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Artist-Archaeologists Unearth Hartford's 'Buried River'

The fascinating story of exploring and mapping a hidden, uncharted local river is showcased at Buttonwood Tree in a new multimedia exhibit.

What would you think if you heard that there was a hidden, uncharted waterway right here in Central Connecticut? Would you believe there's a place where very few people have ever ventured, nevermind mapped? Could a place like this really exist?

Well, it does, and you can view the very first images of the subterranean environment at The Buttonwood Tree on Main Street in Middletown.  

Many have a vague awareness that there is a river running underneath and through the center of Hartford. First called Little River by the Native Americans, the route was renamed the Hog River by the Dutch. An attempt was made in the mid-19th century to rename it to the more noble sounding Park River when Bushnell Park was opened, but that name never really stuck.

Those who know of its existence today still call it the Hog River, and it was truly buried alive.

The courageous Lewis and Clark of the Hog River exhibit are Joe McCarthy and Peter Albano, two artist-explorers trained in fine arts.

McCarthy, 24, studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the New York Film Academy, and worked for MTV for a period of time. He is a professional photographer.

Albano, 23, a graduate of the University of Hartford, is an artist and digital photographer and earns his living as a waiter at Mezzo Grill in Middletown.

The team documented their first voyages in a short documentary called "Buried Alive," which was recently shown at Real Art Ways Cinema in Hartford, spurring a ton of local interest and an encore of the documentary.

"People don't even know that the largest subterranean river in the United States is underneath Hartford," McCarthy says. "There are nine miles of 35-by-45-foot tunnels that most people have never heard of, have never seen and have never mapped — they are literally uncharted waters. Our first goals are to map the routes and raise awareness that this natural resource exists."  

About 40 people gathered last week The Buttonwood Tree for the opening of the collection from the first voyages of the Hog River.

Displays include original drawings mapping the subterranean tunnels, older maps of the original river, digital photographs inside the tunnels, and a photograph of Bushnell Park and the State Capitol, including the river exposed prior to its burial.

Found objects include a Titanic-evoking dinner plate still intact, rusted iron machine parts (evidence of a mill and factory past), and even a small pool of the river water itself, tempting visitors to dip their fingers into it like a vessel of holy water.

The centerpiece is the small rowboat the pair used to make the virgin voyages in, another "found" object that McCarthy discovered floating unmanned down the Connecticut River.

Albano shared that he was terrified the first time they entered the river's tunnels. "I wanted to leave; I felt claustrophobic. Sensory deprivation occurs within only a few hundred meters with total darkness. The air is stale. Every sound is amplified and echoes; you'll hear a drip of water for miles before you finally reach it. It is very surreal; without any light your worst fears come out. It took several journeys before I could relax and enjoy it as a peaceful experience."  

Bob Dutcher, a familiar face in Middletown and self-described "surfer, writer and former lawyer," said he came to the exhibit because of a brief attempt he made to explore the tunnels himself.  

"I, too, have been a boatman down the River Styx! But only for about a half a mile before I turned around. With no light, you begin to fill in the blanks in the canvas with all of your worst fears. It's really scary in there!"  

Dutcher comments about the exhibit, "To turn this exploration into an artistic production is genius — and isn't that what art is all about anyway? Seeing what others don't see?"  

Visitor Maud Cronkhite, an artist from East Granby, said, "The photographs are absolutely surreal and it's such a fascinating subject."

Digital prints range from $75 to $400. The boat is for sale at $800. Funds will be used to finance future expeditions and river advocacy efforts.  

The exhibit runs through July 31. For information about the history of the Hog River, see here.

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Nancy July 11, 2011 at 10:47 AM
At some point in the past canoe and/or kayak trips were being run through the Hog RIver under Bushnell Park through one of the outfitter's in the Avon-Canton area. There was talk of pollution and rodents so I didn't go, but I hope those early trialblazers will add to this news article. Possibily Dave. S. could tell you more.
Kathy Taylor July 11, 2011 at 04:13 PM
There's a wonderful reverse painting on glass picture in the Canton Historical Museum, which shows a portion of the Park River running through Bushnell Park with the State Capitol and the Soldiers and Sailors' Memorial Arch in the background.
Cathy Branch Stebbins July 12, 2011 at 12:40 PM
The reverse painting sounds beautiful. You can also pick up old postcards with views of the State Capitol showing the Park River on Ebay. I like to collect these.
Allen Boyce July 13, 2011 at 11:34 PM
It was John Kulick of Huck Finn Adventures who was running the tours. Here's a couple of articles about his trials and tribulations: http://connecticutexplored.org/2009/06/hog-tales/ http://home.comcast.net/~rindeweb/Underground.html It's hardly unknown territory. I've been in from the CT river end until it got too dark and my bowman chickened out. The conduits are also clearly marked on MDC maps, one of which I have hanging on my wall. Interesting article but comes up short in regard to the facts.
Joe McCarthy July 14, 2011 at 06:30 AM
Thank you everyone for the comments! We did interview John Kulick for the documentary which screened at real art ways last November, he took us down to the convergence of the north and south branches of the river and spoke about the history and mechanics of the waterway, he also shared stories of his time leading canoe tours down the river. Our goal in putting up this show of course was not to lay any claim to the river or presuppose that it was not a know place. Of course there are maps and information, but that's the point isn't it? The maps and information are already out there, we don't need to regurgitate that information, it is publicly available. Our aim in putting up this show is to render and interpret the river through our own experiences in the tunnels, far beyond the point where it gets to dark. I hope you all make it down to the Buttonwood tree in Middletown to check out the show this month! And stay tuned for more hog river revival in the near future as our voyages are ongoing.

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