Litchfield enjoyed a so-called “Golden Age” from 1784 to 1834. In these fifty years the small town was a center of education -with both Tapping Reeve’s law school and the Sarah Pierce Academy bringing young, intelligent and often well-to-do men and women to town – and of commerce. In 1810, the population of the town was approximately 4,600, making it, according to the Litchfield Historical Society (http://litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/history/index.php), the fourth largest settlement in the state.
However, beginning with the United States’ Fourth Census in 1820, the number of residents in Litchfield began a steady decline, with the overall population dropping in nine of the next ten censuses. By 1910, the town’s population stood at 3,005, a staggering drop of 35%. There were many reasons for the exodus of Litchfield residents. Across New England, populations fell in the aftermath of the American Revolution as farmers gave up their rocky lands for the promise of new lands in the west; the migration was so severe that editorials appeared in the Hartford Courant asking who would tend to the graveyards of Litchfield County in the aftermath of the departure of so many residents. The drop in Litchfield’s population was due to perhaps a simpler cause – it was very difficult for those who lived in town to obtain an adequate supply of water.
Litchfield was first laid out along elevated lands, initially along the ridge marked by present-day North and South Streets, then spreading to the Chestnut Hill area. While this allowed for plots away from swamps and wetlands, it made for great difficulty in digging wells. A solution to the town’s water problem would be arrived at only with great difficulty and after decades of planning and work.
After discussions of how to solve the water crisis – and the continued decline in the town’s population – the Litchfield Water Company was established in 1891. The company proposed damming Fox Brook in Goshen to create a reservoir. While water was brought to Litchfield in 1891, within a few years the source was proven to be inadequate, for it was later written that Fox Brook “could not properly be called a brook, as it practically dried up soon after a rainfall.”
Professor Henry S. Munroe, of Columbia University’s Department of Mining was brought in to solve the problem. Munroe, whose other contributions to the Litchfield County landscape included the tower on Mount Tom, oversaw the construction of a new pumping plan in the valley below the reservoir, with wells 90 feet deep. These wells, as Alain White wrote in his history of Litchfield,
“have provided an unfailing supply of pure water ever since, so that however dry the season or how near a water famine many of the surrounding towns were, Litchfield people … had no cause for worry.”
The Litchfield Water Company soon after purchased 500 acres of the surrounding watershed of the reservoir, which they allowed to return to a natural forested state – excepting, that is, the fences they erected to keep out cattle. Filters were added to the pumps in 1914 to help ensure the purity of the water supply.
Apparently the mere prospect of a clean and secure source of drinking water excited the commemorative spirit of the town. In 1890, a year before the water system was activated, a small monument appeared on the western end of the town green bearing the inscription:
Erected by the
to commemorate the
introduction of water
The Litchfield Village Improvement Company (later the Village Improvement Society, or VIS) was incorporated in 1875 to oversee improvements to the town’s streets, parks, and public structures. In erecting this particular marker, however, the organization perhaps did more than improve the appearance of their town; they may have commemorated its very survival.