As you leave Naugatuck and head down the valley towards Beacon Falls you pass through an area of nearly unmatched natural beauty called High Rock State Park. Majestic cliffs tower dramatically above the rushing waters of the Naugatuck River as Red Tail Hawks soar silently above, searching for their unsuspecting prey. How many of us speed along Route 8 in the haste of our daily commute, intent on our destination, without giving this wonder of nature a second glance.
This is an area that holds a special meaning for Kathy and I. Almost 27 years ago we hiked to the very top of these cliffs, with an out of breath minister and wedding party in tow, and began what has to proven to be a nearly three decade long honeymoon. For us, looking up at those rocky crags each time we pass has become a fond ritual.
While this alone is enough to enshrine High Rock as a national historic landmark, there is much more history here than that. Only a few of our most senior citizens remember back to when a sizable amusement area named High Rock Park was nestled snugly between those rugged cliffs.
The very beginnings of High Rock Park were within the offices of the old Naugatuck Railroad sometime after it pushed its rails up the valley to Waterbury and beyond in 1849. The president of the line, a Mr. Beach, was quite naturally eager to develop as much traffic for his new railroad as possible and especially during slack times such as on Sundays. A popular idea with both railroads and trolley lines at the time was to develop an amusement park somewhere along the line that could only be reached by rail. Quassy Amusement Park was also such a park that was developed by the trolley line that ran from Waterbury to Woodbury.
At first High Rock was promoted as a scenic picnic grove. A special spur, or siding, was built adjacent to the main line to store the railcars used to transport happy families to and from their Sunday outings. A dam was built across the Naugatuck River to provide a wide, calm pond for boating. Rowboats and other small craft were available and proved to be great attraction. Soon a pavilion was built so that families could enjoy the great outdoors even if the weather proved uncooperative.
By 1882 work was underway on a large roller rink with five-thousand square feet of floor space on the plateau at the base of the largest cliff. Food and other amusements stands were by now in abundance and a hiking trail had been cut to the top of the cliffs.
By today’s standards these attractions may seem dated and even boring. There were no giant roller coasters or tall thrill rides to elicit screams of terror and no loud rock music blaring from speakers on every pole. However, for those factory workers and their families, who often worked in excess of sixty hours a week, those Sundays spent enjoying the fresh air and sunshine must have seemed like heaven and for a young man courting his favorite young lady, what could be more romantic than a warm summer’s evening rowing about on the pond.
Soon the popularity of the park began to exceed even what the railroad had expected. On some weekends, near the turn of the century, flatcars with makeshift benches hastily nailed in place were pressed into service to handle the crowds. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world of hyper-regulation and nanny-state government that a group of men, women and children could be piled on an open car and sent off down the rails. Despite this, all seems to have worked out well since no injuries were ever reported with the possible exception of a conductor who once fell off the train but didn’t get hurt. How they managed this record without the government overseeing their every move we’ll never know.
Today, it’s hard to find any traces of this once prosperous park. The hiking trails remain and were used by Kathy and I on our assent to the summit where we were married on that crisp Autumn day. At the very top of the cliff a few remnants of a metal railing still cling to the rocks. The flattened area where the roller rink and pavilion once stood is visible but nothing remains that would give a hint to their once being there. Even the remnants of the dam, that so long held back the waters of the river and were still visible until they rebuilt Route 8 a number of years ago, are now totally erased.
Only the old Railroad itself, who’s name has been changed many times over as new management took over the reigns, still runs along the banks of the Naugatuck River to remind us of the glory days of High Rock Park. If you should chance to ride the Metro North line south towards Beacon Falls, think for a moment of those long ago days when people rode on open flatcars to spend a day at the park. For just a moment close your eyes and listen very carefully. Perhaps, for just a fleeting instant, you will hear the faint sounds of children at play or the happy tune of the band that played for each train as it arrived so long ago.