Hidden Nearby: Rochambeau’s March through Southbury

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Following the great American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777, Benjamin Franklin negotiated an alliance between the fledgling American nation and France. Motivated by a desire to weaken their British adversaries, and convinced that the Americans could not defeat the British with only foreign financial aid, in January 1780 France reversed its policy to not send ground troops to assist the Americans. In July 1780, General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, with and army of approximately 6,000 men. Two months later, Rochambeau traveled to Hartford to meet with Washington, who desperately wanted to French to aid him in his plan to assault New York City. However, even Washington was forced to admit that it was too late in the year to carry out such an operation.

Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807)

Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau

Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau

 

In May of 1781, the two generals met again, this time in Wethersfield. (Note: It was for these two meetings that Washington traveled through Litchfield County, likely crossing Bull’s Bridge in Kent, resting under the Washington Oak in Gaylordsville, and spending the night in Litchfield.) Here, they decided that Rochambeau would indeed move his army to Westchester County, to cooperate with Washington in an attack on the British garrison of New York City. The line of march would bring them across Connecticut, a route known today as the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, administered by the National Park Service.

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Rochambeau’s forces began their march out of Rhode Island on June 18th. The general’s plan called for the men to march 12 to 15 miles a day. To avoid the heat of mid-day, the troops awoke at 2:00 am, and were on the march by 4:00 am. Marching was typically completed between 8:00 am and noon, at which time the men pitched their tents. The French army were treated as heroes by the Connecticut populace, who greeted them with music and dancing, and French soldiers long remembered the “beautiful maidens” they met on the march. Around June 30th, Rochambeau’s marched through Southbury, an event commemorated by the above marker. While this marker is situated between Route 6 and Mansion Hill Road, a National Park Service map indicates that Rochambeau’s forces did not take this route, instead picking up Route 6 further south.

Jonathan Trumbull’s Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. Rochambeau is the 12th (final) figure on the left side. The British general Charles O’Hara, tasked by Cornwallis with surrendering the army, initially offered his sword to Rochambeau, who refused in deference to Washington. Washington also refused, and directed O’Hara to surrender his sword to Benjamin Lincoln (on the horse at center), who had previously been humiliated by the British at Charleston.

 

Washington personally reviewed the French force after their arrival in Westchester on July 6th. After considerable discussion about how best to attack the British in New York City, the arrival of a French fleet off the Virginia coast compelled the two generals to change their plans and focus on the British force under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Within a few months, Cornwallis had surrendered, the world was turned upside down, and the Americans were on their way to independence. It was thus a victorious French army that marched back through Southbury in 1782, having done much to ensure American independence.

For more information on Rochambeau’s march, check out the National Park Service’s excellent brochure: https://www.nps.gov/waro/learn/news/upload/WARO-brochure-both-sides-2.pdf

 

 

 

Hidden Nearby: The Old Waterbury River Turnpike in Winchester Center

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With the end of the American Revolution, Connecticut needed to reframe its transportation infrastructure from one dependent upon the British fleet to one that utilizes roadways to connect the state to major markets. The challenge faced by the fledgling state was that because it was heavily in debt from the war effort it lacked the funds to build roads, and in the wake of the revolution, it didn’t dare tax its citizens to pay for them. The answer to this transportation and economic dilemma was privately built turnpikes.

Map from Frederic Woods’s The Turnpikes of New England (1919)

The last two decades of the 18th and first decades of the 19th saw dozens of state-chartered but privately built turnpikes criss-cross the state. Turnpike corporations undertook the high costs of building the roads – clearing forests, grading the roads, building bridges if needed – in exchange for the rights to operate two tolls along their route. (Paths around these tolls, known as shunpikes, soon dotted the landscape.) Profits were limited to 12% return on investment; anything more was taken by the state. The most successful of the turnpikes, including the Greenwoods Turnpike between Norfolk and Winsted, reinvested their excess profits in their road, continuously improving conditions.

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The Waterbury River Turnpike Company ran one such road that began at the Massachusetts border, ran through Colebrook and Winchester to Torrington and ultimately Waterbury. (The Waterbury River refers to what we know as the Naugatuck River.) There is, perhaps, no better place to see what these turnpikes looked like than in Winchester Center. Designed in a French style, turnpike engineers looked to minimize curves. They also desired broad roadbeds; the section of the Waterbury River Turnpike pictured above, however, demonstrates that this was not always achieved.

 

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The turnpikes were at the heart of the nation’s market revolution in the early 19th century, providing the means for increasing numbers of Americans to access the goods being produced in a booming economy.  Testimony to this stands in the interpretative marker (seen above) that stands in Winchester Center. The fees charged indicate that these roads were used to transport livestock, goods, and people. By the 1850s, most of these turnpikes had their charters revoked and became property of the state, but their importance in helping to build the nation’s economy cannot be understated.

 

Dam Remains along Butternut Brook

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Remnants of a stone dam along Butternut Brook in Litchfield. This is a common feature on the Litchfield County landscape.

These remnants of dams are on Butternut Brook, along Duck Pond Road in Litchfield. They transport the explorer back to a time when the region’s many small industries were powered by water, an era historian Kenneth Howell has called an “empire over the dam.”

A grindstone, most commonly used in a gristmill to grind wheat into flour, or more commonly in New England to ground kernels into corn meal.

Water power was cheap and usually – except in droughts – reliable. Dams would hold back enough water to turn the water wheel, which in turn powered the drive shaft. Attached to the shaft was a vertical gear, which in turn transferred power to a horizontal gear. This, in many Litchfield County mills, turned the grindstones that turned wheat or corn into flour.

The Butternut Brook crosses Brush Hill Road (called Ripley Road on this older topographical map). The dams are located near Duck Pond Road’s intersection with Milton Road.

While Litchfield proper never saw industry rise above the level of small grist and saw mills, greater sources of water power in Milton and Fluteville (a section of town along the Naugatuck River bordering Harwinton, now lost to the Northville Dam) larger operations blossomed, powering lathes, blacksmith shops, and clock making. And of course, the dams in Northfield fueled that borough’s knife shop.

The streams of Litchfield County are dotted with hundreds of remnants of old dams, a reminder of the small industries that helped make life in this once isolated corner of Connecticut a little easier.

Look for a future post specific to Milton’s industrial heritage.

Hidden Nearby: An Autumn Walk Along the CCC Road at Macedonia State Park

Camp Macedonia Brook operated as a base for the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1936, during the New Deal. The camp was charged with building a new road to Macedonia Brook State Park and a road to the top of Kent Falls. The road to Macedonia, which still exists, was especially difficult, requiring many cuts into the rocks and filling. The New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad ran alongside the camp, allowing for direct delivery of supplies. The men of the camp were also involved in flood relief during the 1936 floods of the Housatonic.

Fall is a wonderful time to explore the history of Litchfield County. At Macedonia State Park, a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression offers insights into the area's history.

Fall is a wonderful time to explore the history of Litchfield County. At Macedonia State Park, a road built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression offers insights into the area’s history.

An old grindstone can be seen along the roadside, certainly pre-dating the CCC.

An old grindstone can be seen along the roadside, certainly pre-dating the CCC.

The explorer can appreciate the beauty of the CCC's stonewalls. The CCC was established by the Roosevelt Administration as a New Deal agency to both protect the environment and give work to 18-24 year old men.

The explorer can appreciate the beauty of the CCC’s stonewalls. The CCC was established by the Roosevelt Administration as a New Deal agency to both protect the environment and give work to 18-24 year old men.

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The above two photographs provide a glimpse into the drainage system developed by the CCC. Even after a heavy rainfall the previous day, the road was dry.

The two photographs above provide a glimpse into the drainage system developed by the CCC. Even after a heavy rainfall the previous day, the road was dry.

CCC members cut rocks to crate the roadwa.

CCC members cut rocks to create the roadway.

Where the men didn't build stonewalls, they put coping stones in place to serve as guardrails.

Where the men didn’t build stonewalls, they put coping stones in place to serve as guardrails.

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A true appreciation for the scope of the work done by the CCC can be gained by examining the sheer size of the road's retaining walls.

A true appreciation for the scope of the work done by the CCC can be gained by examining the sheer size of the road’s retaining walls.

60 Years Ago: The Flood of 1955

The Prospect Street bridge over the Naugatuck River in Torrington (Connecticuthistory.org)

The Prospect Street bridge over the Naugatuck River in Torrington (Connecticuthistory.org)

The Flood of 1955, the worst natural disaster in Connecticut history, resulted from the approximately two feet of rain dropped by Hurricanes Connie and Diane that August. Low-lying areas were already flooded on the morning of August 18th when the second storm dumped fourteen more inches that afternoon and on August 19th. The Housatonic stood at 24.5 feet deep and the Mad and Still Rivers in Winsted raged at 50 miles per hour.  In Torrington, the Naugatuck River, so peaceful looking today, swept away lumber, rocks, even buildings. Stores along East Main Street were filled with six feet of water. The city suffered an estimated $22 million dollars in damage.

Memorial to flood victims in Winsted

Memorial to flood victims in Winsted

A similar scene played out in Winsted, while the Shepaug River carried away an apartment building in Washington Depot.  Concrete sections of Route 44 were washed away and across the county, Bailey bridges – made famous during World War II – were used to provide temporary river crossings.  Twenty-five helicopters searched for survivors or dropped clean food and water.  Statewide, 87 people were killed, and over 8,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Twenty five of the dead were from Litchfield County. Memorials stand in Torrington and Winsted to those who lost their lives.

American Brass factory, Torrington

American Brass factory, Torrington

Extraordinary acts of heroism by police, firemen, and ordinary citizens kept the death toll from growing. In its August 26th, 1955 edition the Torrington Register proclaimed, “So numerous were the many acts of heroism, rescue of the sick and invalid, neighbors’ concern for neighbors, that it would impossible to chronicle them without slighting someone deserving of great credit.

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Thomaston Dam

In addition to severely (in some places irreparably) damaging the state’s industrial infrastructure, the floods forced the Army Corps of Engineers to take action so that such a disaster never happened again.  The army constructed the Thomaston Dam (1960), Northfield Brook Dam (1965), and Colebrook Dam (1969), at a cost of $70 million.  The Naugatuck River, with its many tributaries, had been especially prone to flooding and the dams constructed along that river provided over 77,000 acres of flood capacity, while returning over 1,000 acres to forest.  This protection came at a price as construction displaced the communities of Fluteville and Campville in Litchfield.  Still, it is perhaps fortunate that the traveler through Torrington today has difficulty in imagining the destructive power of the now-controlled Naugatuck River. 

Please see “The Lost,” a special section of the Hartford Courant for tributes to those who died in the Flood of 1955: http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-55flood-casualties-htmlstory.html

Also see the Torrington Register-Citizen’s photo archive of the flood: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/albumMap?uname=kaitlynmyeager&aid=5547678124797887025#map

Frederick Bacon and the United States Exploring Expedition

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Tucked into a tree in Litchfield’s East Cemetery is a marker commemorating the life of Frederick Asa Bacon, who was born in Litchfield in 1812. His father attended the Litchfield Law School, and he, his mother and two brothers attended the Litchfield Female Academy. A voyage to England in 1829 sparked an interest in a life at sea, and he joined the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1832. In 1838, while serving as a passed midshipman – one who has passed the examination to be a lieutenant but is waiting for a vacancy at that rank – Bacon was one of two officers named to command the U.S.S. Sea Gull, a schooner that was part of the United States Exploring Expedition (known as the US Ex Ex).

The U.S.S. Sea Gull, in distress of Cape Horn

The U.S.S. Sea Gull, in distress of Cape Horn. A drawing by Alfred Thomas Agate, a member of the U.S. Ex Ex

The US Ex Ex was one of several 19th century voyages of discovery sponsored by the United States government. Under the command of Charles Wilkes, this expedition was sent circumnavigate the globe in order to search for the magnetic south pole, map the western coast of North America, and explore the islands of the south Pacific. Bacon’s Sea Gull was formerly a New York harbor pilot boat called the New Jersey. Wilkes included two schooners in his six-ship squadron because he believed the agility would be highly prized in the ice around the South Pole.

Deception Island

Deception Island

The ships left Norfolk, Virginia, on August 18, 1838, bound for the tip of South America. There they would survey and collect specimens before making a February (summer in the southern hemisphere) exploration of the Antarctic. Enormous icebergs – some reportedly as big as the United States Capitol – and huge waves caused Wilkes to order the Sea Gull out of danger in search of scientific equipment left behind on Deception Island by an earlier British expedition. The crew did not find the thermometer, but did determine that Deception Island was an active volcano.

Memorial to the men who died during the U.S. Ex Ex in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of findagrave.com

Memorial to the men who died during the U.S. Ex Ex in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of findagrave.com

By mid-April, Wilkes ordered part of the squadron to sail for Valparaiso, Chile, while the Sea Gull and her sister schooner Flying Fish waited for a supply ship. While the latter vessel arrived in Chile by mid-May, there was no sign of the Sea Gull, which was last seen waiting out strong winds at Staten Island off the coast of South America’s Cape Horn. When after a month the Sea Gull still had not arrived, the officers of the Ex Ex assumed that she was lost; Wilkes later speculated that in the gales off Cape Horn, the schooner might have tripped her foremast, which would have ripped up the foredeck and made her unseaworthy. A collection for a monument in memory of the ship’s crew was taken up by the expedition’s officers; the monument still stands in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution

The Ex Ex continued on its voyage, achieving the first sighting of the Antarctic continent, making invaluable maps of the South Pacific islands and the currents off the American Pacific coast, and gathering enormous numbers – in excess of 60,000 – specimens of birds, fish, plants, and shells. These specimens would later form the backbone of the Smithsonian Institution. At least five books were published on the scientific and maritime discoveries of the expedition.

Captain Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition

Captain Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition

Captain Charles Wilkes would become embroiled in controversy for his actions during the expedition, and in fact when Lieutenant Robert Pinkney brought court martial proceedings against Wilkes, the commander criticized his accuser by contrasting “the intelligence, attention to duty, and untiring activity of the lamented Reid and Bacon with all that is opposite in the character of Lieutenant Pinkney.”

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Bacon was remembered by Wilkes as “among the most promising young officers in the squadron.” Lieutenant Reynolds of the expedition highlighted the Bacon’s personal tragedy by remembering,“Poor, poor fellows, what a terrible lot. The two officers were young men of my age, one if he indeed be gone, leaving a wife more youthful than himself and a child that he has never seen.”

For more information on the Sea Gull and the U.S. Ex Ex, see Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Sea of Glory.

The Blizzard of 1888

With Litchfield stuck in a weather pattern that seems to bring more snow every day, perhaps a look back at the great Blizzard of 1888 is in order.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel's house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888.  Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel’s house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

With little in the way of accurate meteorological predictions, the blizzard came as a surprise to the Northeast on Sunday, March 11, 1888.  It had been an unusually warm winter, and that day dawned with rain.  It soon turned to hail, then sleet, then ultimately snow.  Bitter cold and high winds set in, and the snow continued for three days.  When it all stopped, between 20 and 50 inches of snow had fallen in Connecticut, with drifts of 12 feet not uncommon.  (One drift in New Haven reached 40 feet high!)  The storm resulted in more than 400 deaths and an estimated $20 million worth of damage.

Dr. Buel's house after the snow had melted.  One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn't melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dr. Buel’s house after the snow had melted. One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn’t melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The following are excerpts about the blizzard from the Litchfield Enquirer:

March 12th – “The wind blew a perfect blizzard all day and the drifting and falling snow made even main streets almost impassable Monday night the storm continued with increasing fury and buildings rocked as though in a storm at sea.”

A modern view of Dr. Buel's house.

A modern view of Dr. Buel’s house.

March 13th – “On Tuesday morning the wind had lessened though still blowing a gale with the thermometer at or near zero. The most remarkable drifts are at Dr. [H. W.] Buel‘s. One, a little west of the house, about 20 feet, to a level with the eaves. There is an addition on the west of Dr. Buel‘s house, reaching- about to the eaves, which is almost completely covered by the snow, so that our reporter, walking- along the top of the drift, passed completely over the roof of this part of the house, and down on the northern side. There is a drift on the east which is even higher, shutting up one of the library windows completely, and reaching nearly to the top of one of the large firs which form a hedge on that side of the house.

March 14th – “The wind is northeast and considerable snow is still falling. People are about on snow shoes skees (sic) and snow shoes extemporized out of boards some carrying groceries to those in great want. Little business is doing. Most of the stores are closed. A few are open with people standing about comparing notes about tunneling to their woodsheds drifts over second story windows and other marvels of the great storm.”

The Lake Station, Bantam.  Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Lake Station, Bantam. Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Shepaug Railroad was out of service until March 16th. A railroad cut near the Lake Station (today the Cove in Bantam) was filled with a drift 22 feet deep!

And all this snow needed to be removed from the transportation network without the benefit of modern plows!