LHRR Series: The Fifth Mile, Whitehall and the Chickadee Bridge

As runners pass through the gates of Whitehall, the estate of the White family, they will soon enter the race’s fifth mile. The slight downhill grade provides a respite for these runners, who will soon enter the Microwave Mile and face Gallows Lane. This wooded environment was the heart of the estate.

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The Windmill Hill windmill (From Rachel Carley, Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town

There are many vestiges of the past splendor of these grounds. The shingled building to the right was the family’s carriage house. From here, they traversed the miles of carriage roads that crossed their thousands of acres. The hill behind the carriage house is Windmill Hill, so named for the wind-powered pump that filled a cistern to provide water to the home. This hill was also the site of exotic tree plantings by the family, who planted over one million trees on their estate.

Whitehall (Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation)

The current visitor’s center was Whitehall, the seat of the estate. John Jay White moved his family here following the New York City draft riots in 1863. Alain went on to study botany at Harvard, and became a master chess player, a skill that led to his recruitment as a cryptographer during World War I. May’s philanthropic spirit centered on bringing children from New York City to Litchfield for summers. The family home was designed in quintessential Victorian style, with garrets, a tower, and many chimneys. The structure underwent extensive renovations when it became the center of the White Memorial Foundation.

Note the tree stump on the right side of the image. (Courtesy of the White Memorial Foundation)

Across the street from the visitor center is a concrete tree stump, a reminder of earlier days when this area was the scene of picnics and even duck pin bowling, on an alley painstakingly leveled by Alain White for the use of the Sanctum club.

Chickadee Bridge (Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation)

A notable feature of the race for runners is crossing the Bantam River on the Chickadee Bridge. This bridge allowed the Whites to access their carriage roads on the east side of the river. The shoreline is now covered with trees, rendering this view impossible. The Whites often called this Silver Bridge, and noted that it was the farthest up the river that motorboats could venture; today, the presence of beaver dams makes this also impossible. The Chickadee Bridge stands as a reminder to runners that while they here turn back toward Litchfield, their journey is going to get much more difficult.

For more information on the history of the Litchfield Hills Road Race, see Lou Pellegrino’s book A History of the Litchfield Hills Road Race: In Smallness there is Beauty (now available).

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Carriage Steps

A prominent carriage step along North Street.

A prominent carriage step along North Street.

An earlier post examined the history of Litchfield’s hitching posts.   A similar reminder of Litchfield’s transportation history are the carriage steps (or mounting blocks) that dot North and South Streets.

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Mounting blocks were simple stone blocks – often granite – that allowed passengers and easier way of climbing on board a carriage or stagecoach.  Carriage steps were a fancier alternative, with two steps often carved into the stone.

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A remnant of a mounting block along South Street.

While they were often found outside the homes of the town’s wealthier residents, they speak to the importance of carriages and stages and means of transportation.  These conveyances brought students to the Tapping Reeve Law School and Sarah Pierce’s female academy.  The wealth and cultural refinement of these students helped establish the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Litchfield in the early 19th century.

A stagecoach in Farmington; it was perhaps bound for Litchfield.

A stagecoach in Farmington; it was perhaps bound for Litchfield.

Historian Lynn Brickley has written that while stagecoaches were forbidden from traveling at night, advertisements stated that the stage would leave Litchfield at 3 a.m.  A stage could travel 4-5 miles per hour, with stops every ten miles to change horses.  Still, rugged roads could slow the process, and the stage took 14 hours to travel 24 miles.

George Woodruff's centennial inscription may have served as a mounting block.

George Woodruff’s centennial inscription may have served as a mounting block.

Ultimately the arrival of the railroad would make stagecoaches no longer economically viable, and automobiles would do the same to carriages.  The implements of horse-drawn travel – hitching posts and carriage steps – remain as testimony to their importance in an earlier age.

Hidden Nearby: Harwinton’s Catlin Trough

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The Harwinton water trough stands a memorial to the original setllers of this part of town, and to the development of the Burlington Road/Harmony Hill Road Historic District area.  Harwinton was originally Hartford and Windsor’s Town, a tribute to the original emigrants who settled it.

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Next to the trough is this granite marker; it was once a drinking fountain.

Among those original settlers was Major Abijah Catlin (1715-1778), who was given a land grant here in 1738.  While there is considerable debate about whether the Abijah ever moved to Harwinton, his family maintained homes and businesses in this area for five generations.  His son, Abijah Jr., operated a store and an inn at the crossroads of Route 4 and Harmony Hill Road.  Here, in 1780, Catlin served refreshments to George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and General Henry Knox.  One of his descendants, George Catlin, was educated at the Litchfield Law School and served in the United States Congress.

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Photo courtesy of Harwinton Historical Society.

The Catlins placed a trough at this location at some point in the 18th century.  It utilized a nearby spring and gravity to provide horses and oxen passing by with a source of drinking water.  It operated until the early 20th century.

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Much like the Goshen animal pound, the trough reminds us of the integral role animals played in the lives of those who lived in this area two centuries ago.

A Post on Posts (or, Hold Your Horses!)

They stand as vestiges of a bygone era of transportation, reminders of the age of the horse.  More than a dozen hitching posts remain along the streets and sidewalks of Litchfield.  They evoke, in the imaginative passerby, images of riders in the saddle, of wagons or coaches, of landaus or sleighs.

Illustration from John Barber, “Connecticut Historical Collections,” (1838) showing horse-drawn traffic entering Litchfield.

Americans were a restless people in the 18th and 19th centuries, crossing the Appalachians and pushing the frontier first to the Mississippi and ultimately to the Pacific.  This was accomplished primarily on horseback or with wagons.  The horse played a vital role in Litchfield’s commercial life; as the railroad did not reach the town until 1872 and there is no navigable waterway, all goods had to enter town via horse-drawn conveyances.

Hitched horses, RIchmond, VA, 1865.
Photo courtesy of hmdb.com

The hitching post was the parking space of the 18th and 19th century.  Most houses had them; it is likely that nearly all commercial enterprises had them.  Hitching racks secured several horses at one time.

Upon arriving at his or her destination, the rider would dismount the horse or vehicle, and tie the reins which were attached to the horse’s bridle to the post with a “hitch”, a type of knot or tie.  Hitches varied in style, and travelers could opt for the simple clove hitch if they had only a horse and were in a hurry, or the more difficult but secure rolling hitch to secure a wagon or carriage.

 


Hitching posts are of different materials and sizes, and present a variety of ways in which a rider could secure his horse.  Those that remain in Litchfield are most often made of granite, although there are examples of sandstone posts as well.  One wonders about the industries that grew up to fabricate the posts.  Were they presided over by local craftsmen, or were they brought in to Litchfield from distant manufacturers?

Most often the posts are found near the present sidewalks.  One walking the sidwalks on North and South Streets sees many examples of hitching posts.  They stand close to the sidewalks, most often as solitary sentinels.  However, the careful observer will see a house on Prospect Street with twin hitching posts.

This cast iron hitching post was likely made outside of town.  Molten iron was cast into the desired design and allowed to cool.  A simple search for “hitching post images” reveals many different designs of cast iron posts.

Why do more not remain?  Perhaps many were made of wood and eroded over the years.  Did owners remove their hitching posts when automobiles made them unnecessary?  Did the paving of the roads widen existing roadways and necessitate the removal of posts?  Are those that remain all original, or were they erected simply to be ornamental?  Many of those that still stand have house numbers posted on them.

While obsolete, there is a sort of grace and beauty to them.  It is doubtful that anyone will ever say the same about parking meters.