William Weaver’s Civil War-Era Carriage Rides Through Willimantic, CT: Descriptions of an Early Industrial City

Jamie H. Eves

A colleague sent digital copies of three articles published in the summer and fall of 1863 in the Willimantic Journal, a daily newspaper published in Willimantic through most of the 1800s. The articles were written by William Lawton Weaver, who was likely Windham and Willimantic’s first historian. The publisher and editor of the Journal, a one-time schoolteacher, farmer, storekeeper, and Willimantic’s postmaster in the 1840s and 1850s, Weaver collected materials from Windham’s history with the intention of some day writing a history of the town, especially of what he termed the town’s industrial “village” of Willimantic, where he had grown up and lived all of his life. Weaver was born in 1815 and died in 1866, just three years after writing the three articles, only 51 years old. Sickly through most of the 1860s, Weaver wrote but never published a manuscript history of Windham, but he did bequeath the manuscript to his son Thomas, who later published pieces of it.

In 1863, Weaver lived on Jackson Street. Feeling better after a long period of being bed-ridden, in the midst of the Civil War, Weaver took three carriage rides around Willimantic, with the intention to write up what he saw as an article for the Journal, mostly for the benefit of the many former residents who — although moved away — still read the Journal and pined for news from home. His first excursion took him down Jackson Street to Main Street, where he turned left and rode past the mills. He went as far as Ash Street, which he took back to Jackson Street and home. Weaver described a neighborhood in transition — the old village he had known as a boy that had been built around small preindustrial and early industrial mills was giving way to what, by the time Weaver died in 1866, would be the multi-structure complex of the giant Willimantic Linen Company and its model village of company housing. The old village at Jillson Hill and Willimantic Falls — a village that Weaver knew as “Old State” — was in 1863 being torn down. Weaver supported industrial development, but he was also wistful for the streets, school, houses, and people of his youth.

In the three paragraphs below, Weaver describes the old Jillson Mill at the intersection of Jackson and Main Streets, where the Frog Bridge is today. Once a small industrial cotton mill, then a place where mill machinery was manufactured, in 1863 the old Jillson Mill had been repurposed by the Willimantic Linen Company to make spools from white birch. (Until it was needed for thread spools, Weaver writes, local folks used white birch mostly for bean poles.) Weaver tells us that there once was a church across Main Street from the Jillson Mill, built first as a Universalist Church and later used by the Spiritualists, but by the time of his carriage ride converted into a storefront and apartments. He tells us about the preindustrial iron works that had once sat on the banks of the Willimantic River, and mentions the old, wooden Iron Works Bridge, recently replaced by a new stone arch bridge, today’s Garden on the Bridge. In next Thursday’s post, we’ll have more about that bridge, and about a stone schoolhouse and streets — State Street and Water Street — that no longer exist. (Note that Union Street was once called Back Street.) Now, let’s turn to Weaver in his own words, perhaps imagining him speaking in a Yankee twang:

“From our home we pass down Jackson street (named for Lyman Jackson, the worthy colored man who lived in the “home in the lot” where the writer spent the early years of his life) to Union formerly called “Back” street, and across it to Main street, in front of the old Jillson mill, with its north end and belfry almost in the road. Here we stop to look about a little and the first thing that attracts our attention is the ruins of the late fire on the premises of the Linen Company. The bleach and boiler house that stood here, which were consumed, occupied the site of the old yellow machine shop, where Jillson & Capen once carried on the manufacture of cotton machinery, and the blacksmith shop which stood near the old dam. This is an interesting locality, for here, on this identical spot, was established a foundry and “Iron Works,” about 1725. The original Jillson mill which, had it not been for our water works, force pumps and hose connected with the different mills, would probably have gone with the boiler house the other night, looks as “natural as life”; and being now a part of the Linen establishment, is used principally for the manufacture and storage of spools for the thread manufactured by this company. These spools are made from the white birch, heretofore used mainly for pea-brush and bean-poles. The company use large quantities and pay from five to six dollars a cord for it. The spools are made by machinery especially adapted to the purpose, and are turned out with great rapidity. But we are traveling out of our present limits.”

“In passing we notice on the opposite side of the road that the Universalist meeting-house (lately Spiritualist) has undergone a metamorphosis, and is a meeting-house no longer. Mr. Geo. W. Burnham, the proprietor, altered the upper portion of it into tenements and fitted up the basement as a grocery store which is a very nice and convenient one. After passing the Duck mill we come to the new Thread mill and have a strong desire to go in and take a look, and see if we can discover the mysterious processes by which cotton is made as strong as linen and beautiful as silk. But even if we could render null and void the “No Admittance,” which guards every entrance, and could obtain a pass from our friend Hall to make a tour of inspection through the mill, we should be obligated to forego the pleasure of a visit; for such a “getting up of stairs” and so much walking as would be necessary to go the rounds would be more than we should venture to undertake.’

“This fine, large mill, built in such a substantial and tasteful manner, stands just above where the old “Iron Works” bridge stood on the river side of the road leading west. It covers the site of the school-house that stood here, which was the first one built on this side of the river. We will not at present attempt to describe the appearance of this mill, as we intend by and by to include a particular account of it in our “Historical Notes on Willimantic.” Its site is so low that it does not show to good advantage.”