Norwich ― Since 2010, city officials, historic preservation and tourism advocates have dreamed of turning the historic Yantic Falls/Uncas Leap area into a heritage park that celebrates Native American, colonial and Industrial Revolution history and culture.
In 2010, the city acquired in a tax foreclosure the 1.2-acre property at 196-200 Yantic St., which has a commanding view of the historic natural rocky gorge known as Uncas Leap. A steering committee of city planners, economic development staff, Norwich Historical Society leaders and representatives from the Mohegan tribe planned to obtain grants and work on the project piecemeal over the years.
In 2011, the city received a $17,500 state Community Investment grant to assess the mill buildings acquired. In 2015, Norwich received a $270,000 state Historical Brownfields and Revitalization grant to assess the mill building and in 2016 received a $500,000 planning grant to create the master plan design.
The city also obtained a blighted modern duplex demolished to create a parking lot near the falls and purchased a tiny lot to add to the riverfront greenspace.
Then along came the American Rescue Plan Act, which awarded $28.8 million to Norwich with broad spending categories, including economic development and tourism-related projects. The City Council approved $2.8 million to fully fund the Uncas Leap Heritage Park in two installments over the past two budget years.
The bid was awarded in late July to Norwich-based Wiese Construction Inc., and construction started Aug. 1. The park is expected to be completed in summer of 2024.
On Thursday, the city, Norwich Community Development Corp. and the Norwich Historical Society will host a groundbreaking ceremony at 11 a.m. at the site. Guests are asked to wear closed-toe shoes and carpool, if possible, as parking is limited. Additional parking will be available nearby at the Norwich Free Academy Sachem Campus, 90 Sachem St. and at Church and Allen Funeral Home, 136 Sachem St.
Mayor Peter Nystrom said the city hopes the Uncas Leap park will gain national recognition as a heritage site or even a national park.
The area has been sacred to the Mohegan tribe for centuries. It was part of the pivotal 1643 Battle of Great Plains between the Narragansett and Mohegan tribes. European settlers harnessed the water power, and mills lined the Yantic River during Norwich’s rise in the Industrial Revolution.
The park, designed by SLR engineering — formerly Milone & MacBloom — will feature a walking path along a long-buried former hydropower canal, and an observation deck directly across from the tallest rock cliff across the river and overlooking the gorge. Stairs will lead from the parking area down to another overlook at the Yantic Falls dam.
Visitors will be able to walk through the ruins of the granite mill, where interpretive signs will hang along the inside walls. Granite blocks removed from the mill’s upper stories will decorate the park, some to create a story circle small performing arts venue built into a slope. A public restroom will be located near the park entrance.
Regan Miner, Norwich Historical Society executive director, has been working on the Uncas Leap park plan from the beginning and is excited to be organizing Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony to bring the project to fruition.
But Miner will miss two companions who also were passionate about the project, former NCDC President Jason Vincent, who died in late December 2020, and Stephanie Fielding, a Mohegan tribal elder who has retired.
“They would be so happy and excited to see this project become a reality,” Miner said.