Walk explores how redevelopment changed Willimantic

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Wed., Oct. 12, 2011
Ray Axelrod addresses a group of Walktober trekkers in front of the Jillson Square gazebo. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Ray Axelrod addresses a group of Walktober trekkers in front of the Jillson Square gazebo. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Those who are familiar with the East Hampton to Lebanon portion of the Air Line Trail might be surprised to learn that there is a very urban section that runs through downtown Willimantic. The Willimantic route, a paved portion of the north section of the trail, was the focus of a Walktober event on Oct. 10. Hosted by Ray Axelrod and sponsored by the Windham Recreation Department, the event focused on the history of the railroad and mills in Willimantic and the changes that occurred during redevelopment in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

According to Axelrod, the town - enticed by Housing and Urban Development money - underwent a massive reconstruction that eliminated seven out of 14 blocks of downtown Willimantic in the 1970s. “We’re still reaping the non-benefits of having [a limited] downtown,” he said. Numerous streets, including Temple, Center, Broad and Union, were eliminated, along with more than 100 businesses. Businesses either closed down, or were moved to more remote locations, as the mall setting became the norm. “You essentially ripped out the heart of downtown,” said Axelrod. “Around here, you wiped out the ‘I can walk to it’ factor.”

Later, in the 1980s, “Redevelopment was actually pretty good in Willimantic,” said Axelrod. This later wave of funding was focused on refurbishing the area’s Victorian homes, built during the heyday of Willimantic’s textile mills. Efforts were also made to aid business owners.

During the height of American Thread’s dominance in Willimantic, the railroad played a huge part in the life of the town. Remnants of that way of life are still visible as you walk along the downtown Willimantic portion of the Air Line Trail. Past a number of apartment complexes and multi-family homes, old railroad ties still lie in front of a warehouse building. As his group made its way toward the Natchaug River Bridge, Axelrod pointed out various remnants of the railroad’s former dominance in town. Some buildings still retain shapes designed to hug offshoots of the main rail line, to allow for easy off-loading of raw materials and re-loading of finished product. Pointing through a screen of invasive Japanese knotweed to a graffiti-covered building behind a chain-link fence, Axelrod said, “You can still see the loading doors on that warehouse.”

Further down the trail, Axelrod pointed to the “last textile mill in Willimantic.” The two-story brick building, visible from the trail through a chain-link fence, manufactured textiles until 2002, according to Axelrod. “It was originally three stories,” he said. The building, like many others in town, was damaged by a hurricane in the 1930s. “When they rebuilt, they rebuilt it as two stories,” said Axelrod.

A view of the Natchaug River from a bridge over the trail was the “reward for the walk,” said Axelrod. With autumn colors beginning to show on the trees in the valley, the view was the payoff to the leisurely 2.25-mile stroll.

Walktober continues through the month of October. The “Willi Before Redevelopment” walk is scheduled to be repeated on Sunday, Oct. 16, and Saturday, Oct. 29, beginning at 11 a.m. Gather at Jillson Square. For a complete listing of Walktober events, go to www.tlgv.org.


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