The entire 55-mile Airline Rail Trail travels within the Quinebaug-Shetucket Rivers National Heritage Corridor in eastern Connecticut on the path of the New York & New England Air Line Railroad which operated in the good old days from 1873 to 1893. It's name is derived from the fact that it followed a straight line route, as if drawn through the air, between New York and Boston. The Air Line Trail is divided into two sections: Air Line Trail South and Air Line Trail North.
The Air Line State Park Trail North runs for 21 miles from Route 66 in Windham / Willimantic and passes through Chaplin, Hampton and Pomfret to Town Farm Road in Putnam where you can connect to the Thompson Trail Extension in Pomfret and ride all the way to the Massachussetts border and beyond . . .
The Airline Trail North leads you on a multi-faceted mountain bike excursion through scenic northeastern Connecticut's countryside. You will be engaged in Bikes & Battles on the Air Line North State Park Trails' Revolutionary War National Historic Sites; travelling through State Parks and Forests; past Wildlife Management and Conservation Areas; over sparkling streams and through modern Windham / Willamantic's once-mighty colonial and industrial past.
Bicycling Air Line State Park Trail North
While much of the Air Line Rail Trail North's trail conditions have been "improved", it's still not as well "polished" as the Air Line Rail Trail South which has been recognized as a National Recreation Trail in 2002.
The different stages of development on the Air Line State Park Trail North makes for a rougher ride better suited for a mountain bike or hybrid bicycle. From Windham to Putnam, trail conditions vary from compacted earth and crushed rock to gravel and stone dust. The level section through Goodwin State Forest and past Hampton Reservoir along Natchaug State Forest border in Hampton provides a smooth and scenic bicycle ride.
The southern end of the trail in Windham features a smooth paved surface that carries the trail over the Willamnatic River. While the unfinished and "rougher" trail sections through the Thompson Extension with patches of original ballast may prove to be challenging, it's the less travelled path as well as a fun and fascinating mountain biking experience.
Where Do You Start Your Mountain Bike Ride On the Airline State Park Trail North?
Are you BikePacking the entire 55-mile length of the Air Line State Park Trail beginning at East Hampton and looking for choice outdoor camping destinations or a lux B&B with a spa guest pass?
Are you just out for a short scenic and Romantic Bike Ride or a Wildlife Watch & Photo-Ops trip past the Goodwin Conservation Center and Natchaug State Forest and nature preserves through Connecticuts' Quiet Corner?
Out for a fun bridge hopping and/or educational Family Cycling day trip?
There are many points of entry onto the Air Line Trail North and several trail connections leading onto other major Connecticut Rails To Trails.
Bicycling Air Line Rail Trail North Connections
A smooth, crushed stone-dust path takes you from the Air Line Trail South to the Airline Trail North and over the Willimantic River and the New England Central Railroad via the Willimantic Pedestrian Footbridge. The 635-foot bridge, built in 1906 was listed on the National Historic Register in 1979. Now, once again, for the first time since the trains stopped running in the 1950's, the bridge connects Lebanon and Windham.
A hike-a-bike across the bridge offers unique views of downtown Willimantic, and the swiftly moving river.
Frog Bridge - Thread City Crossing
A 500-foot, four-lane bridge, which opened in 2000, is officially known as the Thread City Crossing. It connects Routes 66 and 32 across the Willimantic River and a rail line. This whimsical but impressive bridge's four 11-foot frogs atop giant spools of thread are reminders of the city's history and the legend of the Battle of the Frogs.
Location: This bridge is a connection between Airline Trail South and the Airline Trail North via the Veterans Highway.South Street, Willimantic. Just outside downtown Willimantic where routes 66 and 32 come together.
Route 66 – Hop Brook State Park Trail
To the west, the trail travels along the river to Route 66. From here you can connect to the Hop River State Park Trail.
Thompson Extension – Southern New England Trunkline Trail
The Thompson Extension, connects With the Airline North State Park Trail at it's northern terminus and continues for 6.6 to the Masachussetts border where it connects to the Southern New England Trunkline Trail.
The Willimantic River
The river is a designated contiguous 22-mile National Water Recreation Trail. It begins in Stafford CT, just south of the downtown on Route 32 and continues parallel to Route 32 with launches and landings for kayakers and canoers in Tolland, Willington, Coventry, Mansfield, Columbia and Willimantic CT. There's only one short portage necessary along the entire route.
The Willimantic River in these parts powered the mills of an entire textile industry. The Willimantic River, a tributary of the Shetucket River, begins at the confluence of Middle River and Furnace Brook in Tolland, CT. Along it's southern course into the city many streams feed into the river including the Hop River and Ten Mile River. Shortly upstream from it's confluence with the Natchaug and Shetucket River in Willimantic, it drops a whopping ninety-feet in just one mile. Whoa!
This part of the river was called "Wilimentuck" (land of swiftly moving waters) by the Algonquian speaking Native Americans who found that this area of the river and it's stream tributaries provided an excellent supply of trout. Along the entire river is a series of riffles, runs and pools that hold trout year-round. Native American trails leading in from Boston, MA; Providence, Warwick and West Greenwich, RI; Norwich, CT; Plainfield, NJ and New York crisscrossed the area.
The Willimantic Falls Village, slowly grew into a major industrial center, it's initial development powered by early European settlers and the falls and later by the resolutions of Revolutionary War Patriots to place an embargo on imported goods from England. Cotton, silk and other mills sprang up all along the river from Stafford Springs to the Willimantic, including the American Thread Company from which the city derives it's current nickname, Thread City.
The river was also one of America's Revolutionary War famous byways. The Continental American and French armies used the river as a through route; and it's banks for army encampments.
Windham / Willimantic to Windham / Chaplin Town Line
This section is a must for history afficionados of all ages. This is the most developed stretch of the Air Line State Park Trail North. The entire section of trail in Windham has a smooth stone-dust surface except for the southern end of the trail in Windham which is paved. The Windham / Willimantic area provides an inquisitive's insider perspective of northeastern's Connecticut's significant mill, textile, railroad and architectural history spanning a period of 200 years.
From the intersection of Union Street and the Air Line Trail, there is a lot to see and do. Within a few blocks radius is the Main Street Historic District which encompasses Willimantic's central business district and Jillison Square. William was a pioneer of the milling industry having been one of the first people to purchase industrial water rights at the falls of the Willimantic.
Make the historic Willimantic Footbridge one of the stops on your bike trip. It was built in 1906 to connect the business side of Willimantic to the residential side across the river. If you're ready for "eats", you'll find lots of restaurant and cafe options in "Thread City".
Nearby, to the east is the Windham Textile and History Museum and just across the street from the museum is Windham Mills Heritage State Park and the beautiful Double Stone Arch Bridge (Garden on the Bridge).
Heading north out of the Historic District, the trail crosses the Natchaug River and parallels Route 66. After passing under Route 66 the trail heads northeast and travels through a patchwork of commercial and residential areas, green space and around the Joshua Trust Atlantic White Cedar Bog. Watch for beaver and bird activity in nearby ponds and surrounding wetlands.
The route crosses Route 6, runs along the southeastern border of Mansfield Hollow State Park, passes the Two Sisters Tract Conservation Area and arcs east to cut between Beaver Brook State Park and CT State Forest / Park Wildlife Area. This section ends at the Intersection of Chewink and Lynch Road.
Windham/Chaplin town line to Wrights Crossing Road, Pomfret
From the intersection of Lynch and Chewink Road the path travels just within the eastern edge of the CT State Forest / Wildlife Park, heads east and crosses S. Brook Road. A short distance after going under the Hartford Turnpike, the route heads north to the James L. Goodwin State Forest.
The 11-mile stretch beginning at the Goodwin State Forest Conservation Center to Route 44 in Pomfret is smooth, scenic and suitable for most bicyclists, hikers, and equestrians. This route affords scenic views of the Goodwin State Forest and Conservation Center, the Hampton Reservoir.
When the trail heads out of Goodwin State Park it curves north, kisses the border of Natchaug State Forest. and travels along the west side of the Hampton Reservoir. Then the trail heads diagnally towards Pomfret. After crossing Hampton Road / Route 97 it travels along the western border of Pomfret Recreation Park. Mashamoquet Brook State Park is to the east. The trail passes under Mashamoquet Road / US 44 and around the northern border of the park. From Covell Road to Railroad Street in Pomfreet, the trail has been resurfaced. From Route 169 to Wrights Crossing Road, the trail surface has been upgraded to smooth stone dust.
Pomfret Station to Town Farm Road, Putnam - Connector
Running from Pomfret Station to Town Farm Road in Putnam, this new connector is a key addition to the Air Line State Park Trail featuring seven important crossings - three tunnels, two bridges and two at-grade crossings.
The Thompson Extension connects with the Air Line North Rail Trail at it's northern terminus and continues for 6.6 to the Masachussetts border where it connects to the Southern New England Trunkline Trail. The Thompson section is a work in progress. Most of the extension has been rough graded. Some sections still have the original ballast and hike-a-biking it may be necessary.
Gravel has been installed from Sand Dam Road to the Massachusetts line and new parking areas with information kiosks are located where the trail crosses East Thompson Road, Sand Dam Road and the trail terminus at Route 12.
Trail Highlights & Nearby Points of Interest
Wildlife Watch & Photo-Ops
Start the Air Line State Park Trail at the James L. Goodwin State Forest. At 3.5 miles, stop in at the Audubon’s Trailwood Sanctuary in Hampton. Cycle another 7.5 miles and end your ride at the Connecticut Audubon’s Bafflin Sanctuary in Pomfret.
James L. Goodwin State Forest
Covering more than three square miles the James L. Goodwin State Forest offers an extensive variety of trails, including a equestrian trail and acess to the the miles-long Air Line Trail. The 135 acre Pine Acres Lake, and the Goodwin Conservation Center, ponds, a picnic pavilion overlooking Pine Acres Pond, a small nature museum make this an ideal rest stop.
Connecticut Audubon - Bafflin Sanctuary
Birdwatchers will enjoy a detour to The Audubon Society's Center at Pomfret for some of the best birding in the state on former farm fields, now managed to provide habitat for hard-to-find grassland birds. Explore the rolling meadows, forests, streams and grassland habitats of the 700-acre Bafflin Sanctuary which adjoins the Center.
There are miles of hiking trails, including access to Air Line rail trail. Participate in guided bird walks, environmental education programs and other events.
Location: 218 Day Road (off Route 169), Pomfret Center, CT
Website: Audubon Baffin Sanctuary
Joshua's Trust - Atlantic White Cedar Bog
The 55 acre White Atlantic Cedar Bog along Route 6 in Windham, CT is listed on Connecticut’s Natural Diversity Data base as a unique site. Atlantic White Cedar is found most frequently in small dense stands in fresh water swamps and bogs. The trees are very slow growing and can potentially live to 1,000 years of age. Unusual plants such as the carniverous sundew and venus flycatcher are associated with these bogs. These areas have become increasingly rare due to environment change and habitat loss.
While there is no boardwalk through the bog, the Air Line Rail Trail travels around it's circumference.
Bikes & Battles
Washington–Rochambeau Revolutionary Route
The 680-mile National Historic Trail is comprised of a network of roads, trails and water routes used by the American Continental Army and their French allies during the Yorktown campaign. On June 20, 1781, Rochambeau's army arrived at what is called the 4th encampment via Route 14. The camp was located by the Shetucket River, just west of Windham Center. They left camp on June 21 and marched past the village of Willimantic, roughly following modern Route 14 and Route 66. While most of Route 14A and Route 14 have lost their 18th-century character, several short road segments remain preserved.
Lebanon Green Historic District
There are several National Historic Trail Sites on the Air Line Trail. Most notably - Lebanon Green. From November 1780 to June 1781, Lebanon provided winter quarters for 220 French cavalry soldiers known as hussars of Lauzun's Legion. It was the longest of the French encampments in Connecticut.
Stroll the Green to get the feel of an early colonial town settlement, and its association with great events that occurred during the American Revolution. Much of Lebanon’s impressive, history-shaping role in the Revolutionary War can be attributed to the patriotic Lebanon-born Governor Jonathan Trumbull. Although Trumbull was the colonial governor of the state, he sided with the colonists against the British even before the breakout of the war. His son, Jonathan Trumbull Jr. was elected Governor of Connecticut in 1797, serving until his death in office in 1809.
Today, the homes of both men — Jonathan Trumbull and Jonathan Trumbull Jr. — along with the War Office are historic sites open to the public.
Historical Society: https://historyoflebanon.org
Trail Brochure: Washington–Rochambeau Revolutionary War Trail
Bicycles & Historic Districts
There are two distinct Historic Districts. The Willimantic Main Street & Prospect Hill Historic District showcases Willimantic's Industrial Heritage and the more rural and residential Windham Historic District focuses more on early Colonial and Revolutionary War period architecture and notable residents of the times.
Willimantic Main Street & Prospect Hill District
In 1982, the central business district area of Willimantic, CT was designated "Main Street Historic District" and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Start at the Jilson Stone House museum. From here, within walking distance you can visit the Windham Textile and History Museum, The Windham Mills State Heritage Park and Garden On The Bridge, and the Willimantic Frog Bridge as follows:
Windham Textile & History Museum - The Din Of Machines
The Windham Textile and History Museum (also known as the Mill Museum of Connecticut) tells and preserves the history of the rise and fall of the textile industry in Willimantic and the rest of eastern Connecticut. It features both permanent and temporary exhibits. Replications of rooms such as the Workers House, Mill Managers House, The Sewing Room bring to life experiences of the craftspeople, industrial workers, manufacturers, inventors, designers and the townspeople of those times.
Location: 411 Main Street, Willimantic, Connecticut.
Windham Mills State Heritage Park
This riverfront pocket park in Willimantic is located across the street from the Windham Textile and History Museum. You are right the midst of the Windham Mill Complex and some of the most impressive mill structures in the area.
The park offers a great view of a 150 year old stone arched bridge and Mill #1. Both were built in 1857 by the Willimantic Linen Company. The smaller of the two bridge arches allows water flowing through Mill #1's race to return to the river. The water powered the mill until the advent of hydroelectric power.
The bridge carried vehicles until it was replaced by the Frog Bridge in 2001. The bridge is now called "Garden On The Bridge Park" which can be reached by climbing the stairs or by walking out to Main Street and up to the bridge entrance.
Mill # 1 has been converted into residential and studio space. The mill building next to the park is Mill #2, the largest of the granite structures in the Windham Mills complex.
Location: From the junction of Jackson and Main Street (at the Frog Bridge) in Willimantic, go east on Main Street for a tenth-mile and turn right into the entrance of the Windham Mills complex. A parking lot and the park are to the right.
Windham Center Historic District
This area encompasses a microcosm of American Colonial and Revolutionary War history. Listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1979, the Windham Main Street Historic District & Center is a concentrated cluster of architectural styles spanning 200 years centered on a village green and surrounded by open land, either for growing feed corn or as pasture.
Four roads radiate out from the center: Scotland Rd (Route 14), to the east, Windham Center Road (Route 203), to the south, Plains Road, to the west and North Road (Routes 14 and 203), to the northwest.
BikePacking & Camping
The Air Line State Park Trail long distance route across 12 towns in Northeastern Connecticut, stands out for it's options for beginners and seasoned cyclists bicycling and/or BikePacking long distance Connecticut Rails To Trails.
Mashamoquet State Park Camping – Pomfret
Two camping areas are available. The Mashamoquet Brook Campground offers primitive camping (there is no running water available). Wolf Den Campground offers 35 campsites with requisite amenities.
Location: 276 Mashamoquet Rd, Pomfret Center, CT 06259
Bikes & Kayaks
Willimantic River Trail
he Willimantic River Water Trail provides more than 22.5 contiguous miles of paddling enjoyment and challenges between Stafford Springs and Willimantic, Connecticut with only one short portage.
There are three major segments: the rapids and quickwater of the narrow upper section, the flatwater impoundment above Eagleville Lake Dam and the moderate current and flatwater down to the takeout at the Air Line Trail Landing and Launch just above the falls in Willimantic.
Do not pass downstream of the Air Line Trail Landing and Launch takeout as there are dangerous falls below.
Historic Notes: Thread City
The story of modern Windham / Willimantic begins:
I, Joshua Uncas, Sachem, son of Uncas, Sachem, living nigh eight mile Island on the river Connecticutt and within the boundary of Lyme, being sick in body but of good and perfect memory and not knowing how soon I may depart this life, do make this my last will and testament (viz:)
Signed and sealed in the presence of: John Dension, Gershom Palmer, William Pratt
The mark of Trusty Slade
Norwich, April 29th 1684, truly entered out of and by the original and therewith compared all. James Fitch, Assistant.
In brief, Mohican Sachem Chief Joshua willed the land to sixteen men, most of whom resided in Norwich, CT.
Modern Windham, where the northern section of the Air Line State Park Rail Trail begins, was incorporated in 1692. It was named after a town of a similar name in England, "Wyndham". The first European settlers were farmers and an agricultural period prevailed.
The Willimantic River powered a world renowned textile industry. Gristmills, sawmills, a powder mill that supplied the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a paper mill and ironworks were some of the early mills that sprang up around the Willimantic River.
From the mid-1800's to the early 1900's, Willimantic (a section of Windham), was known worldwide as one of the finest manufacturers of silk and cotton thread outside of England and was aptly named "Thread City". The first person to engage in textile manufacture was Perez Richmond from Rhode Island. In 1822 he built a small wooden cotton mill close to the junction of the Natchaug and Willimantic Rivers. Houses and businesses were established to service mill workers. This village became known as Richmond Town.
The Jilson's, a prominent family in the history of Willimantics textile era arrived in 1826, after purchasing Richmond's mill privileges. Asa Jillison (1783-1848) along with his brother, retooled the old Richmond mill and built two more mills and a house. In 1845, Asa's son, in conjuntion with two business partners formed the Welles Company. They built a three story mill on the site of Perez's 1822 cotton mill. The expanded mill village then became known as Wellesville.
The Jillison mills eventually came under the ownership of the Willimantic Linen Company. In 1880, the Willimantic Linen Company completed Mill No. 4, a huge brick factory, 168 feet wide by 840 feet long, that was, at that time, the largest cotton mill in the world. In 1898, the Willimantic Linen Company became part of the American Thread Company.
This booming mill and textile industry led to the development of a transportation system that became one of the largest hubs in eastern Connecticut. It served several rail and trolley lines. In 1849, the tracks of the New London, Willimantic, and Palmer Railroad were completed, linking Willimantic to the coastal line that ran to New Haven along Long Island Sound and to points north.
Shortly thereafter, an east-west route, the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad, ran through Willimantic, connecting it to two of southern New England's largest cities.
The Air Line
In the 1870s, the two earlier rail lines were joined by a third, the so-called "Air Line" (ie., as the crow flies) route between Boston and New York. A cluster of hotels and restaurants developed around the passenger depot. Many of the historic buildings, hotels and Victorian Era mansions in Willimantic and Windham were built during this time.
Then, just over 100 years later in 1985, life in Willimantic, Connecticut – and in the other old industrial cities and towns of southern New England – changed forever. The American Thread Company, the city’s signature industry, closed its Willimantic Mills plant and shifted operations to North Carolina and later Mexico.
The "Din of the Machines" is heard no more and "Hard Times" befell this once bustling center of industry.
Air Line Rail Trail North
The following is a list of some of the main parking areas at strategic points along the trail
Northeast Windham / Route 203: Pull offs for a few cars at the Intersection of Beaver Hill Road and Windham Road
Intersection of Chewink and Lynch Road: Large pull off parking area
Potter Road: 0.6 mile north of its intersection with Route 6. For our recommended section from Hampton to Pomfret: Park at the trailhead at the Goodwin State Forest Conservation Center on Potter Rd. off Rt. 6 in Hampton. Parking available about 200 yards from the trail.
Pomfret Station: 13 Railroad Avenue (off of Route 169)
Town owned parking lot: adjacent to trail on the west side of Pomfret Town Office: 455 Mashamoquet Road (Route 44)
Pomfret Senior Center: Town owned paved parking lot - 207 Mashamoquet Road (Route 44)
Southern end of trail in Thompson: Large parking lot at 121 Riverside Drive, (Route 12, Mechanicsville)
388 Sand Dam Road: Pull off for a few cars at Air Line trail crossing, 388 Sand Dam Road
662 East Thompson Road, near the junction of New Road: 5 car parking lot
Connecticut Dept. Of Energy & Environmental Protection: https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP