By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Neutaconkanut Hill has come a long way in the past seven years. It was then, after “losing a piece of precious land,” that Elli Panichas, president of the Neutaconkanut Hill Conservancy, and a handful of dedicated volunteers took on the task of restoring the park to its natural state and securing its protection from future development.
Among their first tasks was cleaning up the 88-acre park. That job included cutting back decades’ worth of unchecked bittersweet and invasive vines, and picking up other people’s junk.
During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Neutaconkanut Hill had been used as an unofficial dump. Volunteers uncovering the forest found refrigerators, washing machines and, most notably, 10 automobiles being reclaimed by nature. They hauled eight of the rusty cars away, leaving two vintage Camaros on exhibit along the trailside to remind people what happens when no one is looking out for the Hill’s best interest.
“It shows you how degraded the park became for a while,” said Frank Duhamel a trail volunteer who has been helping at Neutaconkanut Hill for the past year.
Today, Neutaconkanut Hill is virtually unrecognizable to the people who have been working on its restoration. A series of well-maintained trails interlace the property, many sporting raised walkways to keep boots dry during the rainy spring. Doug Stephens, a retiree who has helped maintain the conservancy’s trails for eight years, said just keeping up with cutting back the invasives takes a lot of time and effort.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Neutaconkanut Hill is its location. The expansive park, complete with deer, foxes and wild turkeys, is in the city’s most densely populated neighborhood, Olneyville. This combination made it the perfect place to kick off Rhode Island Land Trust Days — a six-week summer program crafted by the Rhode Island Land Trust Council (RILTC) that aims to get the word out about outdoor opportunities near you.
“People don’t know about places (like Neutaconkanut Hill), so we are trying to change that with Land Trust Days,” Rupert Friday, director of the Rhode Island Trust Council, said while addressing the 60 or so people in attendance at the Aug. 10 kick-off event. “We are showcasing land trusts right outside their door.”
More than 30 of the state’s land trusts are participating, with activities such as guided hikes, kayak and canoe outings, stargazing, naturalist talks and family festivals.
Panichas and Mayor Angel Taveras also spoke at the kick-off celebration atop Neutaconkanut Hill. The podium was positioned so that the backdrop encompassed a fabulous view of the Providence skyline through a clearing in the trees that used to be a ski slope.
“As mayor, I look at that ski slope and I think about liability,” Taveras joked.
On a serious note, the mayor remarked on the hard work, vision and commitment it took on the part of many people to return Neutaconkanut Hill to its natural state. “We don’t want to keep this a secret,” he said. “We want to share it and recognize the people who brought it about.”
Those who attended the recent event at Neutaconkanut Hill enjoyed an hour-long hike guided by John McNiff, a park ranger at Roger Williams National Memorial. In addition to experiencing nature up close, participants were treated to a high-energy history lesson from McNiff.
“How many of you hated history in high school?” McNiff began. “I am going to give you a history lesson today, but I promise it won’t be boring.”
As the hike progressed, McNiff filled in hikers with a new tidbit every few hundred yards; it turns out, Neutaconkanut Hill has a lot of history. During pre-Colonial times, the area was managed by native tribes who regularly burned the underbrush, which allowed for commanding views in all directions off the hill. The natives could keep an eye on both friend and foe from this strategic lookout.
Roger Williams came along in 1636 and was deeded the land between the falls at Pawtucket and the hill at Neutaconkanut, making the hill one of the first named locations in the records of Rhode Island history. The King family, longtime owners of the property, bought the land in 1829 and would eventually will the land to the city in 1913 for the public’s enjoyment.
The park boomed during the Great Depression and World War II when times were lean and people couldn’t afford vacations. After the war, money began to flow back into the city and people slowly abandon Neutaconkanut Hill for vacations in the mountains.
That is when the park began to fall into disrepair. People used the park as a dump and hikers no longer felt safe on the trails. The Camaros arrived on the Hill via car thieves who drove them up the ski slope and into the woods where they took what they were after, then abandon the cars. In 2005, the Neutaconkanut Hill Conservancy was formed and the park began to be restored.
For others, however, that work started decades before. Panichas has been working to restore Neutaconkanut Hill since the ’70s, but interest waned. In 2005, she was finally able to rally the support needed to restore the park. During the seven years since, she has developed many connections with other conservationists and land trusts to give Neutaconkanut Hill a voice. She also noted that in addition to a voice, Neutaconkanut has a story to tell. If you were there Friday, it’s obvious she’s right.