Yesterday’s Courant brought the disheartening news that Connecticut’s storied river ferries may be on the budgetary chopping block. This is a bad thing, not only, as the article mentions, because many people use the ferries in their daily commutes, but because the ferries remind us of our surroundings and our history.

I have marveled before at how quickly one can go from city to country in Connecticut. All you have to do is walk out on the old railroad bridge north of the Bulkeley Bridge for an example of how wondrously cheek-by-jowl the city and country live in Connecticut, especially along the river: Look south, and there is downtown Hartford, well lit and buzzing with cars and trucks.

New England's Rising Star

But turn north, and you see a view that people crossing the river have probably been seeing for 1,000 years.

The mighty Connecticut, looking north from railroad bridge, Hartford

But in a busy life, all highways and sprawl and long commutes, it is easy to become disconnected from the routes we traverse. Riding in a car between Hartford and East Hartford, you can’t even see the mighty river you are crossing. So the existence of ferries, on which we make a trip not much different from what people in Connecticut have been doing for 300 years, is important.

All of which got me to thinking: I know that the Rocky Hill – Glastonbury used to be powered by a horse on a treadmill (memorialized in lovely fashion by local art and design genius, Brian Cook). Some interwebs research revealed to me that a world-class athlete can sustain an output of about .54 horsepower for an hour on a track bicycle, and that a fit cyclist can exceed one horsepower of output on a road bicycle for a brief period. That tells me that two relatively fit cyclists, working together, should be able to generate one horsepower for ten minutes at a stretch, which should be adequate to power a barge across the Connecticut river.

Right now, the Rocky Hill – Glastonbury ferry is pushed by a tugboat:

The Cumberland pushes the Glastonbury - Rocky Hill ferry
(Here, you can see the tug nudging against the ferry.)

According to the Courant story, the yearly operating budget of this ferry is $250,000. I suppose that includes maintenance, insurance, salaries for maybe four or five employees (the ferry runs about 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and there are two people working at all times – the tug captain and the ferryman), and fuel. Surely, significant savings could be realized if the tug and the fuel were entirely removed from the equation, right?

Here’s the dream: Create a non-profit organization to run the ferry. Rig up the barge to run on the power of two bicycles. If you pay cyclists $15/hour to drive the ferry and you need two cyclists for 12 hours a day, nine months a year, that’s $97,200 of wage costs. It could be a part-time job or something that high school and college students do, or bike nerds like me could volunteer periodically. Either way, I’m guessing there’s a significant savings over pushing the barge with a tug. But then, the non-profit works to develop interest in the ferry and in river history, and to get sponsorships from local businesses. The barge itself could have historical displays for passengers to look at during the brief trip. On weekends, there could be special events with historical talks, or river tours, and the barge could be rented out for special events like weddings and dinners.

If the fares on the boat raise at least $66,000 (22,000 cars, per the Courant, at $3 each), and the wages for ferry bikers are about $100,000, I figure the state should be able to pay the non-profit $100,000 a year to run the service, and if fundraising efforts were especially successful, money could be returned to the state, fares could be reduced, or more related services (like riverbank clean-up, more historical displays and tours, etc.) could be added.

Is this a crazy pipe dream? I think the money would work out. What mostly concerns me is whether it’s really possible for two cyclists to move a 50-foot barge across a quarter-mile of river while carrying three cars. Still, I think this could be awesome and doable, and honestly, who wouldn’t want to come see what would be, if my Googling is correct, THE ONLY BICYCLE-POWERED RIVER FERRY IN THE WORLD?


Try, Try Again

August 30, 2010

It seems somehow emblematic of my uppity middle-class suburb that (1) people would own $759 strollers and (2) when they no longer needed said strollers, they would simply throw them away. (Now I can remember a time – in my early 20s, probably – when the notion of car ownership was so foreign to me that I likely wouldn’t have been able to guess the cost of a new Corolla to within an order of magnitude, so I recognize that the following bears mentioning: $759 is an absurd amount of money to pay for a stroller.) And indeed, a few weeks ago I came across a perfectly good Bugaboo Frog at the kerb, awaiting garbage pickup. I like to think that it is emblematic of my sometimes difficult relationship with said suburb that I should take this cast-off and fashion it into a useful item of a sort that one never sees in use here, so that is what I attempted to do: with some basic stuff from the hardware store, I made the frog into a bicycle cargo trailer.

Unfortunately, while I seem to have a surplus of self-congratulory bike smugness, I’m running a lot lower on engineering skills. So, while my trailer seemed like it would do the job when I headed out on the inaugural mission to the grocery store yesterday . . .


. . . and even seemed ready once I’d loaded it with $130 of provisions . . .


. . . I quickly discovered the following facts:

1. The wooden shovel handle I used to connect the trailer to the bike was definitely handy, in the sense that I had it lying around, but was not the ideal material for this job, because it was too flexible.

2. To counteract the flexibility of the wooden shovel handle, I should have cut it as short as possible.

3. The farther the weight on a trailer is from the axle of the trailer’s wheels, the worse.

Basically, the weight on the trailer made the front wheel of the bicycle come off the ground unless I pressed down hard on the handlebars while riding, which is not so comfortable. Also, the front of the trailer dragged intermittently on the street because the wooden shovel handle meant to keep the thing level was warping.

So, back to the drawing board (I actually started working on Trailer 1.1 last night). On the positive side, I discovered yesterday that nothing lends gravitas to an ordinary grocery list like typing it on a mechanical typewriter. I definitely need to keep that thing out for such tasks.

Grocery List

P.S. I know that “mozzarella” is one word. That’s just a coincidentally syllabic typo.

Movie Night

August 28, 2010

New (to me) typewriter

Typed Sheet

New (to me) typewriter

Loco Star

Loco Star headbadge

Rambling After Work

August 16, 2010

There are many many things in life for which I must count myself lucky. These include, of course, my delightful children, my marvelous wife, the good fortune of being middle class in a prosperous and free democracy, and Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. Three other things that came together to make me feel thankful on Friday were (1) the fact that I have a boss who lets me leave early now and then when there is nothing pressing to do; (2) the fact that I have friends who can easily be persuaded to embark on an unplanned bike ramble on short notice; and (3) the fact that I live in a place where natural splendor, dirt farm roads, and river ferries are all within a manageable distance and accessible by bicycle from the city.

Friday was a gorgeous day, and I figured it would be a good afternoon to ride the ferry between Glastonbury and Rocky Hill, something I’d been meaning to do for a while. I figured I’d cross the river in Hartford, ride down through East Hartford and Glastonbury, take the ferry over, then meander wherever the spirit might lead me. I called Chris around 2:00 to see if he wanted to come, and he said that as long as we could swing by an event at the Capitol at 3:00, he’d be good to go, so we agreed to meet there.

The event was some sort of rally in support of tolerance for Muslims, which is a sentiment I can get behind, especially with all these crazy people talking about how private citizens shouldn’t be allowed to build a mosque and Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center site in New York (because, obvious arguments in favor of tolerance aside, aren’t Republicans supposed to be about private property and its immunity from government intervention? but anyway). (Also, there was apparently some stupid incident of harassment of Muslims by some fools in Bridgeport claiming the mantle of patriotism.)

Now, when I call it a rally, it is a generous interpretation of the word, for I usually think of rallies as having a little more passion, if not spontaneity. This event, in contrast, was eminently boring, as it consisted of various speakers from different faiths reiterating that being Muslim doesn’t make a person less American (true!) and that we shouldn’t harass Muslims (also true! but dull after the fifth or sixth repetition). I took some pictures to pass the time:

Rally against anti-Muslim discrimination

Rally against anti-Muslim discrimination

In short order, Chris showed up on his mighty cargo bike, and after a few more minutes of listening to good will and speechifying, we set off down Elm Street toward the river. It was not too hot, for a change, and the sky seemed a little baleful as we passed the old Colt factory:

Brooding skies over the Colt building

But the weather held! We crossed the Charter Oak Bridge and headed south through East Hartford into Glastonbury.

Duct Man, Glastonbury, Conn.

The suburbs pretty quickly give way to semi-rural land, and shortly after passing this duct-man, we were amid tobacco fields.



We turned off Rte. 17 onto Rte 160, which, according to the signs, would lead us to Rocky Hill. Only later do they clarify that you should not attempt to drive straight there:


It’s not hard for me to imagine someone following his GPS right into the river at this spot:


Luckily, we had the patience to wait for a ferry to take us across. The ferry showed up within five minutes, and for a measly buck a piece, we were able to continue on our merry way. The ferryman and the tug captain, by the way, were talking about “Desperate Housewives” while they secured the tow ropes.

Ferry Landing, Glastonbury, Conn.

The ferryman and the tug captain discuss "Desperate Housewives"

Our bikes aboard the ferry

Looking South on the Connecticut River

Once on the western shore, we turned north and went from the park by the ferry landing to a series of hard-packed dirt roads that cut through fields of sod, tobacco, and corn:

Farm road, Wethersfield, Conn.

Farmlands, Wethersfield, Conn.

It was around this spot that Chris remarked upon what I was thinking at the same moment: That we are lucky indeed to live in a place where such uninterrupted agrarian scenes can be enjoyed up-close upon riding one’s bicycle under an hour from the busting city. It is a grand thing, don’t you think?

After a while, the farmland gave way to more wildly vegetated plots, and we were all at once in the midst of live gunfire. Apparently, the land adjoining the road we were on belongs to the Wethersfield Game Club. Live gunfire is a little bit alarming, but we had seen a turf farm truck and a couple of cyclists come from the direction in which we were headed, so we assumed that the local sportsmen knew not to strafe the roadway. It worked out. We saw more sights:

Connecticut River

No Ice Fishing

Connecticut River, Wethersfield, Conn.

After stopping in Wethersfield for ice cream, we decided to head west to Newington to look at the sunset from the bluff overlooking the quarry there, behind Cedarcrest Hospital. (Here’s the view from a previous visit.) Unfortunately, after getting as far as the parking lot (photo below), we were politely but firmly told to get the hell out by a patrolling security guard (never mind that we actually wanted to leave the property, just via a broken back fence rather than the open front entrance).

Cedarcrest Hospital, Newington, Conn.

Undeterred, we entered the Cedar Mountain trails via the nearby Human Society property, which welcomes nature lovers. Our hope was to go around the adjacent hospital property and reach the bluff over the quarry that way. Instead, we followed a trail that petered into nothing and we ended up schlepping our bikes through the woods for a while, trying to find a way out. Props to Chris, who did all this on a heavily loaded, long-tail cargo bike:

Chris pilots a cargo bike through the woods

Eventually, we did emerge from the woods, not at the top of the quarry cliffs as we’d hoped, but at the bottom. More specifically, we were at the back of the Tilco property, where old quarry machinery goes to die. As it was after hours and night was falling, the whole place was very quiet and felt rather otherworldly:

Truck, Tilco Quarry, Newington, Conn.

Tilco Quarry, Newington, Conn.

And then we emerged on Hartford Avenue in Newington. Chris headed northeast to his place in Hartford. I headed west to my place in West Hartford. It was not quite 8:00 in the evening and we had had a marvelously unhurried 25-mile meander, all before dinner. Ain’t life sweet?

Friday Afternoon Ride

P.S. Did you know that Chris will be very happy to sell you one of those awesome cargo bikes, or a utilitarian folding bike, or sundry other bike items? It is very true! Check out his site: Daily Rider, LLC.