By Paul Lonardo
A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.
– John James Audubon
Given the recent Memorial Day holiday celebrations and last month’s tributes commemorating the 75-anniversary of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overland during World War II, it is appropriate that Esmond Park be this month’s featured scenic walk.
Esmond Park is unique in that it is part conservation area and part historic site, featuring World War I monuments, with the two halves joined by a steel-railed, arched bridge with a wooden floor that crosses the Woonasquatucket River. A small waterfall adds a tranquil touch to the crossing and serves as a natural line of demarcation between the dual nature of Esmond Park. The site, previously known as Esmond Mills Park, was named after the nearby mill which produced high quality Jacquard blankets at the turn of the last century. Within a few short years of it’s opening in 1906, the mill employed thousands of local workers. At one time it was estimated that half of all workers in Smithfield were employed at Esmond Mill. Manufacturing at the facility ended shortly after WWII, and the building later became the corporate headquarters for the famed New England retailer, Benny’s.
One access point to Esmond Park, on the corner of Esmond Street and Waterman Avenue (Rt. 104), is through Alexander M. Balfour Square, represented by an identity marker on a steel pole with an American flag honoring the local WWI infantryman who died in action on July 18, 1918. There are also a pair of plaques on boulders in remembrance of the employees of Esmond Mills who served in the first World War. Further along there is a sitting area adjacent to another boulder with a plaque dedicating the park to Leo Bouchard, an Esmond resident who was known as “Mr. Conservation.” This is a perfect spot for quiet contemplation, or if you choose there are stone steps you could take down to the river’s edge, where you can dip a toe in the cool, slow-moving water, or skip a stone across its surface.
Before reaching the bridge there is a small picnic area with benches available for visitors who might enjoy a repast before crossing the bridge to begin the scenic walk at Esmond Park.
Beyond the diminutive waterfall is a good-size cattail marsh nestled in a crook of the river’s bend where you are likely to find a variety of life forms, from frogs and turtles, to water birds, including ducks and geese, as well as beavers and otters.
The walk is rather brief as you follow the Woonasquatucket north along a railroad bed where the Providence and Springfield line once ran. Owners of local mills along the Woonasquatucket, like ones who operated Esmond Mills, required transportation of goods and materials for their operations, and were behind the creation of the P&S Railroad. There has been some discussion about joining this segment of the path with the regional bicycle trail, linking it with the existing bike path that runs through Lincoln and Providence.
At the end of the trail is a parking area along Rt. 104, but as the traffic noise gets louder, if you listen carefully you might still hear the ghostly echo of a steam engine locomotive. And if you keep your eyes open, you might spot a painted rock hiding in plain sight along this scenic walk in Smithfield’s Esmond Park.