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.

 

Hidden Nearby: Farmington River Level Gauge in Riverton

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This is a remnant of one of Connecticut’s most tragic natural disasters.

The Flood of 1955’s impact on Winsted, Torrington, and Thomaston has been discussed before on this blog. Two feet of rain fell on the state, and 87 residents of Connecticut were killed. Twenty-two million dollars worth of damage were inflicted in Torrington alone.

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In Riverton, a cement structure that housed an apparatus to measure the depth of the Farmington River was swept away by the surging waters. It was found downstream, and brought to the local baseball fields. More than thirty years later it was adorned with a plaque honoring the memory of local volunteer Bill Van Allen.

It stands there still, a silent sentinel to the power of Mother Nature and the fury unleashed on northwestern Connecticut over sixty years ago.

Special thanks to Mike DeMazza for his help in solving the mystery of the cement structure!

 

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.

Bantam’s World War II

Bantam Lane, now Bantam Lake Road (Rt 209), in January 1942.

Our first house was in Bantam. Built in 1940, it was part of an expansion of that section of Litchfield resulting from the nation’s preparation for World War II. The area on Route 209 that we lived in was called Parrotville, as the houses were built on what was once the Parrot farm. These were built for the families of the managers at the Warren McArthur Corporation, which during the war produced most of the seats used in American military aircraft. In remodeling that house, we found ration books hidden behind the moulding, one more vestige of the impact that the war had on the community.

The Bantam Manufacturing Company opened its doors at what is now the intersection of routes 202 and 209 between 1900 and 1905. By 1917, the popularity of the automobile led to an increase in the demand for ball bearings, and the Bantam Ball Bearing Company took over the building in 1917. In 1938, the Warren McArthur Corporation acquired the factory to produce their sleek metal chairs, which epitomized the art deco style of the 1920s and 1930s. With the coming of the war, however, the company was asked to make seats for military aircraft.

Housing built for Warren McArthur workers on what is now Circle Drive. The government report that this photo accompanied stated that “as the automobiles and tires of workers in Bantam’s defense industries wear out, it is probably that additional housing facilities will be needed.”

A look inside the Heath family’s home, one of the units built for defense workers. Advertised as a five-minute walk from the plant, the Heaths played thirty dollars a month in rent.

Despite rationing and shortages of oil and tires, more than half the workers commuted to the plant, as evidenced by this photograph of its parking lot.

The urgency of the war effort led to the plant operating an average of sixteen hours a day, and on several occasions ran around the clock. This resulted in a need for labor, and soon workers from Torrington, Winsted, and other area towns began commuting to Bantam. But with the shortages of oil, gas, and rubber tires, housing within walking distance of the factory became a necessity. The federal government stepped in and oversaw the construction of sixty duplexes – what is now Circle Drive – a boom that increased the number of housing residences in Bantam by a third.

Jean Brunetto, described as “auburn haired” by the Office of Emergency Management, was a 1938 graduate of Litchfield High School who worked at Warren McArthur, along with her sister. Here Jean polishes the aluminum of a seat for a bomber.

The Bantam Fire Company had a bowling alley in its basement, which was rented out to a different organization each night of the week as a fundraiser.

Even following the surrenders of Germany and Japan, the Warren McArthur Corporation continued to make airplane seats. The company was acquired by PTC Aerospace, which built a new facility on Route 202 in the 1960s, but kept the old factory operating on a limited basis until 1990. Ultimately, PTC Aerospace closed its doors in Bantam in 2002 and moved operations to Northern Ireland.

Bantam had an airplane observation post in the northern part of the borough. It was manned twenty-four hours a day, usually by defense industry workers on their off hours. Here Charles Kilbourne watches the skies.

The Warren McArthur Corporation was not Bantam’s only defense industry. Here workers at the Dante Electric Company make parts for submarines. Dante Electric was located on Bantam Lane, now Route 209.

Bantam’s experience in World War II lives on in an amazing collection of photos taken by the Office of Emergency Management in January 1942. Some of them accompany this post; others are available by searching “Bantam, Connecticut” on the Library of Congress’s website, http://www.loc.gov.

 

 

 

Wicked Litchfield County

A shameless self promotion …

My new book, Wicked Litchfield County, was published last week by the History Press. Here is their description:

“Thieves, rumrunners and rapscallions all color the unsavory side of Litchfield County history. Townspeople accused women of witchcraft simply for not bearing enough children in the early days of the region. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Owen Sullivan and William Stuart took advantage of the county’s isolated stretches and a currency shortage to build counterfeiting empires. In 1780, Barnett Davenport’s brutal actions earned him infamy as the nation’s first mass murderer. Small-time speakeasies slowly took hold, and the omnipresence of alcohol-fueled crime led to the birth of the nationwide prohibition movement. Local historian Peter C. Vermilyea explores these and other devilish tales from the seedier history of Litchfield County.”

The book is available at local book stores, including Kent’s House of Books and Washington’s Hickory Stick Bookshop. I will be doing many book events around the county in the coming months. Hope to see you at one of them!

 

Hidden Nearby: Charles Grandison Finney’s Birthplace

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Monument at the birthplace of Charles Grandison Finney on Cunningham Road in Warren.

There were no great battles fought in Litchfield County, nor were any presidents born here. The county has, however, left an indelible mark on American history, perhaps in no area as great as in religion. The county was the home of Joseph Bellamy, Lyman Beecher, Horace Bushnell, and Michael McGivney. Another extremely prominent American religious leader who called the county home was Charles Grandison Finney, born in Warren in 1792. Finney was the youngest of fifteen children, and the family moved to upstate New York soon after his birth.

Charles Grandison Finney

Charles Grandison Finney

Finney has been called the “Father of American Revivalism,” and the area in western New York in which he operated became known as the “Burned-Over District” for the intensity of the religious revivals there. The high point of Finney’s revivalism was 1825-1835, and they were particularly popular in towns like Rochester that were undergoing dramatic economic transformations brought on by the opening of the Erie Canal.

Rochester, NY 1830

Rochester, NY 1830

Finney preached salvation through faith alone, but also wrote of the role of the individual’s will in achieving salvation. Finney’s religious views led him and his followers to promote social reforms, especially abolitionism and educational opportunities for women. These beliefs led him in 1835 to Oberlin College in Ohio, which accepted both genders and all races. Finney would go on to serve as the school’s president from 1851 to 1866.

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Getting to this monument is very challenging; it is advised that those seeking it walk or mountain bike down Cunningham Road. Thanks to Warren historian Ellen Paul and the dog walker I fortuitously met along Cunningham for the directions! Thanks also to Jason and Amanda McGrew for their assistance.

For more on Finney and his revivals in Rochester, see Paul Johnson’s wonderful A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837.

Litchfield County at Gettysburg

I’ve just returned from my annual trip to the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, which led me to think about Litchfield County’s role at the battle. Gettysburg was not Litchfield County’s battle; the majority of volunteers from the northwest hills served with the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. Their day would come at the Battle of Cold Harbor, nearly a year after Gettysburg. Still, a glance at the casualty lists on Charles P. Hamblen’s Connecticut Yankees at Gettysburg reveals the sacrifices made by some residents of the county in the Civil War’s greatest battle.

Robert McCarrick of Lakeville was 19 when he left the state to serve the Union cause, enlisting as a private in the 20th New York State Militia (also known as the 80th New York  Infantry). He was captured by Confederates on July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He returned to the Union army and served through 1864.

Allen Brady of Torrington served as the major of the 17th Connecticut, which was primarily a Fairfield County unit. When Lt. Colonel Fowler was killed on July 1, Brady assumed command of the regiment, which bravely repulse a Confederate assault on Cemetery Hill on July 2nd. In this action, Brady was wounded by a shell fragment and was discharged from the army for disability. He received an honorary promotion to colonel.  With Brady on Cemetery Hill was Private Daniel Hunt of Bethlehem. He was captured by Confederates on the morning of July 3rd. Paroled in August, he served through the rest of the war.

Charles Squires of Roxbury, a private in the 5th Connecticut Infantry, was captured in the fighitng on Culp’s Hill on July 2nd. He was paroled in August 1863, but was killed in fighting at the coincidentally-named Culp’s Farm in Georgia in 1864.

Nathan Abbott of Watertown, a sergeant in the 20th Connecticut, was wounded in the fighting on Culp’s Hill on July 3rd. He recovered from his wounds and was promoted to be an officer. He served through the remainder of the war, returning home in June 1865.

 

 

Litchfield County’s most famous Civil War soldier was John Sedgwick of Cornwall. A West Point graduate and a major general, Sedgwick commanded the Sixth Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, at 18,000 men the largest corps in the army. He led his men on a famous 34-mile march to Gettysburg, arriving in time for some of his men to go into action on July 2nd and 3rd. Following the battle, Sedgwick was tasked with leading the pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s retreating Confederate army. Sedgwick was killed at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. He is buried in Cornwall, and monuments to his honor stand at West Point, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and in his hometown.