One of them, Foone, who drowned in the nearby canal basin, is buried in , as is prominent abolitionist Austin F. Williams. On Main Street, designated a Scenic Road, is Williams’s home, where Amistad survivors and Underground Railroad fugitives found shelter.
Most historic houses lining this leafy street are private, but the 1771 worker’s cottage is open for special events. The stately building was previously the Union Hotel, patronized by canal boat passengers. And the , the only Congregational church in Connecticut with a side entry, has deep abolitionist connections. Past the Pequabuck Bridge (one of the state’s oldest masonry bridges), the Canal Heritage Trail and the River Trail diverge.
Heading north, past relics of the old canal and Farmington Aqueduct, the Canal Heritage Trail and Route 10 enter Avon, where rural farmland meets suburban bustle. On Main Street, near the Town Green, the Avon Historical Society runs the in a preserved 1823 schoolhouse. A quirky spot for a drink and snacks is , a house jam-packed with baubles and antiques for sale. Shopping centers abound here, but Old Avon Village is less frenzied than the strip malls and offers options - like A Cool Chick’s Place, featuring the work of local artisans - beyond the usual chains.
Simsbury, north of Avon, seems to have been laid out with future tourists in mind. Its main street, Hopmeadow, parallels the Canal Heritage Trail and many attractions can be found here. But first you’ll pass the venerable Pinchot Sycamore, Connecticut’s largest tree, and the Drake Hill Flower Bridge, covered in blooms in summer and possessing a serene river view.
Old and new Simsbury blend seamlessly on Hopmeadow Street. There’s a diverse collection of historic buildings and sites, such as an 1889 ice house, a diminutive Probate building, the grand Simsbury Cemetery, and a 17th century grist mill. This is being converted to commercial space, unsurprisingly; many of Simsbury’s numerous restaurants and shops are located in repurposed buildings.
The Collinsville section of Canton is a picturesque stop on the Farmington River Trail, which joins the Canal Heritage Trail in Farmington and Simsbury. Everything in Collinsville’s downtown, a visual mix of New England and Old West, is conveniently clustered together. A few musts are the , with its lovely green facade and front-porch seating; the sprawling, multi-dealer ; and the view of the red Collins Company buildings - which once produced tools and weapons for John Brown, Gold Rush prospectors, and practically everyone else - reflected in the river.
The is unusually extensive. Guided tours are required, but worth it for exhibits ranging from myriad swords and machetes, to a lovingly recreated General Store, to a vast model train world.
If you go:
Information about and maps of the trails can be found on the website of the Farmington Valley Trails Council, as well as those of individual towns. (Farmington, Avon, Simsbury, Collinsville.) Some parking areas are small and can fill up quickly, but all towns named in this article have free street or lot parking either at or near the attractions mentioned.
Millrace Bookshop, 40 Mill Lane, 860-677-9662, www.millracebookshop.com
Your Village Store, 2 Mill Lane, 860-677-1623
Riverside Cemetery, 160 Garden Street, 860-674-0280,
Farmington Historical Society, 138 Main Street, 860-678-1645,
Miss Porter’s School, 60 Main Street, (860) 409-3500, www.porters.org
First Church of Christ Congregational, 75 Main Street, 860-677-2601,
Avon Historical Society Museum, 8 E Main Street, 860-678-7621,
Coffee Trade, 21 West Main Street, 860-676-2661, www.thecoffeetrade.com
Old Avon Village, Route 44 (East Main Street), 860-678-0469, www.oldavonvillage.com
A Cool Chick’s Place, 31 East Main Street (Old Avon Village), 860-919-9040, Wed – Fri 10am – 6pm, Sat 10am – 5pm
For a map of the Simsbury attractions mentioned above, click here (PDF) http://www.simsbury-ct.gov/Public_Documents/Departments/SimsburyCT_Tourism/Hopmeadow%20Walk%20May%202012.pdf
LaSalle Market & Deli, 104 Main Street, 860-693-8010, www.lasallemarket.com
Antiques on the Farmington, 10 Depot Street, 860-693-0615,
Canton Historical Museum, 11 Front Street, 860-693-8893,