For centuries, people have come to fish at the wild area in the middle of Manchester that we know today as Center
Springs Park. Native Americans probably camped near Bigelow Brook, which flows through the grounds from the Main Street
side of the park.
The springs were a regional attraction, before the arrival of European settlers: “…The great trail [now Center Street] passed the second-best fishing place of the Podunks, the falls at Center Springs Park. Here the Indians caught the lamprey eels, and…divided and dressed them under an oak tree. The oak tree stood about where the Center Church now stands…” – History of Manchester, Connecticut, by Mathias Spiess and Percy W. Bidwell, 1924, page 12.
John Hyde described going to the springs from his house on the corner of Main and Ford Streets, just below the Center, during the 1890s: “We had no electricity, no running water. We got our water from a cistern…in the summertime, we went to Center Springs Park for water. The spring is down in back of the Congregational Church . There was quite a grade to get down to the spring, but it was pretty hard work climbing back with pails of water. We carried two pails through the woods.” – 1974 oral history interview by Betty Walker, Old Manchester, The Storytellers, page 122.
Old-timers describe fishing in the deep holes and cold water along Bigelow Brook, before it was dammed up in the 1920s to create a six-acre pond. The brook flows over the falls (see "waterfall" photo below), fed by springs. It flows out near the 1921 gate-house (see "skating" photo below), on its way to the Hockanum River.
Scott Sprague, Director of Parks and Recreation, said that the heyday of the Park was during the 1930s and 1940s. “Back then, a full-time person worked just at Center Springs Park, supported by other Park Department maintenance staff.” This worker maintained the water garden, the remains of which can still be seen along the brook, as well as the trails in the park and the skating lodge.
During the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, ice skaters still flocked to the pond. There was a warming hut, piped-in music, and skaters who could turn a fancy figure on the ice. Electric lights made possible a romantic evening of skating. In the warmer months, fishing continued to be popular.
During the 1960s, some Town leaders wanted to carve five acres out of the park to build a school. The Manchester
Evening Herald reported meetings and hearings where the issue was hotly debated. This headline is from February 27,
1967: “Plans for New Lincoln School in Center Springs Park Hit a Legal Snag – Cheney Bros. Quitclaim Deed Contains
Restrictions for Construction of School on Park Land.” Eventually the park was spared, schools were built elsewhere, and
Lincoln School, supposedly too old and decrepit to maintain, has become the handsome Lincoln Center, with town offices and
Urbanization has also threatened the park. During the 1970s and 1980s, Bigelow Brook, carrying storm water into the pond, brought pollutants and sediment from upstream road-sanding and construction, which fed the growth of algae and weeds. Weed growth and increased water temperatures made the pond too shallow for ice skating and inhospitable to fish. Trash, pulled downstream during storms, choked the brook and pond, decreasing the flow of water.
The Park attracted fewer nature-lovers. Newspapers’ police reports told of unsavory incidents in the lonely park, so even more people stayed away. Folks still came in winter to sled on the big hill, and to skate at an annex to the pond.
Fortunately, the town, in partnership with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, and support from
federal Clean Water Act funds, undertook a massive restoration project in 1988. Much work has been completed, including
the dredging of the pond and construction of a sedimentation “fore-bay” and a trash-rack to catch those pesky bottles,
tires, and other debris. Removal of undergrowth has opened up the Park to sunlight, and in nice weather you can see
families picnicking, walking on the trails, fishing, reading books, or watching a Little League game at the field near
Valley Street. The parking area just north of Lincoln Center provides access to a new stairway into the park. The cost for
a visit, even in 2005, remains zero.
Although Center Springs can be considered an urban park, it never had the level of design work of, for example, New York’s Central Park, with its major re-landscaping of hillsides and creation of rock formations. Our park retains much of its original wild nature, and in spots could look as it may have to the Native Americans who fished there. But wildness has its place in historic parks, too. As author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817 -1862) said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
• The local history books mentioned are available at the Town libraries.
• To see a reprint of a 1929 architect proposal for Center Springs Park, in the "Vintage Reprints" section of this web site, please click here. The proposal includes a map of the 50+ acre park in the center of Manchester.
Click on the following images to see larger views of each: