Hog River Underground

The Army Corps of Engineers has done some strange things to our waterways. Rivers can be diverted and pressed into concrete channels, but cannot be erased. Joe McCarthy’s grandfather remembers when the Park “Hog” River used to run through downtown Hartford. But today, it’s gone. There are buildings where there used to be a river. Intrigued, Joe looked closer and found the river buried beneath the streets of Hartford.

Joe partnered with fellow artist Peter Albano to map the now underground river and to document their exploration of this underground ecosystem. To help fund their project I backed their Kickstarter project and took a ride with them on their exploration of the underground river.

The Hog River Revival began over a eighteen months ago. There are 9 miles of enormous 30? x 30? conduits which bring the north and south branches of the Hog River out to the Connecticut river. Their artwork is a series that portrays a record of their physical journey, as well as an expression of their interaction with the Hog River.

The massive public works project was a result of the 1936 flood and the great hurricane of 1938. As the Connecticut River swelled, it pushed the Hog River back and up into the streets of Hartford. In response, the city pushed the main branch into two tubes, buried under roads and parks. The work continued and the conduits were stretched further eastward. Then pumping stations were added along with an auxiliary conduit to deal with the heaviest of storms.

hog river RevivalJoe and Peter took me into this beast of a public works project. At its heart, it’s just a river. But it’s wrapped in thick concrete and studded with outlets and floodways.

hog river underground

We loaded up our kayaks with art supplies, torches and cameras and set off into the foreboding conduits that mark the meeting of the Hog River and the Connecticut River. It starts off merely spooky as you paddle away from the sunlight, then the lights go out as you turn a corner. Headlamps barely reach the top of the tunnel and merely highlight the darkness ahead. Even that sense of space disappears as you hit a fog bank where the humid outside air collides with the cold air of the underground river. At that point all that is visible is the few spherical feet of illuminated water vapor around your headlamp.

Eventually we escape the fog and our eyes adapt to the deep darkness. Joe and Peter use the darkness to help craft their artwork, which in turn captures the darkness and claustrophobia down there. They capture the river through many types of media, with lots of experimentation.

We encounter the debris you might expect in an urban river. Although I have trouble figuring out how an overturned car made it so far down the concrete tunnels. At times you can hear the city above. Other times, the only noise is our breathing and the gentle flow of the river.

After reaching the far end of the underground river we see sunlight and a small park at the end of the tunnel that forces the river underground. The ride back down river is a unique treat as we turn off our headlamps and plunge into darkness, letting the river take us back to our launching point.

This story originally appeared in Wired.com’s GeekDad