Did you know about the two-mile river under Hartford's streets? The city attorney wants the curious to stay away, but it's unclear if Hartford even has the legal right to keep out intrepid canoers.
By Meir Rinde
August 4, 2005
Navigating through the tunnels under Hartford is, by many accounts, a pretty cool experience. Entering from a branch of the Park River in Pope Park, your canoe scrapes the bottom of the massive flood control tunnel installed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, and soon you’re receding into the gloom of the tunnel, passing graffiti-covered walls and an abandoned car or two. The light fades to utter black, with only your headlamp showing the way.
Proceeding down the tunnel’s two-mile length, you eventually come to a massive cavern where the two branches of the river join and then split again into two parallel tunnels. Your guide knows which one to take, carefully avoiding the tunnel where a giant pipe noisily shoots hot water from the system that regulates building temperatures in downtown Hartford.
Your companion lets out a hoot and the sound fills the chamber, sustaining for 30 seconds. Fog encroaches, limiting visibility even with flashlights.
In the darkness you become disoriented, and strain to see the pinprick of light that shows where you’ll reenter the Connecticut River and the outdoors.
“It definitely smells stagnant,” said Nathan Harris, a computer programmer who made the trip with a friend a year and a half ago. “Like a real stinky old pond. It’s not sewage, but it’s runoff from the streets. There’s a lot of trash. At one point I saw a raccoon’s eyes reflecting my headlamp. The whole things was kind of creepy, but it was definitely pretty cool.”
Canoe tour operator John Kulick used to make the trip almost daily. At his busiest he made five trips a week with groups of about 10 people, he said. He first got permission from the city in 1997, and over one summer took 200 people on the three-hour trip. In 1998 the city made him stop, saying possible gas leaks, sewage leakage and the difficulty of tunnel rescues created liability problems.
Kulick spent the next five years lobbying for the trips. He swore they were safe and argued his insurance would protect the city from any claims. He took a group of city officials on the trip and won some supporters, including Councilman Robert Painter, who continues to sing his praises. In October 2003 the council voted 5-4 to direct the city manager to write a contract allowing Kulick to resume the trips.
Last summer, Kulick was back in business — briefly. He ran a few trips at $55 per person, but the city never got around to offering him a contract, and in the meantime the structure of Hartford’s government changed. Mayor Eddie Perez appointed a new corporation counsel, John Rose, who put his foot down, saying there would be no underground canoe trips, despite the council vote. Last June Kulick was stranded again, and since then he’s been casting around for support, paddling upstream against a steady flow of caution and apathy.
Kulick, 54, says he gets calls every day from people interested in taking the trip. It’s apparently the only underground urban river excursion in the country; it’s been written up in the New York Times and books about the region, and is described on the tourism section of the state’s website, which also gives the phone number for Kulick’s company, Huck Finn Adventures.
“It’s a wonderful kind of experience, a different kind of experience, especially for people who are coming into town for a convention or something like that,” Painter added.
Kulick would have plenty of customers, he said, if it weren’t for that pesky John Rose.
“The city attorney has usurped the authority of the mayor and the authority of the council,” he complained. “His opinion is, if I was here, this never would have gone through city council. The thing is, he wasn’t there. He wasn’t at any of the committee meetings where issues were discussed.”
Politically, Kulick doesn’t have much support. Perez’s chief of staff, Matt Hennessy, laughed when asked about the trips, saying the ball was in Rose’s court. “In theory it’s a really interesting concept. There’s just this larger issue of how do we get these legitimate governmental concerns resolved,” he said.
Painter, while supportive, was not optimistic. “It’s not going to happen, as much as I’d like it to happen,” he said. “There’s no way that we’re going to get this administration and this legal department to agree. They think this is beyond unsafe, which is ridiculous, as long as you take precautions, you don’t go when there’s rain and the water is high, and people sign acceptable waivers.”
Kulick said the city should partner with him because he’s familiar enough with the river to help the fire department understand rescue issues, and identify debris to flood control managers. Denver and other cities have actually set up river rafting trips on their rivers (admittedly, above ground) and haven’t shut them down over lawsuits that never occur, Kulick said.
“If this kind of logic is allowed to continue, it represents a threat for any outfitter,” he said. “Restricting access to those lands that belong to anybody is wrong. It’s a crime. I told the city I would never sue them, but I do have grounds to sue.”
Rose said he’s very aware of all the issues involved, and was “intrigued” that Kulick was still trying to garner support. But in a lawsuit, the very fact that the city had chewed over the issue for years would make it all the more liable for knowingly allowing the trips to take place, he said.
“It’s just unbelievably dangerous,” he said. “If you ask Fire Chief [Charles] Teale, he’ll say within 50 yards of entering the tunnel there is no communication with anyone but God. If somebody has a heart attack in there, they’ll die.”
In the tunnel, the waterway is no longer a normal river, Rose said, but a dangerous place of “controlled access,” like a bear cage at a zoo in a public park. The Army Corps has ultimate jurisdiction, with the city’s Flood Control Commission exercising local control, he said.
Lawyers contacted by the Hartford Advocate were intrigued by Kulick’s plight, but weren’t sure how the city’s jurisdiction over the tunnel pipes affected the public’s right to access rivers.
Curt Johnson, senior attorney with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said a 1936 state Supreme Court ruling designated the Park River as “navigable,” subjecting it to public access requirements. That was before the tunnels were built, but unless later law gave the city new powers over the underground river, the court ruling would still hold sway, Johnson said.
“Even if it was the city of Hartford that had put a conduit on this, it doesn’t magically transform this river into an ownership right to the city,” he said.
Austin Carey, a West Hartford environmental lawyer who specializes in water rights issues, said that it might be up to the state, rather than an individual like Kulick, to force the city to recognize the public’s access to the river. It’s an issue that might be up to the courts to decide.
“There’s a good argument that the city is trying to interfere with the right of navigability,” Carey said. “Who can enforce that is a different equation. There might be changes in the law that allow an individual to try to enforce that right. Or, John Kulick could go in the river and try to get himself arrested, and let the city try to prove he did something wrong.” ●
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