Willimantic, Windham County, Connecticut History

Willimantic, a beautiful village of about ten thousand inhabitants, lies in the southwest corner of the town of Windham, and consequently in the southwest corner of the county. The Willimantic, a vigorous stream, as powerful and as graceful as its name is beautiful, winds along the valley through the center of the borough to which it has given name. On the slope of the left bank lies the principal part of the village, and nearly all of the business concerns. Great power is furnished for the driving of machinery by the falls in the river, and this circumstance gave rise to the building of a populous village here. In the eastern suburbs of the village the Natchaug joins the Willimantic, and they unitedly form the Shetucket.

No place in New England, dependent upon railroad transportation facilities, is better endowed in this respect. The situation of the Willimantic is one that commends itself to the serious consideration of progressive and far-seeing business men who are about to embark in new and promising enterprises, or who desire to change from unsuitable and inconvenient locations to more congenial and favorable ones, such as they will find Willimantic to be after having looked over the field and come in contact with its citizens.

Here they will find first-class facilities for receiving materials and shipping goods, a desirable place of residence, an excellent system of water-works, ample police protection, an effective fire department, the very best banking accommodations, moderate taxes, electric lights, good schools, churches, public libraries, etc., and opportunities to secure favorable building sites for residences at reasonable prices.

Magnificent hills rise on either side of the valley, and these are yet unoccupied except in a few instances. When their summits are crowned by some structures of architectural beauty, as doubtless some day they will be, then the attractions of Willimantic will impress the passing traveler, or the prospecting investor or resident, as one of-the most desirable localities in all this section of the country. Already it is one of the most flourishing and rapidly growing towns in New England, as doubtless it is the most important one of eastern Connecticut. Its rapid growth is shown by the following facts: By the census report of 1870 the population of the borough was 4,048; in 1880, 6,612; a gain of 63 per cent. in ten years. At the same rate of increase from 1880 to 1890, the next census will show a population of 10,799. Based on the number of names in the Directory for 1887, a population of 10,000 has already been attained. The time is not far distant when these figures will be doubled. Willimantic's advantages and prospects of future growth and development warrant this assertion.

The railroad facilities are ample. The New York and New England railroad runs from Boston, directly through Willimantic, to the Hudson river at Newburgh, a distance of 220 miles, passing through Hartford, New Britain, Waterbury and Danbury. Within a year or two -this road will have direct connection with the Pennsylvania coal and oil fields and all western points, via the Poughkeepsie bridge, recently completed. The New England railroad also extends from Willimantic to Providence, R. I., 58 miles, and the company operates a number of important branches, among them the Connecticut Central, from Hartford to Springfield, Mass., and the Norwich and Worcester road, which runs in connection with the Norwich and New York steamboat line. The division of the New England road between Boston and Willimantic is double-tracked, as are also sections of the line westward to New Britain. Willimantic has direct communication with New York city over the Air Line and New York, New Haven and Hartford roads, both operated under one management, and over the New England road via Hartford. The New London Northern road passes through Willimantic, running northerly until it reaches a junction with the Vermont Central system, of which it forms a part, and also making connection with the Boston and Albany road at Palmer, Mass.

Willimantic is only sixteen miles from tide water at Norwich, communication with which is direct by the New London Northern railroad, and is also reached by rail via Plainfield over the New England road. Tidewater is also had via the Air Line road to New Haven, 54 miles, and by the New England road to Providence, 58 miles, and at Hartford, 30 miles. Fast express trains place Willimantic within two hours of Boston and three hours of New York. To Boston is 86 miles, to New York 117 miles. Willimantic is almost midway between Boston, the metropolis of New England, and New York, the commercial center of this globe. People can also go to and come from Philadelphia and Washington, D. C., without change of cars.

In hotel accommodations Willimantic stands second to no town in Connecticut. There are five, viz., Hooker House (new), Brainerd House, Hotel Commercial, Revere House and European House. Of these, the Brainerd House is the oldest. But that has no claim to antiquity. The original hotel of Willimantic is a brick house, still standing on the south side of the river, which in the old stage-coach days was a stopping place on the great thoroughfare between Providence and Hartford. Later, the house in the village now known as the Chaffee House was opened by Mr. Brainerd, and still later the present Brainerd House was fitted up by a company, and Mr. Brainerd managed it and gave its name. The Hooker House is pre-eminently one of the finest hotels in eastern Connecticut, and perhaps the finest. It was erected in 1886 by S. C. Hooker. It is a substantial four-story brick building, the interior arrangement of which is a marvel of convenience and economy. Corridors nine feet wide run through the center of the building on each floor, and a hydraulic elevator, steam heat, hot and cold water, electric bells and speaking tubes, are among the modern advantages in the generally complete equipment. There are one hundred chambers of uniform size, and the eating and sleeping accommodations are first-class in every respect.

The superior court of Windham county holds half of all its civil and criminal terms of court in Willimantic. Under a recent statute permitting transfer of causes from one county to another for trial, by agreement of parties or their counsel, many cases arising in Mansfield, Coventry, Andover, Columbia, Hebron, Willington and Stafford are also tried here. -The court house is one of the most elegant in its finish and furniture, and convenient in its appointments, of any in the state.

Taxation here is moderate. Property is not assessed to exceed 60 per cent. of its market valuation, and the combined borough and town tax rate is only 16: mills on the dollar. The grand list for 1886 was: Borough, $3,50.5,804, town, $4.146.127.

Three lines for telegraphic-communication are available-the Western Union, United Lines, and the Mutual Union-and manufacturers and businessmen here get the benefit of the lowest prevalent rates to all competing points. The telephone service is complete, and an electric light plant is in operation.

For pleasant drives, Willimantic and vicinity towns offer unusual attractions. The main street from the eastern to the western limit furnishes a drive of nearly two miles, and gives the stranger a very good idea of the place, passing as he does through the business portion of the town. The opera house, court house, all the hotels and banks, the Linen Company's four large mills, the Smithville and Windham Companies' mills, and the Willimantic fair grounds, are located on this thoroughfare. In the outside drives, a favorite one is easterly over Bricktop hill to Windham. Another is along Pleasant street, on the south side of the river and running parallel with it. Here a five minutes' climb will take one to the top of Hosmer mountain, the location of the reservoir from which the village receives its supply of water. Here a magnificent view of the village and the surrounding country may be had. The picture shows the beautiful Willimantic river winding its way through the meadows as it comes down from the northwest; the different railroads as they approach the converging point, from the " four R=inds of heaven; " on the right, the majestic Natchaug, wreathing its serpentine course through hill and vale, as if in no hurry to leave its pleasant surroundings; the Mansfield, Coventry, Lebanon and Columbia hills, dotted here and there with villages and thrifty farm houses, and the village of Willimantic below, with its mills, workshops, business blocks and fine residences. In the way of longer drives may be mentioned one to the south, over Village hill to Lebanon, about seven miles, and to the west to Columbia green and the Columbia reservoir, a very popular resort for fishing and picnicing parties; another to the north to South Cov-entry, noted as the site 'of the monument to Nathan Hale, of revolutionary fame. To the west of the village lies Lake Wamgumbaug, a very pretty sheet of water, and quite celebrated locally for its fine black bass fishing. Yet another fine drive, but somewhat longer, is the one north through Mansfield street to the Storrs agricultural school. On this route is passed the Willimantic water works pumping station. The Natchaug river is dammed at this point, forming a beautiful lake, with grounds laid out very tastily as a small park. This is fast becoming a very popular resort for Willimantic people in summer, being only a short drive of two and a half miles from the place.

The Willimantic Fair- Association is in a thrifty condition, with good . grounds, new, roomy and substantial buildings, and the best half-mile track in the county. Horsemen with national reputations have spoken in the highest terms of the superior advantages of this track for horse trotting, and of the management. All the exhibitions have been eminently successful, and the prospects are flattering for the future.

About the close of the first quarter of the present century, Willimantic consisted only of a few straggling houses here and there. The old Carey house was here, and that is still standing. The Baker house was one of its associates, and that is still standing. A small paper and grist mill and saw mill, owned by Clark & Gray of Windham, stood just east of the residence of John H. Capen, near the present site of No. 2 thread mill. The old state powder works of the revolutionary time occupied very nearly the same site. At that time this locality was familiarly and locally known as the State," a name which clung to it for many years. A short distance east of the grist mill were two dwelling houses, and on the north side of Carey hill one or two more, which have long since disappeared. On Main street, just east of E. C. Carpenter's store, stood the Azariah Balcom residence, connected with a large tract of land located north of Main street. The next house west was owned by Erastus Fitch, and in later years by Hardin H. Fitch, one of the oldest natives of the village. There was but one more dwelling west of him on

Main street within the corporate limits, and that was on the site of the present town alms-house. It was replaced by a more modern structure in 1835. This was afterward used as a tavern, standing at the fork of the Bolton and Coventry roads. It was afterward purchased and used as a town alms-house, and was destroyed by fire about eight or ten years since. A new and handsome building, the present town house, was erected on the spot. This is a large two-and-a-half-story building, sufficiently commodious to afford room for one hundred and fifty inmates. Fifty to sixty inmates are frequently in the house in winter, but a smaller number are here in summer. Men arrested for- drunkenness and vagrancy are frequently sent up here to work out a fine. A small farm is worked in connection with the house. Some aged and indigent persons are cared for, and a few insane, but such are generally sent to Middletown. The building is a frame structure, clapboarded and neatly painted.

Returning to the period which we are reviewing, on the south side of the river but one dwelling stood at the west end of Pleasant street. At the east end of that street stands the old homestead of Alfred Young, Sr., one of the early and prominent men of Windham. South of this stood the Murdock house, which has since been taken down. On South Main street stood the house of Anson Youngs, which was used as a house of public entertainment in revolutionary days, but has been replaced by a more modern structure within a recent period. East of this locality stands the dwelling formerly occupied by Josiah Dean, Sr., one of the early residents of this locality. In this description we have specified about all there was of Willimantic at the time mentioned.

Source: History of Windham County, Connecticut, Bayles, Richard M.; New York: W.W. Preston, 1889

 

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