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History: Its Implications for Planning

Middletown's comprehensive plan is based on aesthetic and cultural resources and the goals of a community. The importance of history and historic preservation in the local planning process cannot be overstated. The basic planning objectives of maximum utilization of scarce land and building resources in densely built up areas can be aided by a preservation program, focusing on economically feasible adaptive uses for old structures.

To formulate and implement development goals, a community must be knowledgeable about its history, as well as about current trends. The historical along with the physical is the basis for determining community goals and objectives.

In planning for Middletown, the history of the community, as well as social, economic and financial conditions must be considered. The following has been prepared so that policy on Middletown's growth and future direction will be based on a thorough knowledge about itself and its history.

The Colonial Period

Differences in politics and theology brought settlers to the Connecticut River Valley. There was also another reason - over crowding in Massachusetts. Unplanned growth and urbanization still are important motivations for people migrating to new areas.

One of the first towns founded in Connecticut was Middletown. The original site included territory that became the towns of Middlefield, Chatham, Portland, Cromwell, and a part of Berlin. These towns date to the early 1700's. Whereas now local governments annex areas for more efficient operation, in the eighteenth century the approach was to form smaller, separate communities.

Colonists first called Middletown by the Indian name Mattabesek, which means carrying place or portage. Mattabesek was not an accurate name because of the many streams in the township. In 1653 the Massachusetts General Court renamed the area Middletown. This was one of the first times that a new and descriptive name was used for a town in America; usual practice was to take names from the Bible.

In spite of the 1650 settlement date, Middletown records only date to 1653. The first recorded vote was for a meeting housing near a great elm at the north end of town, in the vicinity of Saint John's Square. The town had strong religious convictions, and developed around the church meeting house.

As in other New England settlements, Middletown's economy had an agricultural base. Along with corn, which first had been planted by the Indians, the early farmers grew rye, oats, and wheat. Farm gardens produced cabbage, lettuce, carrots, beans, and parsnips. In the late 1700's farmers began to market their surplus. A farmer's club, first of its kind in the state, was formed in 1842. Even when other industries developed in Middletown, agriculture continued as an important element of the local economy. In the contemporary times farmers specialized. They concentrated on dairy and poultry farming, because of Middletown's proximity to larger cities. Middletown's strong commitment to agriculture lasted until 1963. The Interim General Plan of Development, then adopted, did not recommend that Middletown maintain itself as an agricultural center. This was a significant policy change for the City. By 1970, only one percent of the employed labor force was in the agriculture, farming and fishing industries.

Along with agriculture, industry has been a significant factor in Middletown's economic development. In the early days almost every stream in Middletown was used for powering mill machinery. The first mill was a grist mill near Pameacha Pond (1655). Later, a mill was located on West Street near Newfield. There mills were the antecedents to today's industrial parks and areas.

When the area was first considered for a settlement, it was thought adequate for 15 families. By 1654, there were 31 taxable homes here. The number had only grown to 52 in 1670. The City's early growth, then, was slow. The impetus for growth was not to be felt for another hundred years. It was shipbuilding, and the merchant trade which developed because of the shipbuilding, that attracted newcomers to Middletown. The population was concentrated near the river, the location of the principle activities of the town. By 1790 the population had grown to 5,370. In that year Hartford had a population of 4,090 and New Have had a population of 4,484.

Middletown was on of the largest communities in Connecticut. More important, though, was the City's status as a riverport. Middletown was an official port of entry. Vessels of a high grade anchored in the river, and trade flourished. Initially the river trade was confined to the Atlantic seaboard but by 1760 the West Indies trade was well established. Commerce at first built up the farming interests so farmers as well as merchants prospered, Eventually, though, foreign trade was to hurt the farmer.

Middletown During the Revolution

By the time of the American Revolution, Middletown was one of the wealthiest communities in the Colonies. While official records reveal that town concerns were on the minds of Middletown residents, there never was any doubt of the local support for the independence cause. Town officials agreed to support any action taken by the General Congress. The City assured the First Continental Congress that it would support its policies even to the extent of a complete halt in trade with the British. For a town with important overseas trading interests, this was a substantial commitment.

Middletown citizens became prominent during the Revolution in civic rather than military affairs. Eventually, Middletown's leadership was to extend to the wider spheres of state and continental matters. There were very few loyalists in Middletown; no local resident had property confiscated because of loyalist sentiment.

Because it was inland, Middletown experienced less interference with normal peacetime activities than other towns in Connecticut. The City was not attacked by the British. After the British seized Rye in 1776, Middletown became a critical supply depot. During the Revolution the City mined lead. The mine was one of the most important in Connecticut. The lead vein was exhausted in 1778, but by that time 15,563 pounds of lead had been produced for cannons and guns.

Simeon North, the first official pistol maker in America, established his arms factory in Middletown during the Revolution. Later, in 1813, he introduced the principle of interchangeable parts, a significant production innovation.

During the war Middletown's privateers experienced a mixture of success and failure. The oldest American warship, the Oliver Cromwell, came from Middletown. Privateering did not replace the West Indies trade which had stopped during the Revolution. But ultimately wartime conditions ad a positive effect on local trade. Traffic was diverted from the shore road to routes through Middletown. Middletown came out of the conflict in a good position to capitalize on expanding commercial and industrial opportunities in the following decades.

Government Organization

Long before Middletown was formally incorporated by the Connecticut General Assembly, the Massachusetts General Court had ordered the appointment of a constable here. Appointment and swearing in of a constable was considered incorporation of a town, and any further government organization was left to the local inhabitants. Charter incorporating Middletown after the Revolution was granted in 1784. Middletown was one of the first towns incorporated in Connecticut.

The original Charter authorized a mayor, four aldermen, a common council, a city court, sheriffs, and a tax collector. Middletown's first mayor was a revolutionary war hero, Jabez Hamilton. The mayor held office until his resignation or death. It wasn't until 1840 that two year terms for the mayor's office were inaugurated.

The common Council has had the most extensive governmental authority in Middletown. The first ordinance passed by the Council was actually a zoning regulation: "A Bye Law Restraining Swine and Geese from Roaming at Large through the City." The law had zoning implications since it restricted the use of property. By 1888, the Common Council set rules and regulations for public works, registration of voters, preservation of records, health, public utilities, consumer protection , law enforcement and waterfront matters. The 1888 City Code mandated eight committees of the Council: Street and Highways, Finance, Sewers, Fire, Police, Abatement, Street Lamps and Lights, and Health and Nuisance.

When City departments were created to administer the day to day activities of local government, they came under the control and direction of the Common Council. In 1924 there were five departments: the Department of Public Works, the Police Department, the Fire Department, the Charities Department, and the Park Department. So besides making bylaws and ordinances which articulated city policy, councilmatic authority extended to the daily regulation of municipal affairs.

The present charter delegates legislative powers to the Common Council. It is the primary policy setting body in Middletown. The Council implements policy by its authority to levy taxes, to borrow money, to adopt a budget, and to appropriate funds.

Until recently, Middletown's government was characterized as a weak mayor - strong council organization. The mayor's function was to preside at council meetings. He was a member ex-officio of the council. The chief law enforcement officer in the City was the Mayor. He could suppress all "tumults" and could jail persons for twenty-four hours if they behaved in a disorderly manner. Recommendations could be made to the Council by the mayor only in particular areas: police, security, health, cleanliness, ornaments of the city, and the improvement of government and finances. While the mayor prepared a yearly report on government, finances, and improvement, the report was published by the Common Council.

The Mayor's office was considerably strengthened in 1964 when he was made a voting member of boards, commissions, and agencies appointed by him. The 1964 Charter further made the mayor responsible for the administration of all city departments, agencies and offices. The mayor could now make recommendations to the Common Council in any area.

The greatest innovation brought on by this charter revision concerned the mayor's budget making authority. This was probably the most significant change in Middletown's government operation since its incorporation. The mayor became the official responsible for submitting a budget to the council.

Increases in the mayor's authority are in keeping with the nation-wide trend for a stronger chief executive. Charter revisions effective in November, 1973, further strengthened the office of the mayor so that now he exercises even more influence on city management. The mayor can veto ordinances and appropriations passed by the council. A vetoed provision cannot become law unless it is passed again by the legislative body.

The Nineteenth Century: Manufacturing Growth

The shipping industry never really recovered after the Revolution. Around 1800, Middletown began to rely less on the river as the mainstay of its economy, and industry started to spring up. Since its early years, Middletown's favorable location on the river and its centrality in the state have attracted many industries. During the first part of the nineteenth century, Middletown lead the state in the number of factories and value of its products.

The Industrial Revolution brought a new era to Middletown: the local economy was now based on textiles. The first industries were cotton and wool. The Middletown Manufacturing Company was a pioneer in using steam for power. During the War of 1812, great quantities of gun powder were manufactured. After the war, the City began manufacturing ivory combs, gold spectacles, pewter goods, a variety of small hardware, muskets, swords, docks, pumps, cotton webbing, marine hardware, hammocks, silver plate, lace, rubber goods, and fertilizers. In 1895 local businessmen formed "The Society for the Encouragement of Connecticut Manufactories." In 1910 the group was incorporated as the Manufacturers Association of Connecticut. Manufacturing has always been very strong element in Middletown and continues to be into the 1970's (see section on the City's economy).

In 1834 the Russell Manufacturing Company was founded. The firm purchased a mill site near Pameacha Pond. In 1841 the firm began manufacturing elastic webb which up to that time had only been done on hand looms. Machinery was invented to weave the web on power looms. The Russell Company was the first anywhere to make elastic on power looms.


The first roads in Middletown were built and maintained by private companies who were repaid for their investment by toll collection. The oldest road was the Middlesex Turnpike which ran from Saybrook to Haddam to Middletown. Main Street was laid out soon after the arrival of the first settlers. To prevent a surprise Indian attack, a large area was cleared, the antecedent of our present wide main thoroughfare. The Map below shows Middletown in 1825. The beginnings of a girdiron system of roads is evident close to the river but the system was not continued as the town expanded in area. While Middletown was settled before Philadelphia and Savannah, Middletown streets were not laid out on any comprehensive plan. It wasn't until the planned residential development of the 1970's that street systems were planned.

Street growth in Middletown was slow but constant. As the community developed, the appearance of streets changed more drastically than their location. At first, Main Street was the site of stately homes, as was Washington Street. When shipping declined, downtown residences were razed to make way for more business and industrial uses. Business and commercial land were located in the Court Street area, along with municipal buildings. Through the years changes in the street system have permanently obliterated many of the famous local landmarks, such as a rope walk and a park.

The first permanent street names were fixed in 1809. All but six of these streets (Turnpike Road, Swamp, Low, Parsonage, Lumber, and Elm) have retained their original names. Below is a list of the original streets. More than half of them can be seen on the Historical Society's map.

    Early Middletown Streets
  • Bridge Street- from Ferry Street to the Elm Tree at burying ground.
  • Main Street- from Elm to Warwick's Bridge.
  • Water Street- from Sumner's Creek to where it intersects Bridge Street.
  • Spring Street- from corner of Bacon Lot near Bassil House to beyond John Wetmore's.
  • Prospect Street- from southeast corner of Peter Stow's to intersect Turnpike Road.
  • Turnpike Road- from old gaol to Bridge at Stepping Stones.
  • Liberty Street- from Prospect to new burying ground to Main Street.
  • Green Street- from Main Street to Sam Bull's southwest corner to Water Street at north end.
  • Ferry Street- from Main Street to Water Street.
  • Washington Street- from Water Street to Eben Sage's store west to bridge west of A. Doolittle's.
  • Cherry Street- from Washington Street to Ferry Street on river bank to rear of Eben Sage's.
  • West Street- from A. Doolittle's south to City Line.
  • Butternut Street- from Swaddle's house south to house formerly owned by R.J. Meigs.
  • Swamp Street- from Nine Starr's to City Line in Long Lane.
  • High Street- from Washington Street at northwest corner of late Col. Hamlin's to Warwick Bridge.
  • Cross Street- from High Street at northeast corner of Tim Starr's until intersects Butternut Street.
  • Low Street- from Cross Street south to City Line.
  • Court Street- from High Street by Court House to Water.
  • Lumber Street- from Washington Street at Williams' corner south intersects Water Street.
  • Pearl Street- from Washington Street south by Court House.
  • Parsonage Street- from High Street east between M.W. Alsop's and M.T. Russell's to Water.
  • Church Street- from High east to Main Near Episcopal Church.
  • Union Street- from Main at Meigs southwest corner to Water.
  • South Street- from Union at creek southwest to Sumner.
  • Mill Street- from Main down Mill Hollow to intersect City Line.
  • Loveland Street- next south of Church Street from Main Street to High Street.
  • Elm Street- leading northerly from Court Street to Water Street.
  • Bank Street- leading northerly from Parsonage at west end of William Cooper's store.

City streets were noted throughout the State for their tranquility and beauty. In the nineteenth century great elms and maples formed canopies over the roads. One of the truly unique characteristics of Middletown has been the extent and variation of its trees. One story holds that Middletown was not settled before the other old river towns (Saybrook, Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor) because the forest cover was so thick with trees that the back country seemed uninviting.

The increasing number of factories in Middletown caused major transportation problems. Middletown had a chance for a railroad in 1830, but shipping interest convinced local leaders the town did not need one. Nothing could make up for the loss of the railway. By 1846 the community had decided it wanted a railroad and gave a New York and Boston firm a charter for a line from New Have with a drawbridge over the river. The railroad company discontinued service when it saw it was not going to make a profit.

A branch line to Berlin was offered to Middletown in 1849, and the town took it. The line ran from Berlin junction through East Berlin and Westfield and Newfield and into Middletown, entering behind Saint John's Church, crossing over what is now Hartford Avenue and running south along Water Street to the foot of Washington Street.

Without quick and efficient transportation to and from other Connecticut points, life in Middletown became low key. The City was to make up in comfort, culture, and beauty what it lacked in commercial importance. For a long time the town tried to recruit an institution of higher learning. Attempts to get Trinity College failed. Wesley University was founded in 1831. The University received its charter after $18,000 had been raised by local residents. The establishment of state facilities - The Connecticut State Hospital (1868), and the Long Lane School for Girls (1870) - made the town known as the site of notable state institutions.

But as the news clipping below indicated, if life in Middletown was usually quiet, it wasn't always so!

New York Herald
Saturday, March 19, 1910

To Darken the White Way of a Pleasure Mad City
Middletown, the Paris of Connectict, it to be a place of Sorrow on Sunday, for the Old Blue Laws will be Enforced, Full Power.

(Special Despatch to the Herald.)
       Middletown, Conn., Friday, Middletown, the Paris of Connecticut, is to be wrapped in gloom several layers think on Sunday. Mayor Willard Clark Fisher, who in his hours of ease is professor of political economy in Wesleyan University, has opened the sepulchre in which the good old blue laws were quietly inurned and will apply them to the pleasure mad Middletown as soon as a day sits jocund on the misty mountain tip on Sunday, and continuing until the last New Haven train passes late in the night.
       Rather than be a party to this extinction of gayety one of the policemen resigned today. Others threaten to do likewise, saying there are so many blue laws that with the best intentions in the world no policeman can enforce them all.
       One of the laws that will be enforced is the forbidding the sale of Sunday newspapers. others will be those general laws against all work and business that are not absolute necessity. It was while devoting his intellect to a consideration of just what constitute absolute necessity that the policeman with conscientious scruples received to end it all by resigning.
       John Boyland, local agent for the Standard Oil Company, who was Mayor Fisher's campaign manager, says he'll resign from the Council, and the saloon keepers are now against the Mayor because he says he'll make them close their ports of call on hour earlier than is now the case.        There is one institution here in which there will be just as much happiness on a closed Sunday as on one that is wide open. This is the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane. Opinion at Wesleyan University is about equally divided as to whether is or is not a good idea to shut off the sunshine.
       Mayor Fisher will enforce the blue laws not because he loves Middletown less, but because he loves law more. He has no sympathy with the moss covered statutes, but they are on the book and he will enforce them, he says, till they are removed. In an announcement, the perusal of which has sent the great white way of Middletown into sackcloth and ashes, the Mayor says:
       "These laws promote morality and true religion as little as they promote the material welfare and pleasure of the people, and in the practical effect encouraging the non-enforcement and habitual disregard of law they are altogether bad."
       Middletown is willing to take the Mayor's word for this, but the Mayor insists on demonstration through his enforcement of the laws that they are no laughing matter.
       The Mayor is no novice at enforcing the Sunday statutes. He was Mayor once before and he closed the town so tight on Sundays that the pleasure loving population defeated him when he ran two years ago. What dire consequences in addition to the resignation of that policeman will follow his recrudescence of vigor nobody here has nerve enough to prophecy.

Public School Tradition

New England, of course, has a strong tradition in public education, and Middletown exemplifies the tradition. Schools had been the central element in residential areas. Middletown has put schools at the core of the neighborhood.

By 1675, the town had its own schoolhouse. Local school districts were established around 1784, when the City was incorporated. Each school was supervised by a committee, which meant there were little uniform standards in education.

The City School Districts was unified in 1857. A Board of Education was provided for with its members to serve for three years, one third of whom were elected annually. Middletown High School was established in 1840, the first in Connecticut and one of the first in the nation. The Court Street structure was built in 1896.

Besides the City School District, there was also a Town School District. In 1884, the town really had eighteen school districts. The budget for that year was $7,100 for 1,213 students, a per capita expenditure of $5.35. This contrasted with the fiscal per capita expenditure of $856.45. The inevitable inefficiency of numerous school districts lead to the enactment of a state law mandating consolidation of the town school district. In 1922 the separate districts were consolidated into a single Town School district.

Into the Twentieth Century

Middletown's manufacturing and population grew after the Civil War. The height of Manufacturing prosperity was the 1920's. A Chamber of Commerce brochure of the period attributed the attractiveness of the community to the even balance between industrial and residential development.

Deprived of a railroad, Middletown had been obliged to look to close markets, ones that could easily be reached by existing modes of transportation. What has been important for Middletown has not been its central location, but its location relative to Hartford, New Haven, and other cities as well as a main corridor connecting Boston to Washington. It was the automobile that brought dramatic change to Middletown.

Planning in Middletown

Up to this time Middletown's development had been unplanned. There were no attempts to clarify community feeling on the kind of living environment it was trying to create by specific decisions. Spurred by the national interest in planning and zoning, Middletown passed its first zoning ordinance in 1927. The Commission on the City Plan and Zoning was established in 1931 by the Connecticut General Assembly. Middletown's efforts to make decisions in advance and to record those decisions as a guide to subsequent action only date back forty years.

After World War II, extensive building caused local development issues to become more important to municipal governments. The federal government encouraged planning at the local level. The Housing Action of 1954 required each application for funds to have a workable housing program, one element of which was a comprehensive plan. Since 1954, federal housing programs have increasingly required the conformance of proposed improvements to a local plan.

The national interest in planning after World War II motivated Middletown's Commission on the City Plan and Zoning to become more active in planning issues. A staff was hired in 1954. A comprehensive plan was adopted in 1955. This plan was more than a confirmation of existing city zones, as had been the earlier plan. The guiding principals of the 1955 plan were to retain the downtown district as a shopping center for the community, to make land available for industry, and to control residential development. The plan recommended making Pamecha Pond a recreation area, encouraging agriculture. For Washington Street this plan proposed a low volume of traffic with only showroom stores.

Eight years later the Plan was amended. The 1963 revisions reiterated many of the already adopted proposals, but there was one major policy change. The comprehensive plan abandoned the goal of maintaining Middletown as a rural agricultural center. The plan proposed that Middletown direct its efforts towards new industrial, commercial, and residential developments.

While the City Plan and Zoning Commission was considering the 163 amendments, it was also working on a more detailed comprehensive plan. The 1965 Comprehensive Plan was the City's first truly comprehensive plan. It was the first attempt to deal with the essential elements of a community. It took into account regional trends and was related to the social and economic forces it was designed to accommodate.

Many proposals of the 1965 Plan of Development have either been implemented or no longer are relevant to Middletown. Plans for a ring road around surrounding the central business district have been modified, sewer facilities have been constructed and new schools built, and new housing patterns are influencing the delivery of municipal services to Middletown residents. Extensive amendments to Middletown to the Middletown's comprehensive plan must be adopted if the plan is to reflect community goals and prepare the City for future demands.


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