Driving up Whitney Avenue between Hamden and Cheshire today, we take for granted the easy passage, and most of us probably have no idea that three hundred years ago it would have been impossible. When the early settlers of the New Haven Colony explored the area, they found huge rocky cliffs barring the way. The eastern slopes of York Hill and the head of Sleeping Giant met at the Mill River just where the small dam is today, allowing no one to pass except on foot.
Called “The Steps,” the rock formation was a formidable barrier, known only to hunters, shepherds, and the remaining Quinnipiac Indians. However, shortly after Joel Munson built his mill at the spot, he carved a daunting cart path over the rocks, allowing the slow passage of horses and eventually carts. Throughout the 1700s, occasional gunpowder explosives were used to improve and widen this path. Bellamy’s Tavern was built in 1743 to provide sustenance and lodging for the Cheshire merchants who now used the road to reach New Haven.When the Farmington Canal was built in the 1820s, the rock needed to be blasted further, down to level ground in some places. Then, when the railroad came through two decades later, more rock was carved away. In the 20th century, the modernization of Whitney Avenue required more blasting, and more leveling, taking the still sizable hill on which sat Kimberly’s famous store stood and flattening it. All this took incredible efforts in the days before modern earth moving machines and nitroglycerine-based explosives.
Today, as the most modern construction finishes up at the intersection of West Woods, Mount Carmel, and Whitney Avenues, take a look around. Perhaps imagine yourself in a tunnel beneath the eastern arm of York Hill, because where the People’s Bank and Hair on Broadway are situated in space was deep underground until very recently. The difficult work done to widen the area and cut through the bedrock is only a fraction of the total done over the centuries.Three hundred years ago, your car would have never made it, even with four wheel drive.