By Shawn Regan
---- — A picturesque area that was once a trouble spot on the banks of the Merrimack River will reopen this week as a public park after 15 years in hibernation.
The city is hosting a small celebration Thursday at 8 a.m. at the Hannah Duston Rest Area — small park sandwiched between Route 110 and the river near the Methuen line.
The secluded park was closed around 1998 because it became a place for criminal activity, including partying, drug use and sexual liaisons.
Mayor James Fiorentini said opening the rest area is part of his plan to focus on improving city parks and playgrounds this year.
In the future, the park will open daily at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., from June 1 to Oct. 1. The City Council has passed an ordinance allowing police to arrest anyone in the park after hours and to tow vehicles found there at night.
Local and state police have agreed to keep close watch on the rest area, Fiorentini said, adding that security cameras will be installed there.
In recent weeks, trees and dense brush along the river have been cut and trimmed to open views of the waterway and to make it easier for police patrols to spot anyone in the park after hours.
The western end of the park, which includes a gully where people used to hide from sight, will be permanently blocked off with Jersey barriers, the mayor said.
The new city budget includes money for benches, picnic tables and regular park maintenance, including emptying trash barrels and mowing grass. A private company will be hired to install and service dog waste receptacles, the mayor said. The city hopes to eventually install a canoe or kayak launch at the river’s edge, he said.
Fiorentini said he is counting on the help of residents who live near the rest area to help keep “the criminal element” from returning.
“The best way to keep bad people from taking it over is to have good people take it over,” the mayor said. “I have asked neighbors to walk their dogs and to picnic there. If this is going to be successful, it’s going to have to be a partnership between the city and the neighbors.”
Fiorentini said about 30 neighbors attended an informational meeting at the park earlier this month and that “everyone there was in support of re-opening it for specific activities such as fishing, walking and picnicking.” Dog-walking will be allowed in the park as long as the animals are on leashes, the mayor said.
A state trooper who attended the neighborhood meeting and lives nearby said state police will help local officers keep a close eye on the park, Fiorentini said.
The park is named after controversial Colonial heroine Hannah Duston. It is believed to be where Duston’s canoe landed after she escaped from a band of Native American Indians who had kidnapped her from her Haverhill home and taken her to New Hampshire.