Hike in Hopkinton, RI to honor a teenage Civil War victim

  • Directions: On Route 95, take Exit 2 and travel south on Woodville-Alton Road to a parking lot on the left.
  • Parking: available on a small lot.
  • Dogs: Authorized, but must be kept on a leash.
  • Difficulty: Easy.

HOPKINTON — Charles Collins joined the Union Army during the Civil War and died at age 16 on the Mississippi River in 1863. He is buried next to his parents in a cemetery on farmland where he grew up.

I stopped at Collins’ grave and thought of the tragic loss of life on a recent walk through the Black Farm Management Area. If you like history, there is much more to learn in the reserve, as well as several natural features to study.

The trails cross two bridges over Canonchet Book, circle a semi-circle around a kettle pond, pass a curious stone foundation and follow an abandoned railway bed to the River Wood, where the stone abutments that once supported the tracks are still standing.

A wooden slat bridge crosses the rushing waters of Canonchet Creek in the Black Farm Management Area.

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Black Farm is only 245 acres, much smaller than other state management areas such as Arcadia and Buck Hill. But sometimes, the smaller the better. It encourages you to stop more often and focus on what you see and hear. And there’s a lot to think about at Black Farm.

From the trailhead, a friend and I embarked on a section of the Narragansett trail in yellow, which stretches 22 miles through southern Rhode Island and Connecticut.

A rickety bridge over a rushing stream

The trail goes up a small climb and along a ridge line with a shallow trough below. At a fork we walked left down the hill and heard the Canonchet stream rushing rapidly through the valley long before we saw it.

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The 15-foot-wide creek is crossed by a rickety bridge constructed of wooden slats nailed to thick tree branches. Whitewater tumbled over mini waterfalls upstream. We investigated the safety of the crossing, found that someone had replaced some of the planks to cover the gaps in the bridge, then crossed without incident.

On the other side we climbed a climb and through the trees we got our first glimpse of Plain Pond, a circle-shaped body of water called a kettle pond. The basin formed during the Ice Age when a large chunk of stagnant ice broke off from a glacier and became partially buried in sediment. The slow melting of the ice left the depression.

Plain Pond is a kettle pond formed by retreating glaciers during the Ice Age.

Plain Pond has no feeder streams and fills from groundwater and runoff. Its green tint is caused by the reflections of the tall pines that line the banks.

Dark reflection on a Civil War grave

From there we took a left and walked along a mundane trail through the woods until it left the property. We turned around and walked along the pond to the left and continued until we saw a neat, rectangular-shaped graveyard lined with stone slabs, with a huge pine tree in the middle. It had recently been raked and cleared.

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We walked through an old iron gate and counted about 20 slate, granite and marble tombstones. One was marked for Thankful Collins Kenyon (1795-1890). The other side of the plot had other stones for more members of the Collins family, including one with an American flag and marked Charles L. Collins (1847-1863). After enlisting at age 15, Charles served in the Navy during the Civil War as a signals quartermaster and died suddenly of diphtheria a year later far from home aboard the steamer USS Eastport on the Mississippi River.

The graves of Charles Collins and other members of the Collins family are in a stone-lined cemetery.

Its stone is inscribed:

“Dear friends, my country is calling me and I have to go

With wings of lead to face the enemy

And should I die on the south shore

I hope that we will meet so as not to separate again.

The two graves next to Charles are marked for his father, Charles Willet Collins (1813-1888) and his mother, Mary N. Hoxie Collins (1827-1908).

The Collins family owned and cultivated the land for centuries, beginning in 1710 when John Collins, a Quaker from Westerly, acquired 450 acres along the Wood River, part of the 3,000 acres purchased by Collins and six more in same time.

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The land was transmitted from father to son, grandson and other relatives. At various times over 200 years, the land has been used for dairy, sheep and poultry farming and planted with orchards. For a time, wood was harvested there.

The property was formerly called Isaac Collins Farm, after a doctor who practiced in Richmond. He, his wife, Mary, and their children are buried in the cemetery.

An unusual stone foundation with rounded corners may have been an icehouse for storing cut blocks in Plain Pond.

After a series of land transfers, Margaret McCormack Black acquired the property in 1964. The Black family sold the land to the state in 1991 for use as open space.

We stood quietly and respectfully by the graves for a few minutes before returning to the trail, back to the pond, and walking along the banks through the woods.

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What was the origin of an unusual stone foundation?

The path branches off to the right and descends a long slope before reaching an unusual stone foundation. The granite block walls were about 5 feet high with three openings and two stone pillars at the end in front of another chamber. But what caught my attention were the rounded corners of the walls. Most old farm foundations for homes, basements, barns, and storage sheds that I’ve seen on my hikes have squared off corners.

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Some hikers believe the structure may have been an old mill, but there was no creek or reach nearby. Others said it was a depot or storage barn for a nearby railway line.

But I later learned that it was probably a cooler used to store hewn blocks in Plain Pond. The ice may have been shipped on the freight line.

A bridge built from a wooden flat trailer, with wheels still attached, crosses a tributary of the Wood River.

After inspecting the site, we took the trail that ran alongside a raised, arrow-straight railroad bed through a tunnel of pine trees. We followed it north through a gate, then up Old Depot Road. Side trails on the right lead to the Wood River.

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Turning around, we retraced our steps near the stone foundation, skirted two fields and followed a path over a bridge built from a flat, low-loader trailer – with tires still attached – on stilts stone above a stream. We thought about how it was set up and then continued to the Wood River.

The straight line railway bed as an arrow passes through a tunnel of pine trees along the eastern edge of the reserve.

Stone pillars in the water once supported the trails for the Wood River Branch Railroad, which began operating in 1874 and carried freight and passengers from a depot in Hope Valley to the Richmond switch. A Hope Valley grain mill operator bought the railroad in 1937. But it was abandoned after a grain elevator fire in 1947. The tracks are gone now.

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We stood on a high stone abutment by the river and watched a beaver swim upstream.

In 1947, patrons crossed the Wood River for the last time on the last run of the Wood River Branch Railroad.  The stone support pillars are still standing today, although the decking is gone.

After our break, we came back to the trailer bridge, then took a left over a wooden bridge over Canonchet Creek. The creek was much wider here and slower flowing than it was at the section we crossed over the rickety bridge when we started. Several turtles sunbathed on branches in the creek and threw themselves into the water as they passed.

The path skirts a field, with farm buildings and a barn on the left, before crossing a low stone wall and entering the woods. We climbed a small hill and followed the path back to our starting point.

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In all, we covered 5 miles in 2h30.

Sometimes hikes can be lively and provide an opportunity to swap stories with fellow hikers.

Sometimes the pace is fast to cover a lot of ground in a large reserve.

And sometimes the walks are calm and a time to reflect. Our hike through Black Farm was mostly like this, and I think the visit to young Charles’s grave had something to do with it.

Trail advice

The Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission offers information on historic graves at rihistoriccemeteries.org.

John Kostrzewa

John Kostrzewa, former deputy/corporate editor of the Providence Journal, greets emails at [email protected].