A leisurely wander through any of our state parks in itself is rewarding just being outside. Truthfully an amble through any wooded area can bring peace and quiet to you after a frantic, in-your-face day “at the office”, wherever that may be. While on one of these unhurried ambles, take in the history of the area. Often the state parks become named as a result of their significance to our local, state, or national history. Frequently included in these hikes are pamphlets/maps offering self guided tours and on occasion you will also have signs narrating the historical story at important locations.
Here in Bethel we are fortunate to have Putnam Memorial State Park, Connecticut’s oldest state park commissioned in 1887, located at the junction of Rte 53 and Rte 107. Park boundaries are on both sides of Rte 58 with the eastern section mostly ponds and trails and the western section a more concentrated historic area. This site is the encampment of General Israel Putnam’s Division of the Continental Army in the winter of 1778-1779. This locality was chosen for the soldiers because it was centrally situated allowing for aid in protection of the fort at West Point and to defend the lands adjacent to Long Island Sound. Another reason for this location was to guard the Danbury supply depot, a storage area for supplies for General Washington’s army. When the army broke camp in the spring of 1779 the barracks and other buildings were burned with only the collapsed stone from the chimneys hinting at the camp setting.
If you visit the park today a short, easy stroll will transport you around the encampment and take you back to the days of this military dwelling. As you enter past the park headquarters you will pass two miniature blockhouses built to replicate a fortified encampment. There are cannons on display but all are from the Civil War era. Ahead you will observe the Memorial Monument constructed in 1888 honoring the men of three different camps in Redding in that winter. Taking a right on the road you will notice piles of stoned on the left. They appear to be just that, random piles of stone. Then you discern they are not so random. You will observe that there is a double row of piles stretching a quarter mile along the company street. Each pile is the remains of soldiers’ quarters measuring 16 x 12 and erected by the soldiers. There were 116 of them.
Further along on the left, set back from the road, is a standing chimney, the remains of a junior officer’s quarters. Traveling around the curve you will notice again on the left what appears to be rock steps leading up a shallow cliff. In the side of this rock face is a small cave. It is believed to have been used by a soldier named Phillips who returned to this setting after the war living the life of a hermit for several years until he was evicted by the community.
Further still around the bend is a replica building of what is now believed to be the magazine for the soldiers. As you continue, on your right are two white marked trails that lead you on a windy, woody circuit around the outer areas of the park. Along the road you will encounter Barlow Circle where supposedly Redding resident and poet Joel Barlow visited and read to the troops. Continuing full circle there are other minor sites and a stream that was used for the camp mill to make flour for baking.
What I find most fascinating and almost eerie is the physical contact with these remains. Go stand next to one of these stone piles and realize you are now standing in the spot where 233 years ago Continental soldiers were actually sleeping. Walk the road and wooded grounds and you are walking in the footsteps of these soldiers as they marched and strolled to keep busy and warm, waiting for their next encounter with the Redcoats. Cross over Rte 58 to the other park area. Go past the swings and start down the paved road. On your left will be a bunker. Step inside, stand there, listen and feel. This was where the soldiers at this camp stored the ammunition they used to battle for our independence. If you close your eyes you can almost hear them crunching through the snow. Hear and feel their breath as it smokes into the frigid air. You are there, they were there; same place.
Visit any of our National Historic Parks and Monuments and truly experience history. Being there makes it real, not just words in a book. Stand in the field at Gettysburg and feel the chill up your spine. These stories really happened.