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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Land Conservation in Litchfield County

There were more trees in Connecticut in 2010 than there were at any time since 1850. This, of course, reflects different land use patterns that have emerged as the state’s economy has evolved. In Litchfield County this is also a result of the willingness of residents to conserve rather than develop their land.

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The Orzech Family Preserve, 112 acres near Route 67 and the Shepaug River in Roxbury.

The celebrities and artists who have long been attracted to the area have also been prominent supporters of land conservation, and nearly every town in the county has a land trust.  Some of these trusts are extraordinarily active; the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, for example, has preserved over 4,000 acres of land, mostly in Litchfield County.  The results of this movement have been profound. Perhaps the best example comes from George Black’s book, The Trout Pool Paradox, in which he laments the Naugatuck River south of Torrington as a “chemical sewer,” while the Shepaug River is the “Platonic ideal of a trout stream.”

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This carving on a boulder in the White Memorial Foundation honors Alain and May White.

Alain and May White were among the most extraordinary conservationists in the county. In addition to their own 4,000 acre preserve (what is now the White Memorial Foundation), the siblings additionally donated nearly 6,000 acres to fourteen Connecticut state parks, mostly in Litchfield County.

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The Macricostas Preserve of Steep Rock, along Route 202 in Washington.

A similar operation to the Whites was taking place in Washington, where noted architect Ehrick Kensett Rossiter made the Steep Rock Land Trust his most lasting legacy to the town.  Rossiter began with a 100-acre purchase in 1881 – what would become the heart of the preserve – and continued to add land to the trust he established. Additional donations from the Van Sinderen and Macricostas families have brought Steep Rock’s holdings to nearly 3,000 acres.

 

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The Morosani Preserve in Northfield.

The examples of the Whites and Rossiter are matched in spirit if not in size by dozens of more conservationists who have helped to preserve the county’s landscape.  Among these are the Morosanis, whose Laurel Ridge Foundation is noted for its daffodils every spring, Edith Morton Chase, daughter of a brass magnate whose home became Topsmead State Forest, and S. Dillon and Mary Livingstone Ripley, whose Kilvarock estate became the Livingstone Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sign-Post Elm

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This is among the most hidden in plain sight of Litchfield markers.

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Today, Litchfield residents who wish to spread news of an event hang flyers at Stop and Shop, the Oliver Wolcott Library, or the Post Office, or information posted on Litchfield.bz. In an earlier day, Litchfield’s residents hung notices on the Sign-Post Elm.

 

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

The Whipping Post Elm (White, The History of the Town of Litchfield)

Litchfield had many distinguished elm trees. Brothers Oliver Wolcott Jr. and Frederick Wolcott planted many elms along North and South Streets. John C. Calhoun planted elms at the corner of West Street and Spencer Street and also on Prospect Street when he was a student at the Litchfield Law School. The ominously-named Whipping Post Elm stood in front of the jail at the corner of West and North Streets.; at 150 inches he reportedly had the greatest diameter of any elm in town. Second was the Beecher Elm at 146 ½ inches, at the site of the family home on the corner of North and Prospect Streets.

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left.  (White, The History of Litchfield)

The Sign Post Elm, with notices visible, at left. (White, The History of Litchfield)

 

The Sign-Post Elm was not as big, but was, perhaps, of greater importance. For many years it stood at the corner of South and East Streets, in front of what is now the Litchfield Historical Society. It displayed the legal notices of the town, informed residents of town meetings, and hosted, under its branches, auctions and sheriff sales.

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The marker for the sign-post elm is visible as the small stone-like object to the left of the telephone pole in this photograph.

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Henry Ward Beecher

While Dutch Elm Disease, which was first discovered in the 1920s, has devastated the mature elm trees of North America, the value which Americans of an earlier ascribed to the elm is indisputable. Litchfield native Henry Ward Beecher, in an 1856 account about returning to his hometown, wrote: “There were the old trees, but looking not so large as to our young eyes. The stately road had, however, been bereaved of the buttonball trees, which had been crippled by disease. But the old elms retained a habit particular to Litchfield. There seemed to be a current of wind which at times passes high up in the air over the town, and which moves the tops of the trees, while on the ground there is no movement of wind period. How vividly did that sound from above bring back early days, when for hours we lay upon the windless grass and watched the top leaves flutter and marked how still were the under leaves of the same tree!”

The Constitution Oak

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Connecticut, the “Constitution State,” has a unique history of state constitutions.  The “constitution” that is celebrated on our license plates is the Fundamental Orders of 1638.  This document stated that Connecticut held no political allegiance to England, but rather was loyal to its local government.  In 1662 the Fundamental Orders were replaced by a royal charter exerting the King’s authority over the colony.  However, Connecticut residents paid little attention to this document and continued to abide by the provision of the Fundamental Orders.  This continued until 1818, when provisions establishing the Congregational Church as the official religion of Connecticut were deemed incompatible with the relatively recent First Amendment.  A new state constitution followed.

The Civil War monument in front of the state capitol was erected at the time of the convention in 1902.

The Civil War monument in front of the state capitol was erected at the time of the convention in 1902.

By 1901 it was apparent that there were significant flaws in the 1818 constitution.  Senatorial and House districts were set up according to geographic rather than population guidelines.  The end result was that Union, with a population of 1,000, had the same number of representatives as New Haven, with more than 100,000 residents.  In 1901, Connecticut voters called for a constitutional convention by a 2-1 margin.  The convention put forth a proposal that would award towns between one and four representatives based on population.  This was not enough for the cities, but too much for the small towns, and the proposal was voted down by another 2-1 margin.

Charles Andrews

Charles Andrews

That convention would be all but forgotten except that each of the 168 delegates (representing every municipality in the state) was given a pin oak seedling to plant in their town.  Charles Andrews, one-time governor (1879-1881) and then chief justice of the state supreme court was Litchfield’s representative and the presiding officer of the convention.  He planted his at the eastern end of the town green.

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Periodic surveys of these trees have revealed dwindling numbers.  Of the 168 original oaks, 110 were still standing in 1939 and 86 in 1986.  The last survey, conducted in 2002, revealed only 74 remain.  While a new state constitution was finally approved in 1965, Litchfield’s oak – a reminder of a failed constitution – still stands.

Periodic surveys:

1902 168
1937 110
1986 86
2002 74

Revolutionary War Soldiers’ Tree

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This small marker stands at the southeast corner of the eastern section of the Litchfield Green.

The first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872 and became an international event eleven years later when Birdsley Northrup of Kent, Connecticut, introduced the event to Japan.  However, Theodore Roosevelt’s ascendency to the presidency in 1901 and his emphasis on conservation issues sparked a nationwide surge of interest in Arbor Day.

In 1902 the Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution celebrated the first Arbor Day of Roosevelt’s presidency by planting a tree on the Litchfield Green to commemorate the services of the town’s Revolutionary War soldiers.

Revolutionary War Soldiers

In all, 507 men from Litchfield served the Patriot cause between 1775 and 1783.  The first to serve were the men of the company led by David Welch of Milton, who were called up soon after news of Lexington and Concord arrived.  A second company enlisted in January 1776 to serve for the defense of New York City.  They drafted a contract specifying the terms of their service under Major General Charles Lee, stating that they were convinced of “the Necessity of a body of Forces to defend against certain Wicked Purposes formed by the instruments of Ministerial Tyranny.”  They specified, however, that they would not serve for more than eight weeks, and stated that General Lee had “given his Word and Honor” to uphold these terms.

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The Battle of Fort Washington

In November 1776 another company of Litchfield men under Captain Bezaleel Beebe set off for New York.  Thirty-six handpicked men of the company under Captain Beebe were sent to reinforce the American garrison at Fort Washington (today the Manhattan end of the George Washington Bridge).  The men marched into a trap, and were forced to surrender with the entire 2,600 man garrison of the fort.  Although the men were exchanged about a month later, only 11 of these men made it home to Litchfield.

In March 1777 a new call for troops went out, and Litchfield was tasked with enlisting 92 of its men.  The town voted to pay 12 pounds per year to each soldier and to supply “necessaries” to each soldier’s family.  A final call for troops reached town in 1781, and a “selective draft” took place, in which the town was divided into three classes and each class was expected to raise a certain number of men.

Interior of the Old Jersey Prison Ship

Interior of a British prison ship

In addition to those men who were killed and wounded in battle, twenty Litchfield men died while on the dreaded British prison ships.

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Today, a small stone marker stands at the foot of the tree dedicated to these soldiers.  Its faded inscription reads:

Planted in Memory of

Litchfield’s Revolutionary Soldiers

by the

Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter

DAR

Arbor Day 1902