Film to Raise Awareness of Still River History
From a stinking cesspool to the home of ever increasing types of fish, the river may be still no more.
The Still River has never seemed very still to longtime residents who know that the river has flooded it's way throughout Danbury's history. Dave Bonan, 1999 graduate of Western Connecticut State University, local activist, agitator, and film maker said, “There were various sources that referred to it as the Still River because it was dead before the first hat was even produced in the 1790s. The farming pollution was in there long before the hatters. The river was commonly known to be dead.”
In 1886, the river was called a sewage dump in historical documents, and it was in that year that they began to install sewers. But the water was so bad, farmers were suing the city. People couldn't work the mills and the cows wouldn't drink from it.
The city gave the farmers land further upriver so they could farm, but in the court case of 1895,1896, Morgan vs Danbury, the federal court in Bridgeport ruled in favor of Morgan and made the city take responsibility for the destruction of the river. According to Bonan, Morgan v Danbury was important because it was a landmark case that affected all municipal industrial rivers nationwide with a remedy for pollution control.
The original judgment entry described the situation in 1895 whereby, “Morgan and his workmen were so injuriously exposed to noxious odors, the air of the neighborhood corrupted and poisoned, his mill dam partly filled up with filth.”
In a letter to the editor in Danbury Evening News of October 29, 1886, a disgusted resident wrote, “Daily our health officers are reminded by the tolling of the bells that our mortuary rates are constantly increasing and that somewhere in our midst, perhaps, exists the cesspool from which the sporodic seeds of disease and death germinate. If you have not already done so, take a walk along the Still River, only from the Main Street bridge to the White Street bridge and you will find it a burying ground for dead rats, cats and dogs.”
According to that letter, garbage, vegetables, seafood, dishes, glassware, boxes, sewage, dye stuff, vitriol and other chemicals from the hat shops were dumped in the river as rates of typhoid and diptheria spread throughout the city.
The history of the Still River is the history of environmental abuse that permeated this country almost as soon as it was settled. According to Bonan, “Back in the day, they would build businesses and homes right over the river, so you could pull up the floorboards and dump your waste right in there. People didn't know that eventually the river would fight back.”
Bonan's background as a film-o-phile and activist, as well as being “a research geek” led him only one year ago to bring some recognition of what was lost with the Still River, and how much we all have to gain by learning to, as he said, “treat it with some respect.”
“The film is about multiple issues,” said Bonan. “It's about the history of the river, that the river made Danbury what it was to become, a manufacturing center, but only through the destruction of our most treasured resource. It's getting healthier now, it's better now than it was ten years ago. When the waste treatment plants removed some of the phosphorous in the 90s, fish started coming back and spawned relatively quickly. The river is resilient.”
Bonan and his crew still feel that the river is like an unknown presence in Danbury. Unlike major cities that have immense rivers running through them, Danbury's Still River breaks off into many tributaries, runs under streets and behind cement walls.
“You ask the average person about the river and they don't know its there,” said Bonan. “They don't know anything about it. Everyone gets mad when the river floods, and that's the only thing they know about it. They forget that it is beautiful.”
Aurelio Muraca, director of the film, said, “The river was the reason for the hat manufacturing, and now people are trying to bring the river back. It's about people going back to take care of nature. It's about the people who polluted it and taking responsibility, and why me, Dave and Renato Ghio, (director of photography/videographer, owner of Rmedia) agreed to do the movie. It's about Dave's pursuit in chronicling this, in bringing light to the river. It's, you know, one person doing something and then the community doing something.”
There has been a lot of support for the film throughout Danbury, which surprised everyone who is working on the film. “It was such a turnabout for me,” said Muraca. “I was so pessimistic but people have been so helpful. We got a grant from The Danbury Cultural Commission, the Still River Alliance has been so supportive, Bill Devlin the historian, Danbury Museum, the mayors office, Danbury Senior Center, City Center, Mike McLachlan, Dr. Herbert Janick have all been really great.”
“Some people say it's crazy to make this film, but there have been so many films made in Danbury, it's like Danbury has been a character in films, but the whole history of the town is built on the river,” said Bonan.
Bonan is hoping the result of the film will be that people will see the river differently, and will begin to care about it. “The community could stop trashing the river. I wish people wouldn't throw stuff in the river and the streets. We do these big clean-ups and people come out in canoes, and people pick up garbage and just fill these canoes with trash. There is just so much of it. It comes downriver every time it rains.”
“There are tons of beach and tennis balls, food, medicine bottles, and only food that is easily accessible, like Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds,” said Bonan. “You never find organic wrappers in the river. People think, What is wrong with throwing a bottle in the river? We have to take care of the environment because the environment takes care of us.”
"People need to have respect for the land in the same way they treat each other. The river doesn't have any rights anymore. In taking care of yourself, you have to take back your own rights. But you also have to give rights back to the river,” said Muraca.
“When you build too much on the river, it will take its revenge on you in terms of dollars to do flood repair and lives lost,” said Bonan. “The problem in this world is that we commodify nature, and everything only matters so as long as its economically feasible.”
Muraca said, “People disconnect from nature and they have to get back into tune, because, PS, we are part of nature. We have to see what is it worth to us, how much can we learn from it.”