Penfield Mills Open Space Area
x Open Space Trail Guide
Location and Access
The 25-acre Penfield Mills Open Space Area, one of the Town’s Ash Creek open space areas, is located at the end of Turney Road, nearby Riverside Drive and adjoining the Town’s South Benson Marina basin.Vehicle access is via Turney Road. During the boating season, you’ll have to stop at the marina guard house. A Town permit isn’t needed for access to the open space area so just tell the attendant you’re going to the open space. Turn left after the guard house and drive to the end of the access road where there’s plenty of parking opposite the Town’s boat launching ramp. A Town permit is needed to use the ramp.
Pedestrian access to Penfield Mills is available from Riverside Drive but no parking is available along the road.
A walk through the Penfield Mills Open Space Area provides a revealing glimpse into the history of the Town. Ash Creek had an important role in the early development of Fairfield and was the Town’s main harbor for many years. In the mid-1700’s, Peter Penfield built a dam across the Creek to Great Island Marsh and built grist mills on either side of the creek. The mills were powered by the tides and became centers of activity, supplying vital foodstuff for the townspeople. They would also provide, over 200 years later, the name of this open space area.
At the same time as the tide mills were built, Fairfielders constructed a short-cut to the Black Rock area (now in Bridgeport) by building a wooden, “corduroy” road and bridge across the creek. Many residents helped build the thoroughfare since the Town levied a tax of either labor or money for public works projects. The road and bridge are long gone but their wooden remnants can be seen at low tide protruding from the edge of the marsh. Some of the old dam stones are also visible, near Great Island Marsh.
The upland and marshes near the mouth of Ash Creek were subdivided for hundreds of building lots in the early 1900’s and the resulting development would provide homes for many families. At that time, and for many years afterward, upland portions of the present-day open space area were mined for sand and gravel and the excavated areas were filled with construction debris.
An earthen dike across Riverside Creek was constructed in 1957 to reduce the risk of flooding to neighborhood homes, but it also reduced tidal flow into the marshes and encouraged the spread of freshwater common reeds (Phragmites). The reeds presented a considerable fire hazard each fall and winter, and stagnant pools provided breeding areas for mosquitoes.
In 1964, the Town constructed its South Benson Marina basin and in 1968 used state and federal funds to acquire the land which is now the Penfield Mills Open Space Area. The Town then began work “to restore this land to its earlier condition as a historic mill site with an orchard, meadow, woodlot, and marsh so visitors can enjoy the diverse cultural, historic, and ecological riches which were formerly balanced on this site."
In 2007, the Town, in conjunction with The Aspetuck Land Trust, purchased Great Island Marsh in the middle of Ash Creek. The Fairfield/Bridgeport town line passes through the middle of the island so Fairfield owns its side and the land trust owns the Bridgeport side.
Vegetation and Wildlife
The open space area supports a diversity of upland and inter-tidal vegetation. On the upland, there is a meadow, small fruit trees, and wood lot, along with shrubs and berry bushes. Civic groups and neighborhood volunteers helped the Conservation Commission and Department establish this vegetation. Maples, willows, black cherry trees, and locust trees are found along the perimeter of the meadow.
The marsh vegetation is also diverse. If you look carefully, you’ll see several distinct zones of vegetation. In the most shallow and infrequently flooded areas, for example, you’ll see the common reed and high tide bush, a shrub with fleshy leaves. Closer to the creek, salt hay forms cowlicks blown in every direction and often mixed with spike grass. In deeper, more frequently submerged areas, look for the colorful branching sea lavender (whose flowers are often dried and used by florists) as well as bright green, jointed glassworts and salt marsh aster. Closest to the water, tall saltwater cord grass is the most common plant.
As you walk on the trail on top of the 1957 flood control dike across Riverside Creek, you’ll see where the Conservation Commission has placed a self-regulating tide gate that lets tide water flow back into the creek, thereby restoring the salt marsh ecosystem that was damaged when the dike was first built.
The upland field, with its mixture of grasses, colorful flowers, and young fruit trees, is a good place to spot robins, thrushes, and a variety of other songbirds. Don’t be surprised to find an occasional harrier hawk circling overhead or if you see and hear the pheasants that live on the edges of the field and woods. When the field is abloom in summer, you’ll also see a number of familiar insects, including many varieties of butterflies, moths, and dragonflies.
Along the marsh trail you’ll find an army of fiddler crabs scavenging for food. Also, look for clams and oysters and the broken shells of mussels which live with barnacles on the rocky peninsula alongside the marina.
The Ash Creek estuary is truly a lively place. On any given day you’re bound to be treated to a glimpse of its many inhabitants. If you look carefully, low tide is the best time to observe bottom creatures. The salt marshes draw a crowd of fish, both big and small. If you happen to walk the trail as the tide is rising, look for minnows, mummichugs, and killifish. These fish are food for a variety of larger fish. Several of the popular recreational and commercial species, including winter flounder and bluefish, breed and spend their early lives in these protective, food-filled marshes.
The black cherry trees along the upland edge of the open space area are perfect roosting spots for herons. Many of the mussel and clam shells you’ll find on the marsh trail are dropped by these birds. Land animals, such as raccoons, opossum, and many marsh birds also benefit from the rich produce of the marsh, feeding on clams, crustaceans, fish, and the roots of plants. Several of their burrows are visible in the slope of the open space area above the marsh. Other conspicuous avian inhabitants are wrens, which dart among the grasses and eat their seeds, and the brilliant blue and white kingfisher which skillfully nose-dives into the water after fish and makes its home in the sandy hillside. On Great Island Marsh there is an osprey nesting platform that fledges young every year.
As you walk the trails at Penfield Mills Open Space Area you follow the footsteps of many Fairfielders. Some sailed in and out of Ash Creek when it was a thriving harbor in the 17 and 18 centuries, some brought wheat and other grains to the creek’s grist mills, and some traveled across the creek on a wooden road and bridge to Black Rock.
One trail follows the shoreline of the area, leading to a picnic area overlooking the creek and then to Riverside Drive. This trail passes over the top of the old flood control dike. It’s also possible to walk through the meadow to and along the shoreline of the creek from where you can explore the salt marshes and see the remnants of the Colonial-era corduroy road and the old dam stones near Great Island Marsh. There’s also a path on the length of the peninsula that separates the marina basin from Ash Creek. The peninsula, not part of the original open space acquisition, was built-up with sediments dredged from the creek. A small parking area at the entrance to the peninsula is reserved for use by handicapped visitors.
In addition to exploring the salt marsh, picnicking, fishing from the peninsula, and enjoying views of Long Island Sound and Ash Creek, you can enjoy the children's playground in the meadow near the open space parking area and you can launch and land a canoe or kayak.
Since 1973, the open space area has served as an outdoor classroom for environmental education. Fifth-graders from Fairfield Public Schools, for example, visit each autumn with trained volunteer guides from the Mill River Wetland Committee as part of the River-Lab Program.
Scroll below to view photographs of the Penfield Mills Open Space Area: