Friday, February 14, 2020

"At a Place Called Burritts Rocks"

Google Earth view of Burritts Rocks with the Paugussett Trail (blue)
and the trails of Birchbank Mountain
"Burritts Rocks" is another one of Shelton's old place names that goes back to the time of the first white settlers, in the same vein as Nells Rock and Great Ledge. The name eventually fell out of use and was only recently rediscovered while researching past deeds. The rocky river slope that was once called Burritts Rocks gives the Paugussett Trail much of its rugged character.  The trail here feels like the Appalachian Trail in Northwest Connecticut.

Deed from the 1800s for what is now the southern tip of
Birchbank Mountain Open Space (click to enlarge)
Back in the day, land deeds gave a description of a "certain piece of land" by specifying the  neighborhood the land was located in, or maybe a nearby landmark.  The deeds from the 1800's for land located on either side of the Birchbank Mtn/Indian Well State Park boundary were described as being "at a place called Burritts Rocks."  The spellings for Burritt varied through the years, but "rocks" was always plural.

Survey area of "Burretts Rocks" (in red)
The Shelton History Center found an old surveyor's page titled "A field book and table of Burritts Rocks, including David H. Booth....and Agur Hubbells land." The survey included multiple properties and may have been commissioned by the Ousatonic Water Company. The above marked-up trail map shows where that land is believed to be located based on the bearings and distances listed in the survey table (see original notes). It's immediately north of the properties mentioned earlier as being part of Burritts Rocks. The "place called Burritts Rocks" seems to have covered, at a minimum, the river slope from the north part of Indian Well State Park up to about the Birchbank Mountain overlook.

Paugussett Trail at "The Caves" near the top of Burritts Rocks
And that area does have a stupendous amount of rock, most of it slick and covered with moss. There's bedrock ledges, giant boulders the size of small buildings, swarms of boulders the size of various kitchen appliances, and hillsides of small rocks jammed together so tightly there is no soil between them, just voids. The rock presents a special challenge for trail designers and hikers alike. The Paugussett Trail doesn't go directly through the worst of the boulder field, but skirts the edges. Going through the middle of the boulder field would be impossible. In addition to the slick, mossy boulders, there are deep crevices and voids, some deep enough to swallow a person.

Hikers must use their hands to get through "The Boulders"
We'll probably never know precisely what Burritts Rocks originally referenced. Was it the ledges, perhaps seen by ships sailing up river? Or the combination of the ledges and the ridiculously rocky slope? No matter. Today we're using it to describe the super rocky area between the Paugussett Trail (up above) and Indian Well Road (down below).

The Paugussett Trail north and downhill from "The Caves."
The hillside is a pile of smaller rocks, with little soil in between.
Where does the name Burritt come from? An old Stratford map shows a very long swath of the Housatonic west bank north of downtown Shelton labeled "Burritts Ground." Indian Well Road was originally called Burritts Road and Birchbank Road was called Burritts Ground Road. The latter road climbed the riverbank to connect to East Village Road. Part of Birchbank Trail follows this Burritts Ground Road as it switchbacks up the slope. This was a way for farmers up in the White Hills to get to the river, which was still tidal and functioned as a primary means of transport. There was a shipyard down by Indian Well.

Burritts Rocks near the Indian Well/Birchbank border,
down the hill from the Paugussett Trail
So who was Burritt? The Burritt family was one of the first to settle Stratford. One of the early descendants, Peleg Burritt, appears to have settled in Shelton when it was still part of Stratford, presumably somewhere along the west banks of the Housatonic River that were called Burritts Ground. Peleg's descendent Blackleach Burritt was born in Shelton and was interesting enough to merit his own Wikipedia entry. Besides having a super cool name,  Blackleach Burritt was a mover and shaker in a religious movement called the "Great Awakening" in the late 1700s.  

Alas, the Burritts all seem to have moved west, leaving behind only their place names. One wonders if "Burritts Rocks" was a name meant to troll the Burritts, an elbow in the ribs so to speak. Also, did people insert an expletive between "Burritts" and "Rocks?" Just asking for a friend.

This is a trail. 
There is some serious geology going on here that explains all the boulders. Underground is a rock formation called  the Straits Schist Basal Member (Stb). This formation contains layers with carbonate, variously called marble or limestone, and at one time there was a marble kiln located nearby. This is unusual for this part of the state, but common in the northwest hills, which is one reason why hiking through Burritts Rocks can feel similar to hiking in Kent.  Carbonate minerals dissolved out of the rock and created weaknesses so that it breaks easily into slabs and chunks. The formation can also contain metals like silver and tungsten. Here's a previous post  about the rock formation, which also outcrops at Old Mine Park in Trumbull and also across the river at Laurel Lime Ridge in Seymour.

The Housatonic River, meanwhile, has been undermining the slope for thousands of years and washing away everything that isn't a rock. The steepest part of the slope is at the outer bend of the river, which has the strongest current.

"Blowdown Brook" marks the southern end of Burritts Rocks
If you are hiking northbound from the Indian Well beach area, you would walk for half a mile through easy terrain, mid-slope, until you arrived at a scenic stream that what we call "Blowdown Brook." That's an outlier of Burritts Rocks, and you may notice how many of the rocks are broken into flat slabs. That's typical of these rocks. You would use the stepping stones to carefully cross the brook. The trail then starts heading up the river slope because a wall of rock is just ahead and the trail can't go through it. So up and up and up the trail goes, arriving at the crest of the steepest, rockiest part of the river bank. Down below is a stretch of Indian Well Road where boulders occasionally roll down onto the road. 

Bedrock near the top of the hill, just below the trail.  
The trail here is squeezed between the rocky slope and the houses that are at the very top. We try to bring the trail down away from the houses wherever possible, but mostly it's impossible. It's not just the steepness, or the rock surfaces. It's the deep crevices. The photo above is maybe 50 feet downhill from the Paugussett Trail where it's close to some houses. The rock is bad enough, but take a closer look at the crevices. They're quite deep.

Crevice is 6-8 feet deep. 
At some point in time, the hillside suddenly pulled away from the lower sides of rocks, and the rocks themselves were fractured and pulled apart, leaving a series of deep parallel crevices. Possibly this was the top of a landslide, or the beginning of a landslide that never quite happen (but still could). The point being that it doesn't seem entirely stable. 

New trail section near the park border
This is why the Paugussett Trail unfortunately needs to stay up near the houses, although the very worst section was recently rerouted near the park border, where the trail now descends into a valley and crosses "Border Brook" to enter Birchbank Mountain. It's a nice spot. From here, you would follow the trail back up the hill and then the trail is surprisingly easy and rock-free for a short spell until you are confronted with "The Boulders." These are the boulders you need to use your hands to climb over. This is the start of the really rocky part for hikers, and is not recommended in wet weather. Shortly after that are "The Caves." Not real caves, just a bunch of rocks big enough to have overhangs that form small shelters. Then you descend steeply on lots of smaller flat rock. Take it slow. Over the years, trail managers have positioned some of these rocks to form steps, but it's not consistent and you may need to pause and think about where to step next. The trail then cuts across the rockfall slope, a reroute down a few years ago. Still very rocky, but easier. The rockiest section for the hiker ends soon after that, although there is plenty of rock on either side of the trail all the way to the overlook.

Walking Fern, an unusual plant growing on a boulder
The plant community at Burritts Rocks is distinctive. The calcareous rock has basically limed the soil, so it's not as acidic as we usually find in Shelton. And water seeps out of the cool, dark, northeast-facing slope. That's created very different growing conditions, and the lower parts of Birchbank Mountain are known for the spring wildflowers and plants like Maidenhair Fern that only grow in these sweeter soils.  Mostly what seems to grow on the rocks is moss and Marginal Woodfern, but you never know what you might find if you were willing to risk breaking a leg and take a look. Walking Fern was discovered growing out of some boulders, anchored in boulder crevices where carbonate rock has dissolved. Walking Fern is uncommon and said to grow in exactly this type of habitat. This tiny plant doesn't look like a fern. It gets its name because the leaf tips form new plants, which take root, allow the plant to "walk" across the rock. 


  1. Great Shelton History lesson. You should post a copy of the surveyor's field notes. They were much neater back then.

  2. OK, I added a link to the original surveyor notes