by Jennifer Eifrig
After learning that East Haddam tied for #11 on Yankee Magazine’s list of Top 25 Foliage Towns, we wondered how long people have been traveling for pleasure to look at autumn’s annual festival of color. “Leaf peeping,” as we in New England affectionately call this pastime, has certainly been a fixture of the travel and tourism industry throughout the 20th century to the present, but when did it start?
Some quick research on the Internet leads us to guess that leaf peeping has its origins in the 19th century. Until about 1790, the roads in New England were few and very rough, and people generally tended to stay put unless they needed to go somewhere for business. Visiting family was often reserved for the winter, when those who could afford it rode in horse-drawn sleighs, which offered a much smoother ride, and when smaller rivers and lakes were frozen and more easily passable. Around the turn of the 19th century New England went on a road-building binge, constructing or improving thousands of miles of road. All of a sudden travel became easier and more affordable, and when the steamships and railroads took hold in the 1840s, nobody needed to stay put any longer. By 1858 there was a guidebook to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and presumably others appeared as well. The mid 1870s seem to be when back-country pleasure travel really became popular, for the guidebook industry burgeoned then. This was the era of Winslow Homer’s visits to the Adirondacks, the construction of the Great Camps there, and an intense interest among the wealthy and cultured in rustication. Now that civilization had conquered the American wilderness, the elite felt nostalgic.
Most Americans, however, couldn’t afford to take the summer off. But – and we’re guessing here – it might have been possible to enjoy a picnic at a scenic location on a Sunday (until 1940 the six-day work week was very common). For a few pennies one could ride the trolley to a town or state park and enjoy the view. Summers being hot and humid in Connecticut, our mythical siteseers might have opted for the cooler weather of fall to sit outside in the sun, and enjoy whatever foliage display there might have been.
Remember, Connecticut at the turn of the 20th century was much less densely forested than it is today. We’re guessing that “leaf peeping” didn’t become much of a hobby until the forest conservation movement really got started around 1895. Most of the trees that we admire today are less than 80 years old.
For foliage viewing in East Haddam, there isn’t a better spot than the Nathan Hale School House. You have a 360-degree vista atop the ridge lying parallel to the Connecticut River, encompassing the Valley and the town. It’s gorgeous. Connecticut SAR has thoughtfully provided numerous picnic tables, and it’s all free. We’ll continue posting photos as the foliage peaks. So, plan your trip today!