A Little History: LAKE LILLINONAH
Shining like a dark jewel, Lake Lillinonah lies amidst a tree-covered, mountain setting. This recreational lake in the Housatonic Valley is named for the legendary Indian Princess who perished upstream at Lover’s Leap.
The shores of this man-made lake, which is 14 miles long, reach six different towns – Brookfield, New Milford, Newtown, Roxbury, Southbury and Bridgewater. One of the best views of the lake can be found while crossing the bridge on Route 133 leading from Brookfield to Bridgewater, although you can’t truly appreciate the lake’s beauty until you’ve traveled the length of it by boat. Despite being relatively young, the lake has a colorful history complete with its own legend. Lake Lillinonah, although not nearly as large as Candlewood Lake, is much less populated, with much of its shoreline remaining untouched. Aug. 19 will mark the 50th anniversary of the lake’s being filled by rainwater during Hurricane Diane. Like Candlewood Lake before it, Lillinonah was constructed by the Connecticut Light and Power Co. as a resource for hydro-electric power. It cost something in the neighborhood of $14.5 million. Its dam is 1,412 feet in length and 147 feet tall. Where the river once ran only 5 feet deep, the depth of water at the dam is now more than 100 feet. The dam’s 57,000 horsepower turbine drives a 43,000 kilowatt generator. At the time of construction, CL&P called it the Shepaug Hydro-electric Project, because its dam would be only a short distance from the confluence of the Shepaug and Housatonic rivers. The lake is also fed by the Still River, which flows north from Danbury. Thanks to nature, Lillinonah may be the only lake of its kind to have been filled twice. In the historic floods of August 1955, heavy rains swelled the Housatonic to the point of overflowing in many spots. Although the dam for Lillinonah was almost completed, some of the gates at its base remained open, since CL&P hadn’t planned to fill it for a few more weeks. However, due to the overwhelming flow of water, the lake filled unexpectedly, pouring over the spillway and through the open gates. As the river returned to a normal level in the following days, the lake was once again drained. Then on Sept. 27, 1955 the gates of what is now known as the Shepaug dam were closed and the lake began to fill in a normal fashion. In addition to the formation of Lake Lillinonah, Aug. 19 will also mark the 50-year anniversary of the death of a little hamlet known as Southville, which was once located just downstream from the Route 133 bridge. However, Southville (what was left of it) was torn down to make way for Lillinonah and is now covered by the lake. In a New York Times article dated May 31, 1953, writer David Anderson dubbed Southville “The Ghost Town.” The following is an excerpt from Anderson’s article: “A century ago this was a thriving hamlet with a church and an industry. Today, ignored even by mapmakers, it is a place where three old houses survive inconspicuously among elms and maples and ruins. In a little more than two years from now the whole scene will be lost forever, buried beneath ten fathoms of water.” The last structure to come down in Southville was a 130-year-old landmark known as “The Barnum House,” which was owned by relatives of P.T. Barnum. The house was burned down by the Bridgewater Volunteer Fire Department after attempts to bulldoze it failed. The bulldozer was apparently only able to bring down half the house, which was fastened together with wooden pegs. In his article, Anderson interviewed Mrs. Sewell Montgomery, a lifelong resident and owner of one of the few remaining Southville homes, who said that her home had been built in 1834. “It’s a terrible shame, Old Southville I found out, once had 34 houses. The church stood across the road where those bushes are and there was a hat factory and two blacksmiths. I feel sure bits and pieces of the old valley will come bubbling up to the surface of the lake for years,” said Montgomery. In a New Milford News article dated June 16, 1955 Brookfield Mail carrier makes his final mail delivery to the three remaining houses still standing in Southville. In the article Kominack, who began delivering mail in 1917, recalled how when he first began he delivered the mail by horse and buggy. A little farther north of where Southville was once located, at the narrowest point of the lake, is Lover’s Leap Gorge. Lake Lillinonah’s name comes from Lillinonah, the daughter of Chief Waramaug, the leader of the Pootatuck Indians living near the river in the mid 1600s. Legend has it that Lillinonah found an ill white man wandering in the forest near her father’s home. A she nursed him back to health the two fell in love, despite Waramaug’s disapproval. The white man left for home to tell his family and didn’t return for more than a year, which left Lillinonah heartbroken and prompted the chief to order Lillinonah’s marriage to one of his braves, Eagle Feather. Lillinonah rebelled by taking a canoe one evening down river toward the rapids. A she drifted perilously close to the rapids she heard the voice of her lover who had finally returned for her. Upon seeing her in danger her lover jumped into the river below, reaching her just as her canoe tipped over. He reached her at the edge of the falls and the two went over together where they died on the rocks below. From this, the gorge derived the name Lover’s leap. Today the lake is a haven for wildlife, including fish such as bass and pike. For over 20 years, the lake has also been home to bald eagles from November through March. According to Paul KominackNortheast Generation Services, “The dam is especially appealing to eagles in winter months while the station is in operation, because the turbulence below the dam keeps the water from freezing over and the fish provide a reliable food source for the eagles.” The lake is also home to a number of lakefront homes and some much larger estates as well, such as the one Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols lived in until approximately two years ago. Brookfield residents George and Sandy Walker moved from Danbury to their lakefront home 12 years ago and often cruise the length of the lake on their new pontoon boat, often waving to neighbors as they pass by. “It’s just beautiful here, we love it,” said Sandy. “We keep our boat in until October so that we can look at the leaves.” According to Brookfield Historical Society Director John Furlong, although Southville may be gone forever, the old road leading to the bridge that spanned the Housatonic and carried people over to Southville has been preserved as the entrance to one of Brookfield’s open space parks, Lillinonah Woods. The park, which consists of 68 acres along the lake and has parking, hiking and picnic tables, is on the right, just past Obtuse Rocks Road.