At the Falls of Essex Hill

Few people have even heard of Essex Hill Falls, a place nearby Cornwall’s Cathedral Pines Preserve where Birdseye Brook plunges down a series of rock ledges beside the ruins of an ancient mill. “Icy Cascades on the Birdseye”, one of my latest works from Essex Hill Falls, portrays soothing cascades along Birdseye Brook which slip deftly beneath the “toothy jaws” of an icicle-laden boulder.

"Icy Cascades on the Birdseye"
Essex Hill Falls, Cornwall, CT
© 2012 J. G. Coleman

It’s worth noting that Essex Hill Falls is a name of my own creation for these cascades… you won’t find the name on a map. One might imagine that, over the course of the nearly three centuries that Cornwall has been an incorporated town, somebody would have thought to give these falls a name. But despite many hours of research, which involved pouring over historic maps of Cornwall and sifting through equally historic texts, I have been unable to find any name attached to this place. I was obliged to fill in the gap…

Essex Hill Falls, Cornwall, CT
© 2012 J. G. Coleman

But what I found even more intriguing about Essex Hill Falls were the decaying mill ruins that stand mere feet from the edges of Birdseye Brook. Although I have yet to incorporate them into any of my work, I found them to be especially mysterious. What was made there? Why was it ultimately abandoned? How has time almost entirely forgotten about the folks that used to come here everyday to earn their living at a mill in the bottom of the Birdseye Brook gorge?

Well, my research has at least revealed some insight into these questions. Prior to the 1800s, maps of Connecticut show the area of Birdseye Brook as a gaping “blank”. So, its safe to say that if mills were established along the Birdseye in the mid- to late-1700s, they weren’t of sufficient importance to appear the maps. However, a map from 1811 paints a much different picture. Rudimentary symbols along Birdseye Brook indicate that it was crowded with at least three mills: an oil mill, a saw mill and a grist mill (which would likely have produced flour). Interestingly, a subsequent map drawn up in 1854 shows only a grist mill. Did the usefulness of the oil mill expire in only 40 or 50 years? Did the sawmill run out of easily accessible timber before 1850? I’ve yet to find the answers to these questions, but I’m confident in saying that the mill ruins along the Birdseye must represent one of the three mills that were operating in the gorge in 1811.

These days, it’s hard to imagine that Essex Hill Falls was ever frequented by man, much less used as a place of industry. The deep gorge of Birdseye Brook is lined thickly with forest and boulders. All that’s left of the chain of mills that once thrived here is a long-toppled stone dam and a few crumbling piles of stacked rock. There was a time when the Birdseye was a place for man to lay claim to the bounty of the land… where tree trunks were split into lumber and grain was pulverized into flour. But the tables have since turned and now it is nature that slowly grinds away at the waning footprint of civilization… reclaiming the Birdseye with a patience and persistence that has outmatched that of human progress.

If you enjoyed “Icy Cascades on the Birdseye” and “Stratified”, be sure to take a look at some of my other fine art prints from nearby Cathedral Pines Preserve in Cornwall, Connecticut.

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