Harborpark in Middletown, Connecticut has played an important role in the development of the Connecticut River, the City of Middletown, and the State of Connecticut, from the early days of Indian settlements, to the present day.
Settled by the English and early Pilgrims, Harborpark in Middletown, Connecticut quickly developed into an important port along the river. Shipbuilding began almost as soon as the first settlers arrived. Shipbuilding and steamboat construction became a major industry. Many of our fighting ships in the Revolutionary and Civil wars were launched from Harborpark. Harborpark became the home base during the Revolutionary War for many colonial warships, including the first commissioned warship in the newly established United States Navy.
After the Revolutionary War, Middletown was established as one of the four official ports in Connecticut having a custom house. By the second half of the eighteenth century Middletown was the largest town in the State, and the river's most important seaport. One of its most important products shipped from Harborpark in Middletown, Connecticut was the brownstone from quarries in nearby Portland.
In 1824 Harborpark became an important port for Steamboats servicing between Hartford and New York. Shipping and railroad companies competed with one another until 1931, when the last steamboat to New York made its way down the Connecticut River, when automobile and trucking took over as the main source of transportation.
Because of this for the next several decades, Harborpark was neglected. Pollution from upstream factories, and gradual erosion over the river banks because of flooding which made the river an unpleasant place, causing the town to turn its back on it. Also the construction of Route 9 during the 1950's, further separated the downtown from the river. The only thing that remained to connect the river to the city was a pedestrian tunnel under the highway which quickly became an unpleasant place to walk through. Not much good could be said about Harborpark during this time. This was indeed the low point of Middletown's riverfront.
In the late 1960's City Officials becoming more and more concerned over Harborpark's, run down condition, and the need of more economic activity in the city, as well as an awareness that Harborpark was too valuable a resource to continue to ignore. As a result City Officials took major steps to change things around, and make Harborpark a place people would want to use again.
In 1972 a Harbor Improvement Agency was organized, and produced a plan for bring back Harborpark to a place people throughout the State would want to come to again. Ground was broken on “June 15, 1977 for a project which included 1,500 feet of shoreline protection, bulkheading, rip rapping a boardwalking system, docking facilities for small and large excursion craft, launching facilities for high school and college crews, utilities for river craft and the structural rehabilitation of the former Middletown Yacht Club building.”
In Late 1977 the city constructed a boathouse for the Middletown rowing programs, parking, landscaping, recreational facilities, picnicking areas, gazebos, and a pavilion. The completed project which was dedicated in June 10, 1979, became known as "Harborpark".
The work of the Harbor Improvement Agency did not end with the construction of a new public area. For decades, the riverfront area had been avoided by the citizens of Middletown because of its negative reputation. So the city took steps to bring activities, and people back to Harborpark. The first major activity to be scheduled at Harborpark was the Head of the Connecticut Regatta. Since then Harborpark has been the host of many other events such as the Italian Festival, Emerson Regatta for schoolboy rowing, as well as all the home races of the Wesleyan and Middletown crews during the Spring and Fall rowing seasons. In 1990 the 4th of July Fire Works were move form Palmer Field to the river, and 1991 brought on two new events the Black Arts Festival in April, and The Middlesex Triathlon of which I am proud to say I chaired in 1992, as the incoming President for the Middletown Exchange Club. This was our main event to raise money for abused kids.
After several attempts to bring a restaurant to Harborpark, the Harbor Improvement Agency in 1980 found a developer for a restaurant in the old Middletown Yacht club facility. The restaurant has change names and had several owners over the years. It has also been the victim of several floods, especially in the early 80’s when the water on the Connecticut River rose over 27 feet and flooded the restaurant all the way up to the second floor.
In the 90’s the city purchase an additional parcel of land adjacent to Harborpark, and constructed a small park in honor of Christopher Columbus.
Today Harborpark in Middletown, Connecticut is once again well known throughout and a great place to stop at when traveling through Middletown, Connecticut.
Sources of Information:
Middletown, by David G. Sparks, published by the city of Middletown, copyright 1980.
Getting To Know The Connecticut River, by Elizabeth Gemming, published by Cowaard, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc. New York, copyright 1974.
The City of Middletown Municipal Development Department, William M. Kuehn, Jr. Director.
The City of Middletown Arts & Culture Department, Corine Gill Director.
And My Own Personal Knowledge of Harborpark in Middletown, Connecticut