Born Again

Story and Photographs
By John Murray

   Back in the 1960s Uniroyal launched an international marketing campaign that asserted Naugahyde was obtained from the skin of an animal called a Nauga. The company, based in Naugatuck, proclaimed that a Nauga shed its skin multiple times a year, so it didn’t have to be slaughtered to collect its hide. The ads stated the Nauga was a squat, horned monster from the jungles of Sumatra, and every customer who purchased a Naugahyde couch from Uniroyal received a small Nauga doll.

   It was brilliant marketing – fun, humorous and effective.

   Locally, however, the legend of the Nauga took a different twist. It was said – jokingly – that the Nauga was the only creature able to exist in the toxic gruel that flowed down the Naugatuck River. The monster, the urban legend said, could only be seen late at night when it popped its head up to peek at the beam from a flashlight.

   “Back in the 1960s and 1970s the Naugatuck River was an open sewer,” Laura Wildman said, “nothing could survive in it. The river was dead.”

   Wildman is a consultant for Princeton Hydro, and specializes in river restoration projects. She was raised in Woodbury and married a Waterburian.

   “My father-in-law grew up on the banks of Steel Brook in Oakville,” she said, “he tells stories of the river changing color from dyes, rocks covered with black oil, and the river smelling so bad that car windows were rolled up.”

   Times have changed.

   And now the Nauga has plenty of company – beaver, Great Blue Herons, and now three Bald Eagles that have been observed plucking fish out of the river in the Platts Mill section along the Waterbury-Naugatuck town line.

   Wildman was involved in a dam removal project on the Naugatuck River back in the 1990s and fell in love with it. Her river restoration work takes her throughout New England, but Wildman said the Naugatuck River has been her favorite project because “it needed me the most.”

   “Doing restoration projects on beautiful rivers is nice,” Wildman said, “but helping to restore a river that was nothing more than an open sewer is extraordinary.”

   The Naugatuck River Forum, a project of the Connecticut Community Foundation, is being staged February 24th at the Mattatuck Museum in downtown Waterbury, and more than 400 invitations have been mailed to various stakeholders up and down the 39 mile river. The list includes municipal leaders, state and federal politicians, businesses, chambers of commerce, planning and zoning members, environmentalists and recreation specialists. The hosts of the forum are the Connecticut Community Foundation and Rivers Alliance of CT.

   Laura Wildman is one of the featured speakers. “The forum is a wonderful step,” Wildman said. “It is critical to link all the groups who have an interest in the Naugatuck River because we can’t treat a watershed like a town border. To be effective this has to be a watershed wide effort. We have to think on a large scale and be inclusive.”

   There has been bustling activity along the Naugatuck River for three hundred years, but during the past 30 years there has been an emphasis on healing the damage of the previous three centuries. Since 1994 The Naugatuck River Watershed Association led by Bob Gregorski has organized 50 river clean-ups, installed bird boxes along the river and been instrumental in fish stocking programs, and releasing brood stock salmon into the Naugatuck.

   This past Spring members of the Naugatuck Valley Outdoor Club used cables and winches to remove several industrial pipes from the middle of the river.

   There have been widely publicized canoe and kayak races from Waterbury to Beacon Falls the past two springs. Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura’s involvement in the inaugural race in 2009 was instrumental in luring political leaders from along the river to join in. Suddenly, politicians with clout turned their attention towards the Naugatuck River and startling developments began to unfold.

   • Plans to create a Greenway from Torrington to Seymour stirred to life

   • A seven acre tract of land in Waterbury’s South End received a $500,000 grant to transform it into a riverside park

   • Community leaders in Waterbury banded together to oppose a trash to energy plant along the Naugatuck River

   • The Naugatuck River Revival Group sponsored a first ever “River Day” clean-up in October 2010 that drew 50 volunteers

   • The Housatonic Valley Association helped coordinate river clean-ups and is sponsoring a source to sound paddle trip from May 3rd to May 12th that might include paddlers on the Naugatuck River joining paddlers on the Housatonic where the two rivers converge, and continuing south into Long Island Sound

   At the Naugatuck River Forum on February 24th the focus will be wide and inclusive with subjects ranging from sustainable river development to recreation, to conservation, to educational activities.

   There will be an hour long panel discussion with mayors and first selectmen from Torrington, Harwinton, Litchfield, Thomaston, Watertown, Waterbury, Naugatuck, Beacon Falls, Seymour, Ansonia, Derby and Shelton. The topic will be “Where Do We Go From Here?”

   And the possibilities are endless. Laura Wildman believes the Naugatuck River has an exciting future. “The river has come so far,” she said. “We are going to see communities along the Naugatuck River turn towards the river. Land values are going to go up. Recreation value is going to go up. Quality of life along the Naugatuck River is going to increase.”

   Kevin Zak of the Naugatuck River Revival Group has cannon-balled into the river like a teenaged boy at a pool party – he’s making a splash. Zak was instrumental, along with Dave Faber of Connecticut Outdoors, in creating the canoe/kayak race in 2009. Zak and his small cadre of dedicated volunteers at the Naugatuck River Revival Group have organized clean-up events with Chase Collegiate School, and with the Black Engineers Club at the University of New Haven.

   Zak conceptualized the first River Day celebration and is now working on a video project with Sondra Harman to document the wildlife in and along the Naugatuck River.    In the past two months Zak and Harman have captured video of two Bald Eagles exhibiting mating behavior in a tree above the river in Naugatuck. They have filmed a wide variety of birds including; common mergansers, hooded mergansers, a male ring neck duck, great blue herons, a green heron, cormorants, belted kingfishers, wood ducks, turkey vultures, black vultures and an osprey.

  “People will be astonished to see what is going on in the Naugatuck River,” Zak said. “It makes my heart pound.”