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An Aerial History Lesson

Imagine getting the chance to explore every nook and cranny of the 410 mile Connecticut River, from its mouth in Old Saybrook, to its source, a small pond, just yards from the Canadian border. Well, now you can, thanks to historian and author Jerry Roberts and pilot and photographer Tom Walsh. Together they have spent countless hours, collaborating for years, to create what is being called the most complete aerial chronicle of the Connecticut River in history, “The Connecticut River From the Air: An Intimate Perspective of New England’s Historic Waterway.”

The book, published by Globe Pequot in Guilford, is a fantastical view of the river from the unique perspective of what Walsh calls “…a low and slow” plane.

The comprehensive book is the result of the partnership of the two Connecticut residents who live in the tri-town area of the Connecticut River Valley. Roberts, who calls himself a historical storyteller, gazes at the Connecticut River daily from his hilltop home in Deep River and Walsh, an international airline pilot and owner of Shoreline Aerial Photography, lives part-time in Ivoryton and said his wedding vows to his wife Ingrid, on the banks of the Connecticut River. It’s plain to see how this winding waterway is an intricate and constant presence in the lives of these bookmakers.

Originally, when Roberts was the Director of the Connecticut River Museum, he and Walsh worked together on a very successful exhibit at the museum about the River, which included several photos Walsh had taken out the window of his Cessna Cardinal aircraft, while he was piloting the plane. (Walsh also used his newer Searey amphibias aircraft for many of the photos).

“We had always said that we should do a book together,” explains Roberts, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that we were able to get together to really do it.”

The book is not just a visual voyage up the river, it’s also a historical expedition chronicling the then and now of the river’s storied past.

“At first I thought this is going to be a piece of cake, just a paragraph or two about each place and each photo,” said Roberts, who is a seasoned author who has written many historical books. “However, I found, after diving in, that it was much more intricate than I had anticipated.”

He adds, “It was a lesson in economy of space and information.”

The first page of the book captures readers’ interest explaining that the state’s name, is actual the bastardization of the Native American name for the river; Quonectacut, the literal translation being; long winding river.

“Here we are thinking that the river was named after the state when really the state was named after the river,” says Roberts with awe. “This is why I love history so much. I love the unexpected. I say that history is the greatest reality show ever produced, it tells the true story of us.”

He continues, “This river is the heart of our early nation. The Mayflower came to America in 1620; and up the river, the town of Windsor, Connecticut was settled in 1633. The river was the main High way and access inward.”

In 1633 Robert’s ancestors were on the first English ship to go up the river, so his journey is truly one of inertia, bringing him back home to his ancestral roots.

Roberts explains how the Connecticut River has remained so ecologically intact and basically pristine over the years, because he says, it is the only river without an industrial city at its mouth.

He points out, “The Connecticut River was once an important transportation hub between Manhattan and Hartford. People would take steamboats, with overnight cabins from New York to Connecticut.”

The remains of one such Steamboat called the Granite State has been left off the tip of North Cove in Old Saybrook, however, it is only really seen from above.

A great photo, capturing the boney remains of this century-old relic, is just one of many, which illustrates the unique perspective the book affords readers.

Perfectly juxtaposing words and images, the historical story unfolds as photos draw readers’ eyes to images.

Because the book moves from the mouth of the river northwards to the source, the majority of photos chosen were photographed going north, explains Roberts.

The images depict iconic scenes such as; the 450-foot Cornish-Windsor bridge, the largest covered bridge in the U.S., linking Cornish, NH to Windsor, VT. This bridge has been designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The photos also expose wild labyrinths, patterns and oxbows, which can only be seen from the air.

A personal favorite of Walsh’s, the oxbows, which are formed by the river’s current cutting serpentine paths through softer areas of sediment along the banks, are named such because of their curved u shape, which likens the wooden hoops that form the bottom part of the yolks used to harness oxen plows.

“The river is still changing, and oxbows from the air offer a look back in time,” writes Walsh, who was a fighter pilot in the Marines.

“This is not a project I could have done alone. I feel extremely lucky that I was able to collaborate with Tom,” says Roberts, praising Walsh for his amazing ability as a pilot and a photographer. “He has a great eye, there is no way you could have done this with a drone, so much of this depended on the choices that Tom made and the photos he was able to capture, he is flying artist.”

Stay tuned because these two professionals will be linking up again soon bringing us more unique books to explore.

The duo will be at R.J. Julia Booksellers, in Madison, on Nov. 1st to talk about their book, and at R.J. Julia’s Middletown location on Nov. 29. They will also be the Mystic Seaport Museum on Dec. 1. Their book is available for purchase online.

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