A Historical Atlas of Windham, a Connecticut Mill Town
Jamie H. Eves
The majority of the following maps were created in 2017 as part of an exhibit at the Windham Textile and History Museum (the Mill Museum) on the 325th anniversary of the founding of the town of Windham, Connecticut. The exhibit combined historical maps of the town with new maps. The maps illustrated how Windham had changed over time, from a borderland between two native American nations, the Mohegans to the south and the Nipmucks to the north, to a colonial farm town, to a nineteenth-century mill community shaped by the industrial and market revolutions, to a twenty-first-century postindustrial college town. We have included in this historical atlas all of the new maps, along with some of the historical maps (ones that are in the public domain). We have also continued to add even more maps, so this atlas will continue to grow, expand, and improve over time. Together, the maps tell the history of Windham, a typical New England mill town.
Location (above): The town of Windham is located in the northeastern part of Connecticut, at the southwestern corner of Windham County, an area that is a mixture of old, colonial-era farm towns and nineteenth-century factory communities. Although this part of Connecticut remained mostly rural throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is also part of New England’s nineteenth-century “factory belt” that produced both textiles and precision machines. Today, Windham County retains its rural character, and is nicknamed Connecticut’s Quiet Corner. The town of Windham is home to Eastern Connecticut State University, is only a few miles from the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut, and has a long history as a leader in education. Bypassed by interstate highways today, from the late 1700s through the mid-1900s, Windham was a transportation nexus, first as the junction of several early turnpikes, and then as a railroad hub.
Windham is an upland community, located neither along Connecticut’s Long Island Sound coastline nor in the state’s broad, fertile Connecticut River Valley. Like other upland towns in Connecticut, Windham’s most important natural resources are granite, abundant rainfall, small rivers with steep waterfalls, temperate climate, an oak-hickory-maple forest, and a few scattered patches of medium-quality farmland.
Geology (above): Beneath Windham’s rolling hills, thick forest, and thin topsoil is a hard granite rock known as gneiss. The particular type of gneiss lying beneath Windham is called Willimantic gneiss, although there is also a small area of Eastford granite gneiss in the northeastern corner of town. Willimantic gneiss makes excellent building material, and at one time several small quarries existed in the western part of Windham, near Willimantic Falls and in the hills surrounding the Willimantic River gorge. Most of Windham’s nineteenth-century factory buildings, along with several of the residences in the Willimantic section in the western part of the town, were constructed of locally quarried Willimantic gneiss. The gneiss quarried near Willimantic Falls on the Willimantic River was used to construct dams, line raceways, build cotton mills, and construct stone houses and tenements in the vicinity of the Falls. (The map above is a portion of United States Geological Survey, “Preliminary Geologic and Economic Map of Connecticut,” Bulletin 738, Plate XXVIII [Baltimore: A. Hoen & Co.], n.d. Extracted from H. E. Gregory and H. H. Robinson, Bulletin 6 of the Connecticut Geological and Natural Survey, 1906.)
Bricks, Stone, and Peat (above): (From Lt. W. W. Mather, surveyor, “A Geological Map of Windham and New London Counties,” 1833, included in William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].) An 1832 early geological survey of Connecticut identified several other important geological resources in Windham in addition to gneiss. The survey also identified clay for making bricks and peat for fuel. According to the survey, peat was dug in the vicinity of the Frog Pond. Windham also had two brick kilns, one in the southern part of town, south of what is now the village of Windham Center, and the other (owned and operated by Daniel Sessions, who also operated a farm) in the extreme western part of town, at the upper end of the Willimantic River gorge near the border with Mansfield and Coventry. Clay for making bricks existed near Sessions’s kiln, along the banks of the Willimantic River near its confluence with the Hop River, a tributary entering the Willimantic from the west — sediment dropped before the river plunged into the gorge.
Topography (above): Like the rest of northeastern Connecticut, Windham is characterized by parallel ridges of rolling hills running mostly north-to-south. Several small rivers and streams flow through the ravines between the ridges. The largest are the Willimantic and Natchaug Rivers, which meet in Windham to form the even larger Shetucket. But there are also a number of important tributaries: Beaver Brook, Frog Brook, Ten-mile River, Obwebetuck Stream, Ballamahack Brook, Merrick Brook, and Bingham Brook among them. In 1692, when European-Americans first moved into Windham, the hills and valleys were thickly forested, with some scattered open areas of marsh, bog, and other wetlands, such as the area where the Willimantic, Natchaug, and Shetucket Rivers met. There may have been cedars growing in that area; there were also white cedar bogs in some of the higher valleys between the hills. The dominant trees on the uplands were oaks, along with hickory, maple, chestnut, and ash, although one nineteenth-century illustration also shows spruce or fir. The town of Scotland just east of Windham — which remained a part of Windham until 1857 — was named for its steep, rocky hills; another neighboring town, Lebanon to the southwest, was known for its hills and cedars. A relatively flat area in the center of Windham, just east of the Shetucket River, was named “the Plains,” as it was more level than the surrounding uplands. For many years the Plains would be used primarily as plowland. Upland pastures would grace the sides of the parallel ridges. (The map above is from United States Geological Survey, “Willimantic Quadrangle, Connecticut, 7.5 Minute Series,” [Washington], base data 1927, remapped 1942-43, revised 1953.)
The Willimantic Gorge — Topography and Hydrology (above): The far western part of Windham comprises the gorge of the Willimantic River, where it tumbles more than 90 feet in less than a mile to meet the Natchaug and form the Shetucket. These three rivers are Windham’s chief watercourses. Their names derive from Mohegan-Pequot, an Algonkian (also spelled Algonquian) language spoken by both the Mohegans and Pequots, two closely related peoples who lived mostly along Long Island Sound. Natchaug and Shetucket each derive from phrases that translate roughly as “land between the rivers,” and most likely originally referred to the ridges between the rivers. Willimantic may derive from a Mohegan-Pequot phrase meaning “cedar swamp” (a reference to the wetlands that once existed where the three rivers meet) or “swift waters” (a reference to the several rapids in the gorge) or perhaps even “lookout.” (For the meaning of Willimantic and other Native American place names in Windham and elsewhere in Connecticut, click here.) The Willimantic is a typical New England mill stream. Although much more narrow and shallow than major watercourses like the Connecticut, Housatonic, Thames, Merrimack, Saco, or Kennebec, its sudden drop provided sufficient power to drive early industrial factories, and it was small enough to dam using nineteenth-century technology. Hard gravel-and-granite hills rise on both sides of the gorge: Prospect Hill, Jillson Hill, and Carey Hill to the north, and Hosmer Mountain (formerly Blake Mountain), Bush Hill, and Obwebetuck Mountain on the south. In time, six dams (shown in orange on the above map) would be erected in the gorge, on the sites of the major rapids and waterfalls. These dams would provide the waterpower for most of Windham’s industrial-era factories and mills. Smaller factories would be located at lesser falls in North Windham on the Natchaug River, and in South Windham on a small tributary stream. (The map above is based on United States Geological Survey, “Willimantic Quadrangle, Connecticut, 7.5 Minute Series,” [Washington], base data 1927, remapped 1942-43, revised 1953.)
Algonkian Windham (above): In the early 1600s, before the arrival of Europeans, Windham lay on the borderland between two Algonkian-speaking peoples, the inland Nipmucks (also spelled Nipmucs) to the north and the coastal Mohegans to the south. According to the early 20th-century researcher and local historian Mathias Speiss, three small Mohegan villages existed in the Windham area: Willimantic near the mouth of the Willimantic River gorge, Nawbesetuck in the southern part of what is now the neighboring town of Mansfield to the north, and Mamaquaug in the vicinity of what is now North Windham. These settlements are represented by the pink circles on the above map. According to Speiss, foot paths linked the villages to each other, as well as to the Mohegan heartland to the south. The yellow circles farther north on the map indicate the locations of three Nipmuck villages. (The map above is (c) Windham Textile and History Museum, 2017.)
According to the historian William Cronon in his book Changes In the Land, both the Mohegans and the Nipmucks were agricultural peoples (farmers), who raised crops of maize, beans, squash, and other vegetables. Both groups built large central summertime villages, but scattered into small bands in the winter to hunt and in the spring to fish at waterfalls. Possibly, Willimantic, Mamaquaug, and Nawbesetuck were wintertime hunting or springtime fishing camps, rather than full-fledged farming villages. On the other hand, they may have been different iterations the same village, relocated every 15 years or so as the old farmland became worn out. According to Cronon, because the Nipmucks and Mohegans lacked livestock, they also lacked manure, and so were forced to move their fields every few years, rotating among three or four nearby locations, waiting for their former fields to regain fertility. In any case, Mohegans no longer seem to have lived in Speiss’s three villages when European settlers arrived in the 1670s. Decades of disease, war, and malnutrition had taken a horrific toll on Connecticut’s native population, and by the late seventeenth century approximately nine tenths of them had perished.
Joshua’s Tract (above): (The base map above is from Ellen Larned, History of Windham County, Connecticut, v. 1, 1600-1760 [Worcester: Charles Hamilton, 1874)]).
European Americans first migrated into the eastern Connecticut uplands in the late 1670s, following a fierce struggle known as Metacom’s Rebellion or King Philip’s War (1675-76), when the decisive defeat of the Wampanoags, Nipmucks, and their allies opened the area to Anglo-American settlement. In 1675, the Mohegan sachem Attawanhood (also known as Joshua, son of Uncas, d. 1676), an ally of the English during Metacom’s Rebellion, left a large tract of land in eastern Connecticut in his will to a group of land speculators (known as the “legatees”) from Norwich, Stonington, and New London, three of the four original tidewater English towns in eastern Connecticut. The legatees had gotten Joshua drunk, the story goes, and in all likelihood he had not intended to surrender the land. Indeed, under Mohegan law, he probably did not have the authority to do so. Nevertheless, the colonial courts ruled that the will was valid. The area became known as Joshua’s Tract, and it became the basis for the original town of Windham. In 1686 the legatees divided some of Joshua’s Tract into lots to sell to settlers (although two settlers, the English political refugee and suspected regicide Jonathan Cates and his African slave Joe Ginne, had already moved there). The legatees never lived in Windham themselves, although several of their relatives were among the settlers who purchased lots from them. Settlement in Joshua’s Tract picked up after the English Glorious Revolution of 1689, which (coupled with the end of Metacom’s Rebellion in 1676) ended a long period of tumult and uncertainty in both the mother country and its New England colonies. The resulting peace ushered in a prolonged period of peace that encouraged growth and settlement throughout the Connecticut uplands. Thus it was in 1692, only a few years after the first Anglo-American colonists had moved into Joshua’s Tract, that the Connecticut General Court (the colonial assembly) chartered the Town of Windham. Originally, the new town encompassed all of Joshua’s Tract, along with a smaller tract called Mamasqueeg that Joshua had left to his own family. The new town was bounded by Norwich on the south, the Nipmuck Path on the east, a wetland known as Appaquage at the northeast corner, a line running due west until from Appaquage to the Willimantic River on the north, and the Willimantic and Shetucket Rivers on the west. This large tract of land today comprises (more or less) the towns of Windham, Mansfield, Chaplin, Hampton, and Scotland. Like most seventeenth-century New England towns, the original Windham was geographically large, to ensure that there were sufficient natural resources for the settlers and their families.
Migration of English Colonists Into Joshua’s Tract (above): Between 1675 and 1692, a few English colonists and an even smaller number of enslaved Africans migrated north from Norwich into Joshua’s Tract and Mamasqueeg. The earliest English colonists in Connecticut had arrived in the 1630s and 1640s, staunch Puritans who founded towns both in the Connecticut River valley to the west (the so-called River towns of Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield) and along Long Island Sound to the south. These early communities were tidewater towns, fronting on either the Sound or one of its saltwater estuaries. The first English town in eastern Connecticut was New London, at the mouth of the Thames River, founded by John Winthrop, Jr., later governor of Connecticut colony. New London was followed by Stonington to its east, Lyme to its west, and then Norwich to its north, further up the Thames River. These four towns occupied the former heartland of the Mohegan and Pequot peoples, who had been mostly displaced between the 1630s and 1670s. The Thames River is actually a wide, saltwater estuary of Long Island Sound, navigable by ocean going ships all the way to Norwich harbor. The tributary Shetucket, Quinebaug, and Yantic Rivers all meet at Norwich to form the Thames, but these smaller rivers are not navigable because of several large waterfalls near their mouths. Thus transportation north from Norwich into Windham and other inland towns would be by footpaths, horse paths, and (eventually) wagon roads, rather than by boat.
Like other English colonists in Connecticut, the women, men, and children who migrated north into Joshua’s Tract were staunch Puritans — radical, Calvinist Protestants — and the towns they formed were organized into small, covenanted Puritan republics, the inhabitants bound together by common membership in their Congregational churches, their town meeting government, and their preindustrial agricultural economies based on maize, other Native American and English crops, cows, sheep, pigs, and other English livestock. The first English settler in Windham, John Cates, was a mysterious figure, rumored to be a political refugee, a radical Puritan who had gotten on the bad side of the authorities in England. He was accompanied by Joe Ginne, an enslaved African. Both men may have lived in Virginia before coming to Connecticut. (The above map is (c) Windham Textile and History Museum, 2017.)
Original Home Lots in Windham (above): AS preindustrial farmers, Windham’s earliest English inhabitants acquired fairly large lots located on the Plains and the town’s few other small pockets of arable cropland. In 1932, Edward Thompson researched the locations of Windham’s earliest farm lots. The lots, he found out, were laid out on both sides of a path (later road) that led north from Norwich to the Plains, in what is now the neighborhood of Windham Center, but was then known as Hither Place. Steep Mullin Hill rose to the east. The Shetucket River lay to the west. A small hill near the center of the Plains — what is now Windham Green — was chosen as the site for a Congregational church, and also of Windham’s first cemetery. (The graves were later moved to the present Windham Cemetery, to the south.) Locating cemeteries and churches on hills adjacent good farmland was the common practice among English colonists in Connecticut. The original 15 “home lots,” about 31 acres each, lay on the west side of the path. Fifteen 20-acre pasture lots bordered the path on the and swept up the slopes of Mullin Hill. Grist and saw mills soon were erected on Potash Brook to the north and Frog Brook on the other side of Mullin Hill. To maximize the number of lots and homes that could border on the path, the lots were laid out as “long lots,” with their narrow ends along the path. Because of its location in the southern part of Windham close to Norwich, this settlement acquired the name Hither Place. As time went by, other, outlying settlements emerged in more distant parts of town: Ponde Place (where Mansfield Center village is today), Canada Settlement (today’s Hampden), Scotland, and the Crotch (the horseshoe bend in the Natchaug River, the easiest spot to ford the Natchaug River). Until good roads and bridges could be built in the eighteenth century, travel was difficult, and settlers in the outlying neighborhoods often felt isolated from the main settlement at Hither Place. One by one, Ponde Place, Canada Settlement, and eventually even Scotland would eventually break away to form their own towns. It was a familiar pattern: throughout New England, the sprawling English towns created in the seventeenth century subdivided into smaller, more compact new towns. (The map above is redrawn from Edward Thompson’s 1932 sketch of Windham’s original home lots. Copies of Thompson’s map are available from the Windham Historical Society.)
Settling Joshua’s Tract / Windham, 1675-1700 (above): (The base map above is from Ellen Larned, History of Windham County, Connecticut, v. 1, 1600-1760 [Worcester: Charles Hamilton, 1874)]).
The Windham Frog Fight (above): Windham remained a frontier community well into the eighteenth century. Even as more land was cleared for agriculture, early roads were laid out, and daughter towns formed at Mansfield and Hampton, the inhabitants still felt the presence of the northern wilderness. Wars between Britain and its colonists on one side, and France, its Canadien colonists, and its Algonkian allies on the other side, meant an ever-present fear of raids and attack. The French and Indian Wars began in the late 1600s and continued intermittently until 1760. Thus it was that the inhabitants of Windham remained anxious about being attacked, and one hot summer evening in 1758 mistook raucous frogs for a French and Indian invading party. The illustration above is from an 1832 account of the event, found in John Warner Barber, Connecticut Historical Collections, Containing a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c, Relating to the History and Antquities of Every Town in Connecticut, with Geographical Descriptions, Illustrated by 190 Engravings (New Haven: Durrie & Peck and J. W. Barber, 1836), 2nd ed. Barber created the illustration based on his visit to the Windham Frog Pond in the 1830s, so we may assume that the scene appeared a bit wilder in 1758. Barber inserted the following description of the Windham Frog Fight — which by 1836 had already acquired the status of a local folk tale — without, alas, citing his source. It is inserted here because it tells us several things about the geography of colonial Windham. It was near the frontier. It still felt at least somewhat wild to the people who lived there. There were a lot of frogs. The Frog Pond was a mill pond, created to hold water to drive a water wheel. Nights were still, quiet, and except for the moon and stars, dark.
On a dark cloudy dismal night in the month of July, A. D. 1758, the inhabitants of Windham, a small town in the eastern part of Connecticut, had retired to rest, and for several hours, all were wrapped in profound repose — when suddenly, soon after midnight, the slumbers of the peaceful inhabitants were disturbed by a most terrific noise in the sky right over their heads, which to many, seemed the yells and screeches of infuriated Indians, and others had no other way of accounting for the awful sounds, which still kept increasing, but by supposing the day of judgment had certainly come, and to their terrified imaginations, the awful uproar in the air seemed the immediate precursor of the clangor of the last trumpet. At intervals, many supposed they could distinguish the calling out of the particular names, as of Cols. Dyer and Elderkin, two eminent lawyers, and this increased the general terror…. But soonthere was a rush from every house, the tumult in the air still increasing — old and young, male and female, poured forth into the streets, “in puris naturalibus,” entirely forgetful, in their hurry and consternation, of their nether habiliments, and with eyes upturned tried to pierce the almost palpable darkness. My venerable informant, who well recollects the event, says the same daring “spirits,” concluding there was nothing supernatural in the hubbub and uproar over head, but rather, that they heard the yells of Indians commencing a midnight attack, loaded their guns and sallied forth to meet the invading fos. These valiant heroes, on ascending the hill that bounds the village on the east, perceived that the sounds came from that quarter, and not from the skies, as first believed, but their courage would not permit them to proceed to the daring extremity of advancing eastward, until they had discovered the real cause of alarm and distress, which pervaded the whole village. Towards morning the sounds in the air seemed to die away…. In the morning, the whole cause of alarm, which produced such distressing apprehensions among the good people of the town, was apparent to all who took the trouble to go to a certain mill pond, situated about three fourths of a mile eastward of the village. This pond, hereafter in the annals of Fame, forever to be called the Frog Pond, in consequence of a severe drought, which had prevailed many weeks, had become nearly dry, and the Bull Frogs (with which it was densely populated) at the mill fought a pitched battle on the sides of the ditch which ran through it, for the possession and enjoyment of the fluid which remained. Long and obstinately was the contest maintained; and many thousands of the combatants were found defunct, on both sides of the ditch, the next morning. It had been uncommonly still, for several hours before the battle commenced, but suddenly, as if by a preconcerted agreement, every frog on one side of the ditch, raised the war cry, Col. Dyer, Col. Dyer, and at the same instant, from the opposite side, resounded the adverse shout of Elderkin too, Elderkin, too. Owing to some peculiar state of the atmosphere, the awful noises and cries appeared to the distressed Windhamites to be directly over their heads….
Creating Towns and Counties
Creating Windham County and Its Towns (above): The original Puritan ideal in New England had called for large, unified, Calvinist towns. But the communal ideal of the 1600s fell apart in the 1700s. Puritanism as a distinct Calvinist religious creed began to fade away, to be replaced by a broader, more moderate Congregationalism — a transition described by the historian Richard Bushman in his book, From Puritan to Yankee. In the mid-1700s, Congregational unity was challenged by other Protestant faiths – Baptism, Methodism, Anglicanism, and others – during the so-called Great Awakening. By the time the American Revolution got underway in the 1770s, Connecticut had many churches, not just one – although the Congregational Church would remain the “established church” until 1818.
Not just religious unity, but political unity also unraveled as time went by. The original towns were so expansive that inhabitants in the farther corners found it difficult to attend church, or get to the gristmill, sawmill, store, or tavern, especially when the rivers and streams were frozen or swollen. The large, sprawling towns of the early days quickly subdivided. Windham (chartered as a town in 1692) lost first Mansfield in 1702 (the Natchaug River was just too difficult to cross in bad weather), then Hampton in 1786. Chaplin broke away from Hampton in 1822. Finally Scotland left Windham in 1857. Windham did gain a sliver of Lebanon, though. Originally, the Shetucket and Willimantic rivers formed the border between Windham and Lebanon to the southwest. Early on, families from Windham had moved onto the Lebanon side of the rivers, but steep hills separated them from the rest of Lebanon. At the same time, they retained their close ties to kith and kin in Windham. Moreover, in the colonial period, it was the towns, not the colony, that bore the responsibility for constructing and maintaining roads and bridges, and towns that bordered on rivers were expected to share the cost with the towns on the other side. When the thrifty people of Lebanon discovered that they might have to pay half the cost of any bridges that might be built across the Shetucket and Willimantic Rivers, they gladly ceded the sliver of land to Windham, thus escaping the expense. (The base of the map above is E. P. Gerrish, W.C. Eaton, D. S. Osborn, and H. C. Osborn, surveyors, “Map of Windham County, Connecticut” [Philadelphia: E. M. Woodford, 1856]. The survey was conducted in 1855.)
In addition to towns, which in Connecticut functioned as the primary local governments, counties were established in the 1700s to perform certain law enforcement and judicial functions (sheriffs and courts) deemed too big for towns. Windham County was founded in 1726, with its county seat initially at Hither Place — a circumstance that resulted in the rise of a small, local clique of lawyers. The boundaries of Windham County would change frequently over the years, as new towns were added or old ones subtracted. Eventually, in 1785, a second northeastern Connecticut county – Tolland County – would be carved out of Windham and Hartford Counties and take away several of Windham County’s western towns. The result was that the town of Windham, never all that centrally located within Windham County to begin with, became even less central as time went by. As Windham County thus slowly shifted east geographically, settlers in the Quinebaug valley began to agitate in favor of moving the county seat further east. In 1819 the county seat was moved from Windham to to the more central Brooklyn. The dates that different towns were chartered by the legislature are shown on the above wall map of Windham County.
The Town of Windham and Borough of Willimantic in 1833 (above): Above is a detail from an 1833 wall map of eastern Connecticut. (William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].) It shows the town of Windham (which in 1833 still included Scotland), the towns of Hampton and Chaplin that had been carved out of the northeastern part of Windham, and an inset of the borough of Willimantic, created just that year (along with the borough of Danielsonville in the town of Brooklyn). This map also shows rivers, streams, and hills, along with roads as they existed in 1833. The hilly, upland ridge-and-ravine topography is clearly evident in the map.
The changing boundaries of Windham County are shown on the maps below, taken from larger maps of Connecticut.
Windham County in 1766, Just Before the Revolutionary War (above): Moses Park, “Plan of the Colony of Connecticut in North America,” 1766. Drawn before the creation of Tolland County, this 1766 map includes Mansfield, Coventry, Union, and Voluntown within Windham County. Notice the spelling of the Willimantic River as “Willimattuck.”
Windham County in 1797, After the Revolutionary War and at the Beginning of the Industrial and Market Revolutions (above): This 1797 map of Connecticut, drawn after the creation of neighboring Tolland County, still includes Voluntown and Mansfield as parts of Windham County, but no longer Coventry nor Union, which have been transferred to Tolland County. Lebanon, however, has been added to Windham County. This map shows some of the major wagon roads, although only in their approximate locations. Hither Place — by 1797 known simply as Windham or Windham Village — is at the intersection of several roads, leading (variously) to Coventry, Mansfield, Chaplin, Cantebury, Lebanon, and Norwich. (Notice that the mapmaker has transposed Lisbon and Franklin, to the south of Windham.) Windham is marked with the symbols both for a church and a courthouse, signifying its function as the county seat, a position it would retain until 1819.
Windham County in 1824 (above): This 1824 map of Connecticut shows Lebanon, Mansfield, and Voluntown still part of Windham County. By then, the county seat had been moved to Brooklyn.
Windham County in 1832-33 (above): (William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].) Voluntown is still part of Windham County, but Lebanon and Mansfield are not. The map is dated 1833, but the survey may have been conducted in 1832.
Windham County in 1924 (above): This state highway map shows Windham County’s present boundaries.
Windham During the Revolution
French Army Camps at Windham (above): The American Revolution was a major event in Windham. Although no battles were fought here, residents participated in the political crises leading up to the Revolution, and men from Windham joined both the Continental Army and the Connecticut militia to fight for independence.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to occur in Windham during the Revolution happened in 1781. French troops under General Rochambeau – allies of the patriots during the Revolutionary War – marched through Windham (even camping here) on their way from Rhode Island, where they had been stationed, to Virginia, where they joined with George Washington’s Continental Army to win the Battle of Yorktown, the battle that decided the outcome of the war. Rochambeau’s engineers sketched detailed maps of the march, which are today in the Library of Congress. Here is a digital copy of the map that included Windham.
Windham in the Early Republic
The years following the Revolutionary War (known to historians as the Early Republic) brought big changes to Windham, changes that were reflected in maps. Although European printers published maps of the American colonies – and the colonists themselves created hand-drawn maps of their settlements – maps that were printed in America had to wait until after the Revolution. As the historical geographer Martin Bruckner points out in The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (2006), newly independent Americans (including Connecticans), fired by a surge of nationalism, rushed to produce maps of their country, states, counties, and towns. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, dozens of new state maps appeared. Then came county maps. By the mid-1800s, various publishers had brought out a series of elegant wall maps of nearly every American county. An elegant, detailed wall map of Windham and New London counties (thus depicting all of eastern Connecticut) was published in 1833 (see above). A second wall map, this one just of Windham County, was published in 1856 from surveys made in 1855 (see above). Like most of the 19th-century county wall maps, both maps included insets of the larger villages and boroughs, along with illustrations of important buildings.
Shortly after the publication of these county wall maps came the publication of county atlases – another part of the movement towards geographical literacy that occurred in the early 1800s. The first county atlas of Windham County – which was really an atlas of both Windham and Tolland Counties – was published in 1869. (Oliver Cromwell Gray and C. G. Keeney, Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties [Hartford: C. G. Keeney, 1869].) It featured full-page maps of each town, including Windham, and insets of every village and borough. Known for their detail, county atlases showed the location of every house, store, shop, mill, or other large structure.
The 1869 Windham County atlas showed that Windham had one borough (the industrial center of Willimantic) and three villages (Windham, South Windham, and North Windham). These “urban central places” were relatively new (colonial villages had been fewer in number and much smaller in size), and were the creations of the industrial and market revolutions of the early 1800s.
Windham in 1832-33 (above): We enhanced the portion of the 1833 wall map that featured Windham (shown in a previous section of this atlas) in order to better show rivers, streams, hills, and roads. At the original settlement of Hither Place (by 1833 called simply Windham, Windham Village, or sometimes Windham Green) two major turnpikes intersected, the east-west Windham Turnpike and the north-south Windham and Mansfield Turnpike. (Turnpikes are colored red or orange on the map, while secondary roads are brown.) Scotland was still part of Windham, a rural neighborhood with a small village to the east, in the hills surrounding the Little River. The newly created borough of Willimantic lay in the west, in the Willmantic River Gorge. The secondary roads were narrow, winding, stony, and muddy, but the turnpikes were straighter, wider, and more level. They were elevated in the miry places and chiseled into the hills in the elevated areas. It was to promote trade and commerce that, in the years following the Revolutionary War, the new State of Connecticut had granted certain private businesses the right to construct turnpikes and charge tolls. Turnpikes were monopolies, and no competing turnpikes could be constructed in their vicinity. (Shunpikers — locals who wanted to avoid paying the tolls — learned how to bypass the turnpikes and travel along the older, poorer quality roads.) Four turnpikes converged in Windham, making the town a regional transportation hub, a circumstance that attracted businesses to both Willimantic and Windham Village. The Windham Turnpike connected with other roads and turnpikes to link Hartford, Connecticut, with Providence, Rhode Island. The Columbia Turnpike branched off the Windham Turnpike towards Middletown, Connecticut. The Windham and Mansfield Turnpike connected Mansfield to Norwich. And the Windham and Brooklyn Turnpike branched off the Windham Turnpike to connect Windham to Brooklyn in the east. (The central portion of the Windham and Mansfield Turnpike, where it runs through Windham Center, is still a major road, but the northern and southern parts no longer exist. The overgrown relicts of the southern part of the Windham and Mansfield turnpike can be found by hikers in a part of town now grown up into forest, although it was an agricultural neighborhood as recently the 1930s. The old Manning Bridge bridge that crossed the Shetucket River is long gone.) Maps below show how traffic brought by the turnpikes led to growth in both Windham Village and Willimantic. (The map above is (c) the Windham Textile and History Museum, 2017.)
Windham Center, 1832-33 (above): The 1833 wall map of Windham and New London Counties depicts Hither Place (now called Windham Village, Windham Center, Windham Centre, or Windham Green) as a full fledged village. The shading on both sides of the two turnpikes — the east-west Windham Turnpike and the north-south Mansfield and Windham Turnpike, shows the approximate extent of the village. The markings are not intended to be actual structures. The only structures shown on the map are a gristmill on Bingham’s Brook, three schools, the Episcopal and Congregationalist churches, and the old Windham County courthouse. The locations of buildings on this map should be taken as approximations only. The Plains is not labelled on the map, but it stretched from Mullin Hill in the east to the Shetucket River on the west. A more detailed 1855 map is below. (William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].)
Windham in 1855 (Above): (From E. P. Gerrish, W.C. Eaton, D. S. Osborn, and H. C. Osborn, surveyors, “Map of Windham County, Connecticut” [Philadelphia: E. M. Woodford, 1856]. The survey was conducted in 1855.)
Windham Village in 1855 (above): Above is a detail from the 1856 wall map of Windham County. It shows Windham Centre (formerly called Hither Place, Windham Village, and Windham Green), now a bustling farm market village next to the Plains. Because of the market revolution, Windham Centre — like many Connecticut villages — had grown rapidly in the early 1800s. The Early Republic brought momentous changes to Connecticut and the rest of New England, changes that took the form of what the historian Charles Sellers has called the market revolution. The new United States — and states like Connecticut — were now in control of economic development, no longer part of the British Empire and it mercantilist economy that relegated colonies to producing mostly staples like fish, grain, and beef. The result was a business boom, in which rural Connecticans produced not only farm goods, but spun thread, woven cloth, and other textiles made at home with spinning wheels and hand looms; cheese and butter; books, magazines, and newspapers; wagons and sleighs; and hand wrought metal goods. Although many of these items were made for local markets, some were shipped to other states, Europe, the West Indies, and even the Far East. Connecticut and its people entered the emerging global economy. Small storekeepers played a vital middleman role in buying locally made goods and shipping them to larger merchants in the seaports. Farm market villages like Windham Centre sprang up to facilitate this lively new trade. Colonial villages had been tiny: a crossroads with a church, cemetery, tavern, and a few houses. Market revolution villages like Windham Centre during the Early Republic were much larger, with a variety of shops, stores, and other buildings. Today, most of what people think of as the older buildings still remaining in these villages date to the market revolution and the Early Republic, not to the earlier colonial era, as is evident in their federal (a.k.a., Georgian) architecture. In the case of Windham Centre, there is good evidence that it had been larger than a typical colonial-era village — at least in the period around the American Revolution — and may actually have declined somewhat between 1790 and 1830, before expanding again between 1830 and 1860.
Windham Centre’s growth during the Revolutionary era was stimulated by its status — until 1819, when it was replaced by Brooklyn — as the county seat of Windham County. John Warner Barber wrote (see below) that the village may have declined from 1819 until around 1830 as a result of the move, but mid-century maps indicate that it expanded again between the 1830s and the 1850s, the heyday of the market revolution. In 1855, its buildings included Windham’s town hall, a hotel, two churches, several shops and stores, and several fine, large houses built in the new federal style — including the spacious home of the prosperous Baker family on the southern edge. At the center of the village was the Congregational Church, the Windham Inn, the intersection of the two turnpikes, and the village green. During the Early Republic, in town after town across New England, the old, scruffy, ill-kept commons of colonial times were tamed, manicured, planted with mowed grass and shade trees, and renamed “greens.” In the twentieth century, many of these signature New England greens were torn up and replaced by widened roads and streets. Windham is fortunate that most of its 1855 green was saved. (From E. P. Gerrish, W.C. Eaton, D. S. Osborn, and H. C. Osborn, surveyors, “Map of Windham County, Connecticut” [Philadelphia: E. M. Woodford, 1856]. The survey was conducted in 1855.)
Windham Centre in the 1830s (Above): John Warner Barber included the above sketch of Windham Centre in his Connecticut Historical Collections. The book, the second edition of which was published in 1836, was a combination geography and history of Connecticut, and covered its topics town by town. The view is from the east, looking westerly down the slope of Mullin Hill into the village center. The illustration shows a number of important geographic features: the Windham Turnpike, stone fences, the large Congregational Church in the center of the village, the smaller Episcopal Church beyond it, the Windham Inn at upper right behind a tree, the Inn’s signpost, residences and shops in both colonial and federal architectural styles, agricultural outbuildings, cleared fields and gardens, and Obwebetuck Mountain in the background. (John Warner Barber, Connecticut Historical Collections, Containing a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c, Relating to the History and Antquities of Every Town in Connecticut, with Geographical Descriptions, Illustrated by 190 Engravings [New Haven: Durrie & Peck and J. W. Barber, 1836], 2nd ed.)
Barber writes: The above is a view of the central part of the ancient village of Windham. The houses are more clustered than in most New England villages which were built in the same period, and it has been remarked by travelers, that Windham, in its general appearance, very much resembles an English village. The Congregational church is seen nearly in the center of the engraving. Dr. [Timothy] Dwight [President of Yale College, who wrote several volumes about his travels around New England], in the third volume of his travels, in noticing this building, pleasantly remarks, “that the spot where it is posited, bears not a little resemblance to a pound; and it appears as if those who pitched upon it, intended to shut the church out of the town, and the inhabitants out of the church.” … Since the removal of the seat of justice for the county to Brooklyn, and the establishment of the flourishing village of Willimantic, on the western border of the town, the ancient village of Windham has somewhat declined. It is said that there were more buildings in Windham village previous to the Revolution, than there has been at any time since. There are two houses of worship, one Congregational and one Episcopal. There is one bank in the town.
It is said there was originally a handsome square laid out in the center of the village. While some of the provincial men were absent, and at a time when party spirit was prevailing, a vote of the town was obtained for selling off the principal part of the square for building lots, and it was accordingly used for that purpose. This is stated to be the cause of the singular situation of the church, and the clustered appearance of the village.
Windham Villages, 1832-33 (Above): Windham had several other villages besides Windham Centre during the Early Republic. In this respect, Windham was like the rest of New England. Its several villages were the product of the market and industrial revolutions. (Base map, William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].) The map was published in 1833, but the survey may have been conducted in 1832.
North Windham Village at the Beginning of the Industrial Revolution, 1832-33 (above): The Industrial Revolution came to Windham in the 1820s, and the 1833 wall map of Windham and New London Counties shows its beginnings at three locations: Willimantic, North Windham, and South Windham. An industrial age cotton mill perched at the falls on the Natchaug River where the towns of Windham, (pink on the map), Chaplin (yellow on the map), and Mansfield (buff on the map) met, a small nucleated settlement that would come to be called North Windham — and which is shown in greater detail on the 1856 map below. The falls is just above where the Mount Hope River flows into the Natchaug, and just below a rapids in Chaplin known as Diana’s Pool. The rectangle with the mark inside it is a school. The square is Swift’s Cotton Mill, with 1,200 spindles, not huge, but industrial nevertheless. The two circles indicate a gristmill and a sawmill, both of which would have been preindustrial enterprises. (William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].) The map was published in 1833, but the survey may have been conducted in 1832.
North Windham Village in 1855 (above): North Windham, smaller than Windham Village, grew up around two small textile mills. Located by a waterfall in the Natchaug River in the northern part of Windham, the village was a small-scale industrial center. Besides the two mills, in 1855 North Windham had a Congregational Church, a school, a Post Office, a couple of stores, and around a dozen residences. While the village of Windham Centre had been created by the market revolution, North Windham was the child of the parallel industrial revolution. Similar in origins to the market revolution, the industrial revolution featured the creation of early factories powered by falling water. In eastern Connecticut, most early factories made textiles — not by hand, but mass produced by heavy machinery. North Windham’s cotton mill and woolen mill were not large, but they were industrial. (From E. P. Gerrish, W.C. Eaton, D. S. Osborn, and H. C. Osborn, surveyors, “Map of Windham County, Connecticut” [Philadelphia: E. M. Woodford, 1856]. The survey was conducted in 1855.)
North Windham Village in 1869 (above): In 1869, North Windham had a cotton thread mill, a woolen factory, and a combination sawmill and gristmill — all water powered. There was also a school, a church, a wagon shop, and a combination store and post office. And, unlike the larger Windham Centre, it now had a railroad connection — although the map does not show a railroad station, the Boston, Hartford, and Erie Railroad did stop at North Windham, to service the two textile mills. (Oliver Cromwell Gray and C. G. Keeney, Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties [Hartford: C. G. Keeney, 1869].)
South Windham Village, 1832-33, at the Beginning of Windham Industrial Revolution (above): Besides Windham Center and North Windham, the 1833 wall map of Windham and New London Counties shows an industrial village just starting to form at what would later be called South Windham. By 1833 several central place functions had located along the brook that flowed out of Pigeon Swamp and into the Shetucket, taking advantage of the waterpower. A forge, foundry, and machine shop were located there — all part of George Spafford’s factory (later renamed the Smith and Winchester Company) set up in 1828 to manufacture paper-making machinery. Windham Center village is located on the above map at upper center; the settlement that would become South Windham is in the center of the map. The Mansfield and Windham turnpike — the main road between Windham (pink) and Norwich (green) to the south — bypassed South Windham. Steep hills separated South Windham from Lebanon (yellow) to the west. (William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].) The map was published in 1833, but the survey may have been conducted in 1832.
South Windham in 1869 (above): South Windham was larger than North Windham, but smaller than Windham Centre. The above map shows South Windham in 1869. Like North Windham, South Windham was small-scale industrial community, built around the Smith & Winchester Company, a factory that used both water power and forges to manufacture iron paper-making machinery. There was also a small sawmill, a school, a felting factory, a gristmill, a blacksmith shop, a couple of stores, a post office, a millinery shop, and a depot for the New London Northern Railroad. (Oliver Cromwell Gray and C. G. Keeney, Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties [Hartford: C. G. Keeney, 1869].)
Windham Centre in 1869 (Above). (Oliver Cromwell Gray and C. G. Keeney, Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties [Hartford: C. G. Keeney, 1869].)
Changes in Windham Centre, 1855-69 (Above): The map above illustrates the changes that took place in Windham Centre between 1855 and 1869. Although both the 1856 and 1869 maps (see above) depicted Windham Centre as a thriving farm market village, by 1869 signs of decline were already apparent. As it grew during the market revolution of the Early Republic, Windham Centre had coalesced around a number of what the geographer Walter Christhaller has called central place functions — economic, social, and governmental activities that attracted people to “come to town” to shop or socialize. These central place functions included three churches in 1855, reduced to only two in 1869; a town hall in 1855 that had disappeared by 1869; a hotel; shops; stores; offices; a bank; and schools. Windham Centre would continue to decline as a central place throughout the rest of the 19th century. Already, it was being outstripped by another, even larger urbanizing central place in the town of Windham — the fast-growing village, then borough, and finally city of Willimantic, only three miles away.
The Borough and City of Willimantic, Connecticut’s “Thread City”
Willimantic — the part of Windham located in the Willimantic River gorge in the northwestern part of town — was given borough status by the Connecticut legislature in 1833. Being a borough allowed residents of urbanizing areas to levy special taxes among themselves for fire protection, police protection, and other urban amenities, while at the same time remaining part of the original town. Willimantic remained a borough until 1893, when it became a city within the town of Windham – a status it retained until 1983, when it became a special taxing district within the town of Windham, which now operated under a consolidated government. Willimantic is also today a CDP, or Census Designated Place, as defined by the United States Census.
Willimantic in c. 1830, at the Beginning of the Industrial Revolution (above): The third place in Windham where industry developed in the 1820s was in the Willimantic River gorge. The earliest known map of industrial Willimantic is a hand drawn, pen-and-ink sketch made c. 1830. It appears to have been made as a preliminary to the construction of the Bridge Street Bridge across the Willimantic River. Later replaced by the present stone arch bridge, the bridge was a crude wooden structure, depicted in the etching by John Warner Barber below. The map was oriented with west at the top and north on the right, but its measurements are to scale and accurate. The map also showed the locations of the Willimantic, Natchaug, and Shetucket Rivers; roads; and several other important structures. The Bridge Street Bridge was the second bridge to be constructed across the Willimantic River at the gorge. The older Iron Works Bridge is also shown on the map, to the east. We enhanced the original map by coloring the rivers blue and the roads brown; making the labels easier to read; and reorienting the map with north at the top. According to the map, by 1830 a thriving urban settlement had come into existence at the Willimantic gorge. There were four cotton mills. The oldest — labeled Richmond’s Factory on the map — was the furthest downstream, where Recreation Park is today. It had been erected in 1822 by Peres Richmond, a Rhode Island entrepreneur. Richmond constructed a stone dam across the Willimantic River, which diverted some of the water into a raceway (or sluice way) ten feet deep and twenty feet wide. Sluice gates controlled how much water entered into the raceway. The water flowed through the raceway to the mill, where it turned a waterwheel (or waterwheels) located in the mill’s wheelhouse. Richmond built a small village of worker row houses adjacent to his mill. Together, the mill and houses acquired the name Richmond Town. When a few years later an entrepreneur named Welles purchased Richmond’s mill and row houses, Richmond Town became Wellesville. Later, when Irish immigrants came to work at the mill, local Yankees — disdainful of Irish Catholics — dubbed the neighborhood Sodom or Down Sodom. Further upstream, at Willimantic Falls (the site of the Iron Works Bridge), brothers Asa, William, and Seth Jillson from Dorcehester, Massachusetts, constructed a second cotton mill, in 1824. Like Richmond, the Jillsons constructed a small village of worker tenements around their mill, a neighborhood that soon came to be called Jillson Hill. Even further upstream, at the upper falls (soon to be the site of the Bridge Street Bridge), Charles “Deacon” Lee of Windham built a third cotton mill in 1822. Lee also built worker tenements, as well as a company store at the corner of Bridge Street and the Windham Turnpike. This little neighborhood acquired the name Leesburgh. When Lee sold the mill, tenements, and store a few years later to an entrepreneur named Smith, the village was renamed Smithville. Just a few hundred yards upstream from the Lee mill, on the other side of Bridge Street, Mathew Watson, Nathan Tingley, and Arunah Tingley of Providence, Rhode Island, constructed a fourth Willimantic cotton mill, in 1823. As with the other mills, their Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company constructed tenements and a store. This little village was called Tingleyville. Earlier, preindustrial mills had also been constructed in the Willimantic gorge, although they operated on a smaller scale. A small saw- and gristmill was erected at Willimantic Falls in 1706. During the era of the American Revolution, a paper mill and gunpowder mill also appeared at the Falls. Altogether, the Willimantic River descended more than 90 feet in less than a miles over a series of falls and rapids as it plunged through the gorge, from the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company’s mill at the upper end to Richmond’s mill at the lower. Abundant waterpower was there for the taking. The four cotton mills were key central place functions, and the city of Willimantic formed around them.
The Industrial borough of Willimantic in 1833, the year it was created (above): The above map is an inset on an 1833 wall map of Windham and New London Counties. (William Lester, Jr., surveyor, “Map of New London and Windham Counties in Conn.” [New London: Engraved by Dragett and Ely, 1833].) Willimantic formed in the 1820s as four separate mill villages in the Willimantic River gorge, each surrounding one of the gorge’s four early cotton mills: Richmond Town, Jillson Hill, Leesburgh, and Tingleyville. By 1833 the four villages had coalesced into the city of Willimantic. This was rapid growth, indeed. In 1833 the Connecticut legislature incorporated Willimantic as a borough within the town of Windham — meaning that while the city was still part of Windham, its residents had the authority to levy additional taxes on themselves to fund fire protection, police protection, street paving, and other services essential to people living in urban areas, but not for most rural folk. The majority of Windham’s voters were farmers; to them, fire brigades (in the 19th century aimed primarily at keeping fires from spreading to other buildings) and paved streets were useless, and they would not support taxes to fund things that benefited only the urban minority. Boroughs were a logical compromise, one that recognized the differences between urban and rural ways of life. Windham County had two boroughs in 1833: Willimantic and Danielson, both newly emerging industrial centers that — unlike North Windham and South Windham — were large enough to be viewed as cities rather than villages.
The Windham Turnpike was the main east-west road north of the Willimantic River, and was soon renamed Main Street within the borough; following the route of the Turnpike, Main Street crossed the Willimantic River at the Iron Works Bridge (the eastern bridge on the map above) and continued southeast along today’s State Route 32. South of the Willimantic River, parallel to the Windham Turnpike, was the Columbia Turnpike, renamed Pleasant Street within the borough. It ended at the Iron Works Bridge, where it met the Windham Turnpike. Bridge Street connected the two turnpikes on the west end of the borough. Union Street branched off Main Street to continue easterly along the north bank of the Willimantic River. Willimantic had two schools in 1833, one at each end of the borough. They are indicated on the map as the District School and the Proprietor’s School. While Swift’s cotton mill in North Windham had only 1,200 spindles, the big granite Windham Manufacturing Company at Willimantic’s upper falls boasted 5,900 spindles. The Jillson Mill at had almost as many with 5,200 spindles. “Thompson’s Cotton factory” — Deacon Lee’s mill — was smaller with 1,000 spindles, and “Carpenter’s Cotton factory” — Perez Richmond’s mill — also had 1,000, for a grand total of 13,100 spindles in the borough, all whirring away producing cotton thread. Together, they would give Willimantic its nickname: Thread City. The borough had three churches, all of them new: a Congregational Church on Main Street (this was Willimantic’s earliest Congregational Church, not the later, larger one on Valley Street), a Methodist Church also on Main Street (it would attract anti-slavery advocates), and a Baptist Church at its present location at the intersection of Main and Union Streets. They would be joined within a few years by a Unitarian Church, a Spriritualist Church, and a Roman Catholic Church.
Willimantic in the 1830s (above): The above sketch by John Warner Barber depicts Willimantic shortly after it became a borough. It appeared in Connecticut Historical Collections, Containing a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c, Relating to the History and Antquities of Every Town in Connecticut, with Geographical Descriptions, Illustrated by 190 Engravings (New Haven: Durrie & Peck and J. W. Barber, 1836), 2nd ed. The scene looks north along Bridge Street, across the old wooden bridge. The artist stands at the intersection of Bridge and Pleasant Streets. A side entrance turns left off Bridge Street into the Windham Company mill yard. Bridge Street intersects with Main Street just out of sight at the top of the hill on the other side of the Willimantic River. The large, two-building factory of the left is the Windham Manufacturing Company, until the 1850s the largest cotton mill in Willimantic. It was constructed of locally quarried gneiss granite blocks, with a central bell tower. The smaller building on the right, on the other side of Bridge Street, is another cotton mill, the Lee (later Smithville) Manufacturing Company, which also has a central tower (although not as high). Each cotton mill had its own dam, although neither is visible in the engraving. Some of the other structures shown are worker row houses. Other buildings are shops and stores.
The Willimantic River below Willimantic Falls, some time between 1820 and 1863 (above): This hand drawn map shows the Willimantic River immediately below (east of) Willimantic Falls and the old Iron Works Bridge, sometime before the Willimantic Linen Company’s Mill No. 2 was constructed on the site in 1863. The upper (northerly) street on the map is Union Street. The lower (southerly) street is Water Street, which no longer exists. The street sketched in faintly between the two is now lower Main Street, but which was then called State Street. The river itself is blue. The gray shaded area between the river and the streets represents a shallow mill pond and raceways providing water for the mills, which are labeled on the map. The westernmost mill structure, where the mill pond empties into the raceway, is a sawmill. The easternmost structure, on the far end of the raceway, is a gristmill. The several structures along the river (but connected to the raceway by a side channel) are a paper mill. The other, unlabeled structures are dwelling or perhaps shops. The island in the middle of the river is labeled “rock.” The brown lines may be property boundaries. The map may have been created by the Willimantic Linen Company when it acquired the property to construct its Mill No. 2, stable, company store, warehouse, and worker housing in the early 1860s, but the absence of State Street (which was there by 1855) suggests that the map was created earlier than that. After 1863, all of the structures shown on the map would be demolished, the mill pond and raceways filled in, and a dam constructed across the river that would submerge the rock. This is a good example of the major environmental and landscape changes that invariably accompanied industrialization and urbanization. This map image is courtesy Peter Zizka. Roughly the same area is depicted in the next map below as it looked in 1915, a half century later.
There exists a full description of this early Willimantic neighborhood as it was before the Willimantic Linen Company demolished it, and it is reprinted below. The description comes from Lloyd Baldwin, who came to Willimantic in the 1820s as a young journeyman carpenter hired to work on constructing the Windham Manufacturing Company’s large gneiss factory on Bridge Street. Baldwin stayed on in Willimantic as a master carpenter, building many of Willimantic’s most important structures. In 1895, Baldwin wrote a series of newspaper articles that were published in the Willimantic Journal, in which he described Willimantic as it was before 1850. The description below is from one of Baldwin’s articles. To find out more about Baldwin — and see the full text of his articles — click here.
In order to understand the location of the buildings to be next described, it will be necessary to understand the topography of the section they occupied in 1850, and which was not materially changed until 1864, when the Willimantic Linen Company built their No. 2 mill. The old [Coventry and Windham] Turnpike Road [Main Street] ran directly past No. 1 mill to the north end of the Iron Works Bridge. From this point a road ran along the northerly side of the river past Shakel Dam until it intersected Main Street near the old saw mill, Main Street occupying about the same position as it now does, thus enclosing quite a tract of land for building purposes.
In the month of April, 1837, Phelps & Spafford sold to Col. Roswell Moulton a building lot on the northwest corner at the junction of the two streets, on which he built a two-story building for a grocery store and post office, Col. Moulton being postmaster at that time. The office remained here until 1843, when public convenience seemed to demand a change of locality, and, Gen. Baldwin being appointed postmaster, it was removed to the Huntington store, next west of the Congregational church on Main Street.
On the southeast corner opposite the north end of the Iron Works Bridge, in the early twenties Guy Hebard erected a two-story building for a hatter’s shop. This building was subsequently used for a grocery store, and the post office was kept here for some time. Directly below the north end of the Iron Works Bridge was a building known as the lighthouse, built and occupied by Benjamin Hewitt for a few years as a rum and beer shop. The next building below the Hebard building on the northerly side of the road was the stone schoolhouse. Willimantic was a one-school district up to 1825, and known as the seventh school district of the Windham School Society. In 1823 the district voted to build a new schoolhouse, to be located on the south side of the Turnpike Road, and the spot selected was near where the west end of the Willimantic Linen Company’s No. 1 mill is now located, to be 34 feet in length, 18 feet in width, and 8 feet between joints, which was done, and the school kept there until 1830. The parents and guardians of each child were to furnish one-and-a-half foot of wood for each scholar, cut and split ready for use, and the teacher was directed by vote of the district to turn out of school all scholars whose parents did not comply with this vote.
In the month of October, 1830, the district voted to build a new schoolhouse, dimensions to be 50 feet in length, and 30 feet in width, to be built of stone and to be located on the lot purchased of Gray, Byrnes, & Smith, on the north side of the River Road opposite Shakel Dam. The price paid to Gray, Byrnes, & Smith for the lot was twenty-five dollars. In the month of May, 1826, a vote was passed to divide the district, the line being east of the Boon house, now owned by Dr. Card. In the month of June, 1831, a contact was made with Elias Rathbun and Frederick Campbell, masons, to do the stone work on the new schoolhouse and with Joseph Sollace and Charles Arnold of Mansfield, carpenters and joiners, to do the woodwork, all of which was done during the summer and fall of 1831, and the building was ready for the winter term of school. The new schoolhouse furnished accommodations for the district for sixteen years, when they became cramped for more room for the increased number of scholars, and the district, by a vote passed in legal meeting, August, 1847, ordered an addition to be made to the main building. This answered the purpose until 1864, when the present house was built.
The Willimantic River below Willimantic Falls a half century later, in 1915 (above): This detail from a 1915 insurance map shows the same area as in the previous map after a half century of industrial development. The bridge on the left is the stone arch bridge that replaced the old Iron Works Bridge, just out of the picture in the previous map. State Street has been renamed Main Street. Union Street is still in the same location. The gravel and earth used to fill in the old mill pond and raceways on the first map came from Carey Hill, in the upper left part of this map.
Willimantic in 1855 (above): Willimantic continued to grow rapidly after the borough was created in 1833. By 1855 there were several side streets. A rail line, opened in 1849 to connect Willimantic to Norwich, snaked through the middle of the city. We enhanced this inset from an 1856 wall map of Windham County to show the railroad (in black) and streets (in brown) more clearly. The red circles show the locations of the city’s six major mill buildings. Willimantic was clearly a linear city. It stretched along both banks of the Willimantic River, hemmed in on the north and south by steep hills. In 1855 all of the commercial and manufacturing buildings, and most of the dwellings, were located on the valley floor and not in the hills. (E. P. Gerrish, W.C. Eaton, D. S. Osborn, and H. C. Osborn, surveyors, “Map of Windham County, Connecticut” [Philadelphia: E. M. Woodford, 1856]. The survey was conducted in 1855.)
Willimantic in 1855, showing the uses of the buildings (above): The data in this map comes from the previous map (E. P. Gerrish, W.C. Eaton, D. S. Osborn, and H. C. Osborn, surveyors, “Map of Windham County, Connecticut” [Philadelphia: E. M. Woodford, 1856]; the survey was conducted in 1855) and from descriptions in Lloyd Baldwin’s newspaper articles. (For the full text of Baldwin’s articles, click here.) This map shows only the central part of Willimantic; for what the western and eastern portions were like in 1855, see the previous map. The portion shown here is approximately 3/4 of a mile long, from east to west. In 1855 Willimantic was services by two railroads, the Hartford, Providence, and Fishkill and the New London, Willimantic, and Palmer. The two railroads passed through the center of Willimantic on parallel tracts (the tracks diverged outside the of borough) and shared a common depot, placed dangerously between the two sets of tracks. Eventually, the depot would be moved to the north side of the tracks and be known as Union Station. For a history of Willimantic railroads, click here. For a history of the connection between mills and railroads in Connecticut generally, click here. Not all of the residences depicted on the map were single family homes, although many were. A good portion of them were tenements, but owned by private landlords (who often occupied one of the units themselves) instead of the mills.
Willimantic in 1869, just after the Civil War (above): The Civil War was a time of continued growth for Willimantic. The above map is from Oliver Cromwell Gray and C. G. Keeney, Atlas of Windham and Tolland Counties [Hartford: C. G. Keeney, 1869]. The New Willimantic Linen Company took over both the old Jillson Mill (in 1854) and the rebuilt Richmond Mill (1858). In 1857, the Linen Company (which manufactured cotton thread, despite its name) constructed it large gneiss Mill No. 1 just east of the old Jillson Mill, which the Company converted into a spool shop. In 1863 the Company erected its massive gneiss Mill No. 2. The Company had stockpiled cotton before the Civil War (1861-65) and made big profits during the war, when cotton was scarce in the North. In 1864 the Linen Company began construction of the Model Village (also called Iverton, after Lawson Ives, one of the owners of the Linen Company), an extensive neighborhood of company-owned worker row houses across the street from Mill No. 2. The map above is enhanced: the roads and streets that had been there in 1855 are colored black, while new streets are colored yellow. The city had become less linear, as new streets had been added both on the south and (especially) the north, where the new streets had begun to climb the slopes of Prospect Hill. The Old Willimantic Cemetery was depicted on the west end of the borough. A third rail line had come to Willimantic, the Boston, Hartford, and Erie. The New London, Willimantic, and Palmer has been renamed the New London Northern.
Willimantic in 1897 (above): Willimantic continued its rapid growth throughout the second half of the 19th century. In 1893 the Connecticut legislature upgraded its status from borough to city. It still remained part of the Town of Windham, but gained additional autonomy to respond to urban issues. As a city, Willimantic now elected a Mayor and a City Council, elected from four wards, shown on the map above. It maintained its fire brigades, now in three locations scattered throughout the city. It had a Police Department. Soon, the city would construct public sewers and water pipes. Water was pumped from a reservoir atop Blake (now Hosmer) Mountain. Public parks were created. The city’s cemetery was expanded. The main streets were paved. Willimantic truly was a city. The above map shows Willimantic in 1897. (Thomas Flynn, surveyor, “Map of the City of Willimantic, Conn.” [Philadelphia: D. L. Miller and Co., 1897].)
Windham County Courthouse / Windham Town Hall / Willimantic City Hall, c. 1900 (above): As the size and scope of first the borough and then the city government grew, residents increasingly saw a need for a a city hall. In 1893 — the same year that Willimantic became a city — it erected a new municipal building: a combination city hall, town hall, and county courthouse. Residents hoped that the new Windham County Courthouse would result in a portion of county government returning to Windham from Brooklyn, and for a time it did, with the two towns sharing county government functions. Windham Town government moved its operations from Windham Center to Willimantic. City government had its own section of the new building. The Willimantic Police Department was also located there, with a sturdy jail underneath the big granite front steps. The Willimantic Public Library — which since its founding in the 1850s had been housed in a variety of rooms in commercial blocks — had its own space in the new building. An elegant ballroom provided space for public lectures, musical performances, and high school graduations. The new building had an ornate clock tower, rising above the city’s other structures. The Windham County Courthouse rose majestically at the corner of Main and High Streets, only a block from the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company and the Smithville Manufacturing Company mill complexes. Soon, an elegant new post office, constructed of light brownstone, occupied the opposite corner. The corner of Main and High became the city’s political center. (Note in the photo above — a colorized post card from c. 1900 — the side entrance on High Street for the Willimantic Police Department portion of the building. The Town Hall portion and the Willimantic Public Library also had their own, separate entrances, also on High Street. The Library entrance can be seen at the very back of the building. Notice also the trolley tracks on Main Street, and the fire hydrant on the corner, two symbols of urbanization. Horse droppings in Main Street show that horse-drawn wagons and carriages still provided a significant portion of the city’s transportation. The cannon facing High Street was a Civil War monument. The Grand Army of the Republic had its own rooms in the Court House.)
Windham Manufacturing Company in 1927 (above): Willimantic’s several textile mills were the engines of its growth. The cotton mills sprawled along the river, which had initially supplied them with waterpower. In the 1870s, just after the Civil War, steam power began to replace water, and the mills built coal-fired steam boiler houses with towering brick chimneys. The advent of steam resulted in a series of smaller, steam-powered textile factories — silk mills — located not along the Willimantic River, but several blocks away, on Valley Street. By 1927, the Windham Company (founded in 1823, and after 1911 also known as the Quidnick Manufacturing Company) had acquired the old Smithville cotton mill on the opposite side of Bridge Street and combined them into one company, as shown on the above map. The map is tricky — it is “upside down,” with south is at the top, north at the bottom, east on the left, and west on the right. The large buildings on the right are the old Windham Company mills, the large buildings on the left are the old Smithville mills, and the row of smaller buildings on the lower right are company-owned worker housing. The map shows the locations of the two dams, one for each mill. (“Plat of the Property of the Windham manufacturing Company, Willimantic, Conn.,” 1927.)
Willimantic Linen Company in 1866 (above): While the Windham Manufacturing Company could trace its origins back to 1823, Willimantic’s largest textile mill in 1897, the Willimantic Linen Company, had been founded later, around the middle of the 19th century. In 1845, Lawson Ives and Austin Dunham, two Hartford businessmen, went into partnership with William Jillson and John Capen to form the Welles Manufacturing Company, which bought the old Richmond cotton mill on the east end of the city. They hired local contractor Lloyd Baldwin to rebuild and enlarge the mill, complete with an elegant mansard roof. In 1858, Dunham bought Jillson and Capen and renamed the mill the Dunham Manufacturing Company (see map below). In 1854, Dunham and Ives founded a second company, the Willimantic Linen Company, which leased the old Jillson mill to manufacture linen thread from imported Russian flax. When the supply of flax dried up because of the Crimean War, Dunham and Ives switched to manufacturing cotton thread, although they never got around to changing the name of the company. Quickly outgrowing the small Jillson mill, Dunham and Ives constructed a new, larger gneiss mill next door in 1857, later known as Mill No. 1. Three hundred feet long, the new mill building was one of the largest in Connecticut at the time. Anticipating the Civil War, the WLC stockpiled raw cotton and, during the War, was one of the few cotton mills in New England to be able to continue to produce enough thread to meet heightened wartime demand. (It is sobering to realize the the largest use of cotton thread during the War was for bandages.) Reinvesting its wartime profits, in 1863 the WLC constructed an even larger mill, the massive Mill No. 2, 640 feet long, the second largest thread mill in Connecticut at the time. A massive new gneiss dam ponded the water needed to run the mill; the dam was 18 feet high, 10 feet thick at the base, and six feet thick at the top. Moreover, the WLC bought new start-of-the-art spinning machines capable of producing thread so uniform that it could be used in that relatively new invention, the home sewing machine, without jamming. Soon the Willimantic Linen Company garnered a reputation for producing some of the highest quality cotton thread in the world. Dunham merged the Dunham Manufactured Company into the WLC, and the Dunham Mill now became Mill No. 3. Ives promoted the construction of a large “model village” of company-owned worker row houses, known as Iverton, across Main Street from Mill No. 2, along with a spacious boarding house called The Elms. (N. B. Shubarth, surveyor, “Map of the Willimantic Linen Co.’s Mill Property, Willimantic, Conn.,” 1866.)
Number Three Dam in 1913 (above):
Dunham Manufacturing Company in 1860 (above):
American Thread Company Mills No. 2, 5, and 6 in 1915 (above):