Hidden Nearby: Roxbury’s Blue Star Highway

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Blue Star Highways across the United States pay tribute to members of the United States armed forces. Blue stars can be found on service flags, which emerged as banners hung in windows during World War I to indicate that a member of that household was in the military. A gold star flag indicates that a member of that household died in military service; Connecticut also honors gold star families on license plates.

In 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, the National Council of State Garden Clubs (now known as National Garden Clubs, Inc.), began marking highways to honor members of the military. The National Council of State Garden Clubs was established in 1929; today, the National Garden Clubs, Inc. has over 5,000 member garden clubs, comprised of over 165,000 individuals.

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There are at least 193 Blue Star Highways in the United States; of these eighty are in Louisiana, the most – by far – of any state. Connecticut has seventeen Blue Star Highways. The first, along Route 1 in Guilford, was dedicated in 1950. It wasn’t until 2003 when Exit 5 off of I-84 in Danbury became the state’s second Blue Star Highway. This marker, along Route 317 in Roxbury, is Connecticut’s second newest, dedicated by the Roxbury-Bridgewater Garden Club in 2018. Two days later, the Black Rock Garden Club of Bridgeport denoted a walkway in the St. Mary’s by the Sea park the state’s newest Blue Star Highway.

 

 

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.

 

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).

Hidden Nearby: Woodbury’s “Benjamin Franklin Mile Stone”

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Some legends become carved in stone, or, in the case of Woodbury’s milestone, cast in iron.  The small plaque accompanying a milestone along Main Street in Woodbury states, “Benjamin Franklin Mile Stone.” The milestone itself reads “XIV M,” or fourteen miles. While there is a long-standing tradition that Franklin had these markers laid out – sometimes the legend even states that Franklin himself was involved in the placement of the stones – he was almost certainly not involved.

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Certain facts about the legend are true. Franklin did serve as one of two deputy postmasters general for the British colonies from 1753 to 1774. Franklin did oversee the modernization of postal roads during his tenure. And, the cost postage in that era was calculated by distance. However, there is no evidence in Franklin’s papers to corroborate the story, and while Franklin did serve as deputy postmaster general for 21 years, he was actually in the American colonies for only 6 years. The rest of the time he was in England on business representing the Pennsylvania colony.

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Colonial post roads.

 A specific aspect of the legend claims that Franklin erected a series of milestones between Woodbury and Litchfield while on a trip to New England from June to November 1763. However, Franklin not only didn’t set foot in Connecticut on that trip, but neither Woodbury nor Litchfield had a post office at the time.

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Milestones had little to do with postal operations, being mostly “embellishments” set up in towns to aid passersby. Post riders were quite familiar with their routes, well aware of the mileages between different points. Still, there are mysteries surrounding the milestones. If it wasn’t Franklin, who did put them up? The series of milestones seems to be the work of different people, done at different times. And what does the distance relate to? Along modern Route 6, it is thirteen miles from Woodbury to both Thomaston and Newtown. Perhaps further study will reveal who constructed the milestone, and for what destination.

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: The Harwinton Sign Post

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Harwinton derives its name from the fact that it was settled in 1726 by emigrants from Hartford and Windsor, and it was originally called “Hartford and Windsdor’s Town..”  Those settlers from Hartford were given land rights in the eastern part of town, while those from Windsor were given the west side of town.  A post was put on the dividing line, and that post evolved into the Harwinton’s well-known Sign Box.

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An old image of the Harwinton green, courtesy of the Harwinton Historical Society.

The sign box was designed by Lewis Smith, who served as the town’s probate judge from 1844 to 1860.  In addition to providing directions and distances to nearby towns, the sign box also provided residents a means of posting notices to their fellow townspeople in the days before other forms of communication.

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In 2006 a wayward motorist destroyed the sign box, which was soon replaced.  In May 2013, Larry Connors, a woodworker in town, constructed a more permanent structure and Amanda Surveski, a student at Lewis S. Mills High School, painted the letters, distances and directions.

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While thousands of drivers pass it every day without noticing it, the Harwinton sign box is one of those landmarks that give our New England towns their character.

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.

Connecticut Highway Department Markers

Connecticut Highway Department marker near the Gooseboro drive-in in Bantam.

Connecticut Highway Department marker near the Gooseboro drive-in in Bantam.

There are among the most ubiquitous markers on our man-made landscape.  Usually between twelve and eighteen inches high, they are simple stone blocks engraved with the initials “CHD.”

A Connecticut Highway Department marker alongside Route 4 by the Torrington Country Club,

A Connecticut Highway Department marker alongside Route 4 by the Torrington Country Club,

“CHD” stands for the Connecticut Highway Department, a state agency that was incorporated into the Department of Transportation in 1969.  At one time, however, it was responsible for the construction and maintenance of all state roads.

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A Connecticut Highway Department marker abuts the sidewalk on the west side of South Street in Litchfield.

The Connecticut Highway Department began preparing highway boundary maps in 1926; much of the work was completed by the Works Progress Administartion during the Great Depression.  These maps were done in accordance with a statue passed in 1925 that required that the “Highway Commissioner … mark such boundary limits by a uniform and distinctive type of marker.”  The stone “CHD” markers satisfy this requirement.

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Three Connecticut Highway Markers denote the right of way to widen the turn along the northeast corner between the middle and eastern sections of the Litchfield Green. One marker is visible at the extreme right of the photo; a second is partially hidden by the tree at the front right; the third is visible between the telephone pole and tree in the background.

The highway department was originally created specifically to build highways.  By 1923, however, its tasks had expanded to eliminating dangerous conditions on roads, improving the roadsides, installing proper warning signs, removing snow and ice from the highways, and – pertinent to these markers – establishing boundary lines alongside the highways and securing the rights of way for the purpose of widening and straightening roads.

To oversee these last two tasks, the Connecticut Highway Department created the Bureau of Highway Boundaries and Rights of Way.  The bureau had three major tasks:  land titles, boundary surveys, and right of way purchases.  When it was determined that a new road needed to be built, the bureau conducted a title search, acquired the property and was charged with “properly marking the boundaries of all state roads” (Forty Years of Highway Development in Connecticut, 16).  The result of this, of course, are the thousands of stone markers that dot Connecticut roadsides.

The stone “CHD” markers have interesting stories to tell to those explorers willing to look into them.  The “CHD” marker above is on Prospect Street, a town road, not a state road,  However, a look at an old map shows that this was once the site of “Wolcott Road.”  While this road was subsequently closed, the right-of-way is still maintained by the state.

These stone markers are a thing of the past, however.  Today, the Connecticut Department of Transportation marks its property flush to the ground, with bronze discs engraved with “CTDOT.”

The Intersection of North and South Streets

A common theme of this blog has been that we can learn a lot more about our historical landscape by getting out of our cars and taking the time to explore our surroundings.  Some things, however, are eminently clear even from behind the wheel of a car.  Most of those reading this post have sat at the red light at the intersection of routes 63 and 202, looking to proceed from North Street to South Street.  It is clear to all motorists that to do so requires a left turn on to West Street, then a right turn on to South Street.  Why are North and South Street not aligned?

An 1814 map of Litchfield, showing the alignment of North and South Streets. From Rachel Carley, Litchfield: The Making of a New England Town

North and South Streets are among the oldest streets in town, and historian Rachel Carley reports that landscaping of these streets began as early as 1771.  An 1814 map records these streets as being “very wide”, while another source states that the streets resembled “long pastures.”  At town meetings in 1771 and 1785, it was decided to straighten North and South Streets.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Litchfield in 1838, and marveled at the width of the streets, and the islands of grass that divided the thoroughfares.  He wrote that “nothing can be neater than the churches and houses” along the two streets.

An alder swamp

This was, however, not always the case.  Alain White, in his history of Litchfield, states that the likely reason for the wide streets was “more for the convenience of the cattle than the delight of residents and strangers.”  White further reports that the awkward alignment of North and South Streets may have been due to an alder swamp along the west side of South Street, which forced that street to be moved a few yards to the east.    However, White also recounts that the zig-zag of the two streets might have been due to the presence of a stately oak, “so beautiful that the settlers laid out North Street … to the west to avoid having to cut it.”  There is a third possibility.  The paths of the two streets follows the crest of the ridge on which they were built.  This was likely the route of the earliest footpaths in town, and it simply may have been more convenient to blaze the roads along the same lines.

There is one other interesting note about the layout of North and South Streets.  It was common in colonial New England town to lay out the streets on the lines of the cardinal directions.  Litchfield is unique only in that those streets – North, South, East, West – have retained their directional names.  However, North Street is not aligned to 0 degrees, but rather to 13 degrees.  This is a result both of the original layout of the street – it was, for whatever reason, not aligned to true north – as well as the fact that magnetic north has moved approximately five degrees to the northeast since they town was laid out in the early 1700s.

Gallows Lane and the Execution of Barnett Davenport

Street names are often guides to a town’s past.  In Litchfield’s case, this is perhaps most graphically illustrated with Gallows Lane.

Most town residents have heard the story that the street got its name because executions once took place there.  The historian – trained to be a skeptic – questions this piece of lore.

But it’s true.  And the story reveals crimes of a bloody nature we don’t often associate with our forefathers.

Barnett Davenport was born in the Merryall section of New Milford in 1760.  At 16 he joined the Continental Army to fight in the American Revolution.  He served under George Washington, and was at Valley Forge, Fort Ticonderoga, and Monmouth Court House.  He had always been a troubled youth and was a convicted horse thief.  Perhaps because of his demons, or because he had simply had enough of war, Davenport deserted and returned home.

Early American grist mill

He took a job with Caleb Mallory, a farmer who operated a grist mill along what is now Route 109 in Washington.  Mallory and his wife Jane had two daughters who lived in the area.  One of the daughters had three children – a daughter Charlotte, 9, and sons John and Sherman, 6 and 4.  In February 1780, Davenport convinced Caleb’s two daughters to go on a trip.  With the two away from the house, Davenport entered the home on the night of February 3rd, and beat Caleb, Jane and Charlotte to death.  Looting the house of its valuables, he set it ablaze as he left, killing John and Sherman.

Reverend Judah Champion

Davenport escaped on foot and hid out in a cave in Cornwall for six days.  Captured, he was brought to Litchfield where he was arraigned and gave a full confession, likely to Reverend Judah Champion of Litchfield’s Congregational Church.  The confession remains in the archives at the University of Virginia.

Roger Sherman

He was put on trial, which was presided over by Roger Sherman, who previously had served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence.  Sherman sentenced Davenport to forty lashes and then to be hanged.  The execution took place at Gallows Hill on May 8, 1780.  In 1768, a Native American named John Jacob had been hanged there for the murder of another American Indian.  In 1785, Thomas Goss of Barkhamsted was also hanged on the hill, for the murder of his wife.

Davenport would likely have been led in a procession from the Litchfield jail to the site of the gallows.  It was quite common in early America for large crowds to turn out for an execution, as it was considered an opportunity for moral instruction for children.  The sheriff would read the sentence to the condemned, who would be hooded and mounted on the stand.  A minister would give a sermon.  With the noose placed around Davenport’s head, the trap door was sprung.  The body would be left hanging for some time, a reminder to passersby of the dangers of immorality.

Gallows Hill, frightening now only to Litchfield runners, was once a site terrifying to the condemned.

Gallows Lane was once called Middle Street and at 28 rods (154 feet) was the widest in Litchfield.  Like many other streets, its name speaks to a dramatic past.

For more information on Barnett Davenport, see a Danbury News-Times article on the excellent work of a New Milford historian:  http://www.newstimes.com/local/article/New-Milford-historian-unearths-account-of-984284.php