Hidden Nearby: The Torrington Savings Bank

Alexander Hamilton (1755? to 1804), first United States Secretary of the Treasury

Alexander Hamilton’s envisioned an economic future for the United States in which the fledgling country would soon rival the great powers of Europe in industrial production. The introduction of factories to the new nation was dependent upon banks that could provide access to the money needed to fund such undertakings. The result was the Bank of the United States, which was chartered in 1791, and operated until its charter expired – and was not renewed – in 1811. Five years later the Second Bank of the United States was created by Congress and President James Madison. However, an extension of its charter was vetoed by Andrew Jackson in 1832, leading to the transfer of the Bank from federal to state control in 1836.

A political cartoon critical of Jackson’s 1832 veto of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States.

In the wake of the collapse of the Second Bank of the United States in 1836, banks across the country struggled with fraud, counterfeiting, and the lack of access to banks for many Americans. Banks were banned altogether in Wisconsin. In the states of the Northeast, where banking continued with few interruptions, industry thrived. This was not the case in other parts of the country. The National Banking Act of 1863 hoped to ensure consistent regulation of banks – and thus, consume confidence – across the country. This was especially important in the midst of the Civil War, as banks were the major purveyors of war bonds. With access to capital restored, American industry was poised to explode.

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This formed the backstory to the founding of the Torrington Savings Bank. Originally chartered as the Wolcottville Savings Bank in 1868, its first location was in the Granite Block, opposite today’s Warner Theatre. Francis Holley was the first president of the bank. In 1881, the bank changed its name to the Torrington Savings Bank. In 1938, the bank moved to its present headquarters, at the corner of Main Street and Mason Street, which had previously been the site of the George S. Weeks Grocery.

The Torrington Savings Bank, built 1938. Photo courtesy of Torrington Historical Society

The noted American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) famously said that in architecture, “Form follows function.” This is evident in architect Carl Victor Johnson’s design, in which the sturdy brick and stone design is offset by colonial revival architecture, reminding passersby of the bank’s New England roots.

For more on the history of the Torrington Savings Bank building – and an excellent source for the history of Torrington – be sure to check out the Torrington Historical Society’s “Audio Walking Tour of Downtown Torrington.”

For more on the history of counterfeiting in Litchfield County, see my book, Wicked Litchfield County.

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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

Hidden Nearby: New Milford’s Underground Railroad Monument

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Two leading figures of the abolitionist movement, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were natives of Litchfield County. As such, they would likely have been pleased by the county’s role in the Underground Railroad.  While much of the history of this secret route by which fugitive slaves were ushered to Canada is clouded in myth and legend, there is substantial documentation for a route that passed from the coast to Waterbury, then to New Milford, Washington, Torrington, Winchester and Winsted before crossing into Massachusetts.

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New Milford’s Quaker Meetinghouse, at 300 Danbury Road (Rt. 7).

Quakers took the lead in operations in New Milford, and the Old Friends’ Meetinghouse, which still stands on Route 7 south of town, was a prominent center of activity. Two Centuries of New Milford, an early 20th century history, documented the role of other locations in town in the Underground Railroad:

In the later days of slavery in the South there were several stations of the Underground      Railroad in this vicinity. Mr. Charles Sabin’s house in Lanesville was one, and the                house of Mr. Augustine Thayer on Grove Street in this village was another. Mr. Thayer      and his good wife devoted their lives to the Abolition cause. They helped many poor            slaves on their way, rising from their beds in the night to feed and minister to them, and      secreting them till they could be taken under cover of darkness to Deacon Gerardus          Roberts’ house on Second Hill, from there to Mr. Daniel Platt’s in Washington, and so        on, by short stages, all the way until the Canadian border was reached.

A second prominent stop in Washington was at the home of Frederick Gunn, who established the Gunnery School in 1849.

As fugitive slaves reached Torrington, they likely sought refuge at the home of Isaiah Tuttle and his son, Uriel, who lived in the Torringford section of town. Uriel was president of the Litchfield County and the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Societies. Of his anti-slavery activities, Deacon Thomas Miller wrote, “His efforts and undying zeal in the cause of emancipation are too well known to the public in this state to need a delineation… His house was literally a place of refuge for the panting fugitive, and his purse and team were often employed to help him forward to a place of safety.”

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Isaiah Tuttle House, on Torringford Street, Torrington. Courtesy of Connecticut Freedom Trail

Other reported stops on the Underground Railroad include the home of Joshua Bird, a deacon at the Bethlehem Congregational Church who lived on the town Green. Henry Terry, grandson of the clockmaker, lived on North Street in Plymouth. An ardent abolitionist, he allegedly had tunnels running from his cellar to an outbuilding to whisk slaves to safety. The presence of tunnels like these fed Southern fears about Northern complicity in helping slaves escape, and the belief that the election of Lincoln in 1860 would lead to legalization of the Underground Railroad were major factors in the decision of southern states to secede from the Union in the winter of 1860-61. Interestingly, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued almost two years into the war, the number of fugitive slaves making their way to the north dropped precipitously, as they only needed to reach Union lines, not Canada, to achieve freedom.

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Looking to commemorate her town’s role in the Underground Railroad, New Milford resident Frances Smith conceived the idea of a monument at the head of the town green, in the shadow of the Civil War monument. Sculptor Ray Crawford provided the design, which depicts a broken chain, symbolizing the end of slavery. The monument was dedicated on November 17, 2013.

Hidden Nearby: Torrington’s Carl Bozenski’s Christmas Village

IMG_1407A site for which people stand in line for hours is hardly hidden.  Carl Bozenski’s Christmas Village has been a fixture of Litchfield County’s celebration of Christmas since 1947.

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Bozenski was Torrington’s Parks and Recreation Supervisor who, frustrated with the commercialization of Christmas, opened his own Yuletide attraction to spread holiday spirit.  (The site was also once used for summer camps.) Nearly seventy years later, crowds continue to pour into the village.  The Christmas Village opens with a parade through town in early December.  Visitors stand in line – often for hours – to see the toy workshop and Santa’s house, to meet Santa himself and receive a small toy.  (Toys are collected through a community toy shower.)  In 2013, more than 20,000 people visited the Christmas Village, keeping alive the dream of Carl Bozenski and securing its place as a centerpiece of a Litchfield County Christmas.

A very merry holiday season to everyone who takes the time to check out this blog!

Hidden Nearby: John Brown’s Torrington Birthplace

These ruins are all that remain of the birthplace of one of the transformative figures in American history, John Brown.  The house was built in 1785 and was purchased by Brown’s father, Owen Brown, in 1799.

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John Brown in 1856

John Brown was named for his grandfather, who died when Owen Brown – one of eleven children – was five.  With the family in dire financial straits, Owen was sent to live with various relatives and friends; ultimately, Owen Brown was sent to work at a young age.  He was trained as a cobbler and worked farming local fields in the summer and making shoes over the winter.

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John Brown’s birthplace, in a colorized postcard.

As a teenager he met and married Ruth Mills.  Their first child died before turning two.  They soon after moved to this saltbox-style home in the rocky countryside of Litchfield County.  Here, on May 9th, 1800, John Brown was born.   Of the child’s birth, Owen wrote that there was “nothing very uncommon.”

It doesn’t require too much imagination to speculate that Brown received his military spirit from his namesake grandfather, a Revolutionary War officer.  His religious fervor was likely acquired from his maternal grandfather, a preacher.  The combination of these inherited traits would set Brown on the path to his raid on Harper’s Ferry.

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Connecticut’s Western Reserve

 The Browns left the rocky soil of Connecticut for the more fertile fields of Ohio when John was five.  The Browns were joined in this migration to Ohio by thousands of other families.  Known as Connecticut’s Western Reserve – or even New Connecticut – much of the land of Northeastern Ohio was owned by the Connecticut Land Company.  So many Connecticut residents moved to Ohio that the Hartford Courant published an article wondering who would care for the cemeteries of Litchfield County when all the residents had left.  The Browns would have been familiar with the names of many of the places in their new home state – nearby were Litchfield and Kent, Ohio.  The Browns settled in the small community of Hudson.

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The James Morris School, site of the Morris Academy. Sounds like a future post!

Even with the move, success continued to elude the Browns.  Owen opened a tannery in Ohio, which prospered for a time.  He thrived enough to send Brown back to Connecticut to be educated – at the Morris Academy, in Litchfield.  He hoped to be a Congregational minister, but money ran out and he returned to Ohio and the family tannery.  Here he developed his abolitionist ideals.

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“John Brown’s Fort” in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia

 John Brown would move often in his life, and often struggled financially.  By the 1850s, his abolitionist ideals became militant and he gained notoriety for his actions in “Bleeding Kansas.”  On October 16, 1859, Brown led 18 men in an attack on the federal arsenal and armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia).  In Brown’s mind, this was the opening action of a campaign to free the nation’s slaves and create an independent slave republic.  Two days later, U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the town’s engine house, which Brown had commandeered as a fort.  Most of Brown’s men were killed or captured.  Brown was wounded in the assault, captured, tried for treason and convicted.  On December 2, 1859, Brown was executed in Charles Town, Virginia (today West Virginia).

His birthplace, meanwhile, was restored in 1901 and opened as a historic house museum, one of the first in Connecticut.  In 1918, however, the house was destroyed by fire.  Still, the forest has been kept from swallowing up the ruins, and in 1932 a granite monument was erected.  In 1997 the site became a part of the Connecticut African American Freedom Trail, and in 2000 the site was acquired by the Torrington Historical Society.

Plans are in the works to improve the visitor experience at the site and to construct interpretive trails on the property.  While these seem to be appropriate actions to commemorate the birthplace of the man whom Herman Melville called the “meteor” of the Civil War, it is certainly a challenge to present the story of a man whom some consider a martyr for a great moral crusade and others a terrorist.