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.”