History

Park History

Overview

The Mianus River Park is a remarkable jewel of rocky, riparian public land lying mostly to the west of the Mianus River on the Greenwich/Stamford border, and immediately north of Treetops. Its almost 400 acres of mature forest and dramatic landscape is parceled between a western entrance on Cognewaugh Road in Greenwich and another eastern entrance on Merriebrook Lane in Stamford.

The park is one of a series of conservation areas of the greater Mianus Greenway that help protect the river and its watershed as a major contributor to regional water supply. It has become a highly valued resource for surrounding communities, contributing in important ways to their quality of life and ‘social capital’[4]. Its origins, detailed description, and recent management development via a consortium of governmental and non-governmental agencies and groups are described below. [3]

The Mianus Name

The word Mianus is said to come from the Chief Sachem Myn Myano, whose name meant ‘he who gathers together’[4]. His story is fraught with the saga of confrontations between Native Americans and English and Dutch settlers. Chief Myano’s tribe, the Siwanoys (Algonkian-speaking and part of the Wappinger Confederacy) controlled the area from the NY-CT border south to Cos Cob and the Long Island Sound.

It is suggested that the white settlers came to the Valley of the Mianus in the early 1600s carrying diseases that decimated Native American populations. Thus weakened, and in less than a decade, Sachem Myano and his tribe were forced off their land through a system of confusing land deals with colonial farmers[5].

Furthermore there is evidence that these Native Americans had a record of harboring Indian malefactors from the Hudson River, tribes who fled Dutch justice under Governor Kieft in New Amsterdam, resulting in punishing raids by English and Dutch soldiers and the notorious massacre at the Siwanoy village of Petuquapaen in February 1644. Sachem Myano himself attacked, and was shot dead by Colonel Daniel Patrick who had purchased much of what is now Greenwich (including Todd’s Point) from the Indians for a price of twenty five coats a few years earlier[6], so there are also traces of old grievance and sadness hanging under the heights and rocky ledges of the park.

Geology

Mianus River Park, like the rest of New England, owes it rocky landscape and other characteristic features to the last of the powerful glacial ice sheets that crushed and carved out Connecticut, leaving its indelible mark on the face of our land today.

The Park exhibits periglacial formations, numerous scarped rock outcroppings in an extraordinary display of shapes and clusters. These outcroppings consist of rock formed during the Ordovician period 500 million years ago. Around 24,000 years ago, the advancing glaciers more than two miles thick, created the Mianus Valley and scraped the rock clean. When the glaciers retreated, about 13,000 years ago, they left behind the scars, as well as many large glacially deposited boulders.

After the glaciers retreated, most of the Atlantic Coastal area became a single, vast forest, consisting primarily of mixed hardwoods with pockets of conifers. The forest was punctuated by temporary meadows, created by fires, blow-downs, beavers, and Native American agricultural activities. Traces of Native American activity, thought by some to date back perhaps thousands of years, have been discovered including what appear to be dwelling, worship and burial sites, although evidence for these continues to be questioned.

Origins

While evidence of Native American presence in the Park has not been extensively documented, there are abundant historical accounts of Indian livelihoods, dwellings and activities in the immediate region[7],[8]. Many visitors report a strange sense of awareness among the gatewayed old walls and curious standing stones. Some researchers even suggest very early settlements on the basis of possibly pre-ceramic artifacts actually found a little higher up the Mianus River[9]. Thus there is every reason to believe that full advantage was taken of the fresh water source, game, and river flats by native populations well before the Europeans came.

After they arrived in the early 1600s, and negotiated for ownership of different properties, the Europeans immediately began clearing the forest. With the exception of areas that were too steep, wet or rocky, much of the land along the river was farmed or used for pasture up until the Civil War. Trees in the rougher areas were often cut down for lumber, firewood, and/or charcoal production. It is thought that the north end of the Park was most likely farmed and that the rougher sections to the south were used primarily for hunting, fishing, and charcoal production. After the Civil War, some area farms were abandoned in favor of more fertile land in the West. The abandoned lands slowly returned to forest. Remnants of several stone walls, burial mounds, even a well, and old storage cellars and caves can still be seen in the Park. Many of the walls on the Stamford side have been mapped in coordination with the municipal government and the New England Antiquities Research Association.

Not much is yet known in detail about the intervening period. It is said there has never been a dwelling on the property[10] although at least one deep well has been discovered west of the river, and there are remnants of early buildings both in Treetops and the Mianus River Park.

Ownership

Ownership history is pieced together from various sources including land records, newspapers and magazine articles. In 1901, Dr. Robert T Morris (1857-1945) purchased 350 acres and buildings much of which make up the park today. He named the property "Merribrooke" after the sound of the Mianus river. Dr. Morris hosted many luminaries of the day including President Grover Cleveland who was said to fish in the river. Over the years he added adjoining tracts so that by 1917, he owned 430 acres.

The doctor was a man of many interests. Besides being a renown surgeon, Morris was an arborist dedicating many acres to nut bearing trees. He developed the “Morris method” of grafting to try and save the American chestnut from a blight that was ravaging the forests. In addition, he regularly contributed to wildlife magazines such as The Outdoor World and Forest and Stream.

Dr. Morris was approached on numerous occasions by developers to divide up the property into lesser estates. Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930’s, the doctor placed the bulk of the property into a corporation. His goal was to keep the property together and protect associated water rights. Dr. Morris’s actions helped to create the park that exists today.

In 1928, he sold 200+ acres to Robert Goodbody, a New York financier. Local historians say that the Goodbody home was located in what is now Fort Stamford Park and that the Goodbody's stabled horses in the red barn that still stands in the southeast corner of the Mianus River Park near Merriebrook Lane. Several of the current Park trails, including the Inner Road and the River Road were, at one time, Goodbody bridal paths.

An additional 55 acres was sold to Libby Holman in 1936 creating the Treetops estate located near the Stamford park entrance.

In the late 1960s, the City of Stamford purchased 77 acres known as the “Old Mill Lane - Mianus Tract” for park and recreational space under the Federal Open Space Act. The Mianus River Park was officially created when Greenwich purchased 109.7 acres (for $500,000) and Stamford 110.3 acres, both from the Goodbody Estate in 1972[11].

The express purpose of this joint effort by the two municipalities was to preserve a large tract of undeveloped forest and field for conservation and passive recreational use. Residents of both towns were to have equal access to the entire park. Soon after the purchase, six trails were laid out cooperatively by the representatives of Stamford and Greenwich. They were planned to provide variety to the user of the park. Initially both towns planned to share a ranger who would live in the lodge on the Stamford side of the property and maintain the park. However, associated costs made this idea impractical[14].

The Park Today

Major Wilensky's prediction (see footnote 3 below) came true only too soon; future generations did appreciate the Park. Publicity surged with strong community support for saving Treetops from real estate development, as well as with growing state and local emphasis on the importance of municipal green space. A separate web-history has documented[18] the story of the smaller Treetops lying to the southwest of the Merriebrook bridge, and forming an adjacent and elegant (smaller) sibling-land in the broader context of the overall Mianus Greenway. Notably, its recent acquisition as a public park depended on several extraordinary and unprecedented cooperative public/private actions, a key factor in which was Greenwich’s (first ever) turning down of a planned residential development on ‘vernal pools’ conservation arguments[12].

The larger Mianus River Park has now become a favorite of nature lovers, joggers, dog walkers, hikers, anglers, bikers, and cross-country skiers. By the mid 2000s, it was recognized that the Park was seriously suffering from over-use. ‘It’s being loved to death’ said a Stamford land-use planner[13]. In 2006, after 2 years of work, a joint Stamford-Greenwich action plan[14] was created, with help from the National Park Service, and with input from the Park user groups, to help control Park use, and to repair some of the damage. This work is visibly on-going and requires the cooperation of all Park visitors.

From the beginning, preserving the Mianus River Park, and the entire Mianus River Greenway, has been a collaborative effort by city, state and federal officials, numerous conservation organizations, and countless residents. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have helped in one way or another. Many continue the work today.

John E.S. Lawrence

July 16, 2009

Updated July 21, 2020

Linda S. Chapman

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Footnotes:

[1] This history is built on a number of sources (referenced in footnotes) and earlier drafts as well as careful investigative work by several supporters of the Park conservation and management, including Walter Wheeler, Sue Sweeney, Erin McKenna, Denise Savageau, and Bruce Spaman.

[3] On September 6, 1972, after the closing of the Stamford purchase of the eastern side of today’s park, then-Mayor Julius Wilensky observed that the purchase would "not be fully appreciated during this lifetime... [but that] future generations will thank us". Since then, park users have testified in surveys, petitions and community meetings, to the treasure the place has meant to themselves, their families and friends.

[4] Source: Success Stories; Mianus River Gorge: The Pioneer Project and thanks to http://www.nynjctbotany.org/lgtofc/nymianus.html

[5] Connecticut Watertrails.com (Mianus River)

[6] The Indians of North Castle - Our Native Americans. Doris Finch Watson. North Castle History. Vol 6. No 1. 1979.

[7] See for example: The Indians of Greater New York and the Lower Hudson. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. Vol III. Clark Wissler (Ed). 1909.

[8] Native New Yorkers. The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York. Evan T Pritchard. 2002.

[9] Bulletin of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, Inc. Publication date ca. 1963.

[10] Town of Greenwich: Dept of Parks and Recreation link >

[11] ibid

[12] Decision by Greenwich Inland Wetlands and Watercourse Agency. Pers. Com. Denise Savageau, Town of Greenwich. July 10, 2009.

[13] Erin McKenna, during an interview discussing Stamford and Greenwich collective efforts on a management plan for the Park. Greenwich Times September 1, 2006.

[14] Mianus River Park. Managing Natural Resources & Recreation: an Action Plan - September 20