Willimantic, Connecticut: An Early Industrial Ecosystem
Jamie H. Eves and Thomas Beardsley
Windham Textile and History Museum
A Gneiss Prospect: Shaping an Early Industrial Ecosystem in Connecticut’s Lower Willimantic River Valley, 1820-1920
A presentation on how both environment and industrial history helped shaped eastern Connecticut.
A Gneiss Prospect (pdf)
An elegant 1882 panoramic lithograph – Willimantic, Conn., 1882: From Blake Mountain – depicts the industrial city of Willimantic, Connecticut, as it appeared in the late 1800s after more than a half-century of industrial growth and development. Panoramics, which showed towns and cities as they would have appeared from a mountaintop or a hot air balloon, were quite popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s; publishers sold them locally to townspeople by subscription. This one was most likely a commemorative celebrating the completion of the Willimantic Linen Company’s Mill No. 4, which is shown in an inset near the top of the lithograph. Until 1938 Mill No. 4, a modern, electrified structure, boasted the largest ground footprint in the world, and in its day was considered a showpiece of industrial architecture.
This lithograph is a superb illustration of an early industrial ecosystem, showing the following elements.
- Truck farms. In an age before refrigerators, much of the food consumed by the factory workers and other residents of Willimantic had to be produced locally by truck farmers. During the 1800s the forest that formerly had characterized most of Willimantic was felled to create fields for the truck farmers. This lithograph clearly shows these truck farms surrounding the city, vital parts of the early industrial ecosystem.
- Organic cities. Many early industrial cities, such as Willimantic, were what historians call “organic cities” – places whose residents grew some of their own table vegetables, raised some livestock (cows, pigs, chickens), and used horses and oxen for transportation and muscle power. As a result, these cities had more domestic animals than they had people.
- Organic conveyor belts. In addition to food for the human residents, the truck farmers also raised hay and grain as animal feed. In return, they collected manure from the city’s barns to spread on their fields – an exchange that one historian calls an “organic conveyor belt,” with food for people and animals going into the city and garbage and manure moving out. (The advent of sewers and refrigerated railroad cars at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s would upset this system.)
- Rivers. Early factories were erected alongside rivers, which provided waterpower. Over the course of about a mile, the Willimantic River drops about 90 feet as it rushes through a rocky gorge. This seemingly abundant waterpower attracted several factories: the Willimantic Linen Company (later the American Thread Company), the Smithville Manufacturing Company, the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company, and others.
- Dams, raceways, and declining fish stocks. In order to utilize this power source factory owners erected sixdams along the mile-long Willimantic gorge, all of which diverted water into wide, deep, stone-lined, canal-like raceways that carried it under the mill buildings to turn the large water wheels which powered the mills. The dams, however, interfered with fish migration patterns, leading to a massive, but not complete, die-off of fish in the river. The remaining fish were killed when leftover dye from the factory dye houses was dumped into the river, contaminating their environment.
- Tall, narrow factories with big windows. In Willimantic, factory owners used local rock quarried from building the dams and raceways to construct mill buildings. At first, the mills were located directly along the river (for waterpower), were tall (two-to-four stories) and narrow with plenty of large windows – all to give workers enough light to work by in an era before electricity when lamps and candles brought risks of fires. It was only after electricity was introduced that wide, one-story buildings like Mill No. 4 be erected. In Willimantic, the earliest mills were located near the base of the gorge, where the water power was greatest, on former cedar swamps that were filled in with gravel and stone dug out of the surrounding hills.
- Coal smoke. By the 1880s the waterpower of the Willimantic River, which had seemed so abundant, had become insufficient to drive the ever-expanding mills. Most mills now supplemented their old waterpower with coal-powered steam boilers. Air pollution in the form of coal smoke is clearly visible in the lithograph.
- Railroads and roads. Millers shipped in cotton from the U. S. South, at first by boat to Norwich, CT, or Providence, RI, and then by wagon road to the mills. Wagons and boats then delivered finished thread and cloth to distant markets. In the 1840s, however, the railroad arrived in Willimantic, replacing the wagon roads as the chief means of transporting goods in bulk.
- Urban centers. As the mills grew, workers flooded into Willimantic seeking employment. Mill owners constructed company housing (boardinghouses and tenements) for many of their workers; many of the tenements were built on reclaimed wetlands filled with gravel quarried from nearby Carey Hill. The mill owners also opened company stores to provide workers with groceries and dry goods. The Willimantic Linen Company even sponsored a credit union for its workers, and opened a combination library-classroom-chapel on the third floor of its company store building. This building is shown in the lithograph. Around the same time, other businesses and services sprang up as well – a Main Street and side streets offered shops, stores, hotels, restaurants, saloons, newspapers, opera houses, churches, schools, a hospital, and even a college. As the lithograph shows, by the 1880s this early industrial city of several thousand people stretched along both banks of the mile-long gorge, with side streets running up into the surrounding hills.