The Story of a New England Town

THE history of Middletown, Connecticut, is not that of one of the world’s great centres of commerce or of government, of literature or of art; nevertheless it has its points of attraction, not only for those who dwell within the precincts of the town, but for all who feel interested in the development of civilization in our western hemisphere. The mere length of time during which the town has existed may serve to stamp for us the folly of the assertion that “ America has no history,” — one of those platitudes that people go on repeating until they become deadened to their absurdity. Next year the English-speaking folk of our planet are to take part at Winchester, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Wessex, in a grand millennial celebration of the mighty hero, statesman, and author who stands preëminent among the founders of English nationality and English literature; the history of Middletown carries us back over one fourth of the interval that has elapsed since the death of Alfred the Great. It is a history as long as that of Rome from the beginning of the Punic Wars to the reign of Augustus, and twice as long as that of Athens when she was doing the things that have made her for all time the light of the world. These are great names, perhaps, to bring into the same paragraph with that of our modest little town. But the period of development with which we are concerned is as important as any that is known in history. In the time of Charles I., when our story begins, there were about 5,000,000 people in the world speaking the language of Shakespeare; at the time of our first national census there were about 12,000,000, one third of them in the United States ; to-day there are more than 120,000,000, three fifths of them in the United States; and there are children now going to school who will live to see this vast number trebled. The task of organizing society politically, so that such immense communities might grow up peacefully, preserving their liberties and affording ample opportunity for the varied exercise of the human faculties, is a task which baffled the splendid talents of ancient Greece, and in which the success of the Romans was but partial and short-lived. We believe that the men who use the mingled speech of Alfred and of William the Norman have solved the great political problem better than others have solved it. If we except the provinces of the Netherlands, the Swiss cantons, and such tiny city states as Monaco and San Marino, which retain their ancient institutions, there is not a nation on earth, making any pretense to freedom and civilization, which has not a constitution in great measure copied, within the present century, either from England or from the United States. Thus, whether willingly or not, does the civilized world confess the primacy of the English race in matters political.

But as between our British cousins and ourselves, it is quite generally conceded that the credit for having successfully extended the principles of free government over vast stretches of territory belongs in a special degree to the American people. The experiment of federalism is not a new one. The Greeks applied to it their supple and inventive genius with many interesting results, but they failed because the only kind of popular government they knew was the town meeting; and of course you cannot bring together forty or fifty town meetings from different points of the compass to some common centre, to carry on the work of government by discussion. But our forefathers under King Alfred, a thousand years ago, were familiar with a device which it had never entered into the mind of Greek or Roman to conceive : they sent from each township a couple of esteemed men to be its representatives in the county court. Here was an institution that admitted of indefinite expansion. That old English county court is now seen to have been the parent of all modern popular legislatures.

Now the Puritan settlers of New England naturally brought across the ocean the political habits and devices to which they and their fathers had been inured. They migrated for the most part in congregations, led by their pastors and deacons, bringing with them their notions of law and government and their custom of managing their local affairs in a primary assembly, which was always in reality a town meeting, even though it might be called a vestry or a court-leet. Such men with such antecedents, coming two hundred and sixty-five years ago into the Connecticut Valley, were confronted with circumstances which soon made some form of representative federal government a necessity.

About eight miles north of Middletown, as the crow flies, there stands an old house of entertainment known as Shipman’s Tavern, in bygone days a favorite resort of merry sleighing parties, and famous for its fragrant mugs of steaming flip. It is now a lonely place ; but if you go behind it into the orchard, and toil up a hillside among the gnarled fantastic apple trees, a grade so steep that it almost invites one to all fours, you suddenly come upon a scene so rare that when beheld for the twentieth time it excites surprise. I have seen few sights more entrancing. The land falls abruptly away in a perpendicular precipice, while far below the beautiful river flows placidly through long stretches of smiling meadows, such as Virgil and Dante might have chosen for their Elysian fields. Turning toward the north, you see, gleaming like a star upon the horizon, the gilded dome of the Capitol at Hartford, and you are at once reminded that this is sacred ground. It was in this happy valley that a state was for the first time brought into existence through the instrumentality of a written constitution ; and here it was that germs of federalism were sown which afterward played a leading part in the development of our nation. Into the details of this subject we have not time to go at length, but a few words will indicate the importance of the events in which the founders of Connecticut and of Middletown were concerned.

We are so accustomed to general statements about our Puritan forefathers and their aims in crossing the ocean that we are liable to forget what a great diversity of opinion there was among them, not so much on questions of doctrine as on questions of organization and of government. The two extremes were to be seen in the New Haven colony, where church and state were absolutely identified, and in Rhode Island, where they were completely separated. The first step in founding a church in Massachusetts was not taken without putting a couple of malcontents on board ship and packing them off to England. The leaders of the great exodus were inclined to carry things with a high hand. Worthy William Blackstone, whom they found cosily settled all by himself in the place now known as Boston, was fain to retreat before them ; he had come three thousand miles, he said, to get away from my lords the Bishops, and now he had no mind to stay and submit to the humors of my lords the Brethren! Afterward, as the dissentients became more numerous, they scattered about and founded little commonwealths each for himself. Thus did New Hampshire begin its life with John Wheelwright, the Providence Plantation with Roger Williams, Rhode Island with Anne Hutchinson and her friends. Thus it was with those families in Dorchester and Watertown and the new settlement soon to be called Cambridge, who did not look with entire approval upon the proceedings of the magistrates in Boston. In 1631 the governor and council laid a tax upon the colony to pay for building a palisade, and the men of Watertown refused to pay their share, because they were not represented in the body that laid the tax. This protest led to the revival of the ancient county court as a house of representatives for Massachusetts. Winthrop and Cotton and Dudley readily yielded the point, because they fully understood its importance; but they were unable to make such concessions as would satisfy the malcontents. Their notions were aristocratic ; they believed that the few ought to make laws for the many. Moreover, they wished to make a commonwealth like that of the children of Israel under the Judges, and into it nothing must enter that was not sanctified; so they restricted the privileges of voting and of holding public office to members of the Congregational churches qualified to take part in the communion service.

At this juncture there arrived from England two notable men, the Rev. Thomas Hooker and the Rev. Samuel Stone, both graduates of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and with them came many followers and friends. They were settled as pastor and teacher of the congregation at the New Town (Cambridge), and at once became known as leaders of the opposition to the policy of the ruler of Massachusetts. With them were associated the layman John Haynes and the ministers John Warham of Dorchester and George Phillips of Watertown, ancestor of Wendell Phillips.

For our present purpose, it is enough to say that within three years from the arrival of Hooker and Stone the three congregations of Dorchester, Cambridge, and Watertown had migrated in a body to the further, or western, bank of New England’s chief river, the Connecticut, or “ long tidal stream,” as it was called in the Algonquin language. Here the new Dorchester presently took the name Windsor, while its neighbor to the southward called itself Hartford, after Mr. Stone’s English birthplace, which is pronounced in the same way though spelled with an e. As for the new Watertown, it was rebaptized Wethersfield, after the birthplace of one of its principal men, John Talcott, whose name in the colonial records, where orthography wanders at its own sweet will, usually appears as “ Tailcoat.” The wholesale character of this westward migration may be judged from the fact that of the families living in Cambridge on New Year’s Day, 1635, not more than eleven were there on the Christmas of 1636; the rest were all in Hartford.

Along with this exodus there went another from Roxbury, led by William Pynchon, whose book on the Atonement was afterward publicly burned in the market place at Boston. This migration paused on the eastern bank of the river at Springfield, where our story may leave it, as it took no part in the founding of a new commonwealth.

This sudden and decisive westward movement was a very notable affair. If the growth of New England had been like that of Virginia or of Pennsylvania, the frontier would have crept gradually westward from the shores of Massachusetts Bay, always opposing a solid front to the savage perils of the wilderness, and there would have been one large state with its seat of government at Boston. But the differences in political ideals and the desire of escaping from the rule of my lords the Brethren led to this premature dispersal in all directions, of which the exodus to the Connecticut Valley was the most considerable instance.

The new towns, Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield, were indisputably outside of the jurisdiction of Massachusetts in so far as grants from the crown could go. For two years a supervision was exercised over the Connecticut Valley by persons acting under a commission from Boston. Then in January, 1639, a memorable thing was done. The men of the three river towns held a convention at Hartford, and drew up a written constitution which created the state of Connecticut. This was the first instance known to history in which a commonwealth was created in such a way. Much eloquence has been expended over the compact drawn up and signed by the Pilgrims in the cabin of the Mayflower, and that is certainly an admirable document; but it is not a constitution ; it does not lay down the lines upon which a government is to be constructed. It is simply a promise to be good and to obey the laws. On the other hand, the “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut” summon into existence a state government which is, with strict limitations, paramount over the local governments of the three towns, its creators. This is not the place for inquiring into the origin of written constitutions. Their precursors in a certain sense were the charters of mediæval towns, and such documents as the Great Charter of 1215, by which the English sovereign was bound to respect sundry rights and liberties of his people. Our colonial charters were in a sense constitutioris, and laws that infringed them could be set aside by the courts. By rare good fortune, aided by the consummate tact of the younger Winthrop, Connecticut obtained in 1662 such a charter, which confirmed her in the possession of her liberties. But these charters were always, in form at least, a grant of privileges from an overlord to a vassal, something given or bartered by a superior to an inferior. With the constitution which created Connecticut it was quite otherwise. You may read its eleven articles from beginning to end, and not learn from it that there was ever such a country as England or such a personage as the British sovereign. It is purely a contract, in accordance with which we the people of these three river towns propose to conduct our public affairs. Here is the form of government which commends itself to our judgment, and we hereby agree to obey it while we reserve the right to amend it. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, this document contains no theoretical phrases about liberty and equality, and it is all the more impressive for their absence. It does not deem it necessary to insist upon political freedom and upon equality before the law, but it takes them forgranted and proceeds at once to business. Surely this was the true birth of American democracy, and the Connecticut Valley was its birthplace !

If we were further to pursue this rich and fruitful theme, we might point to the decisive part played by the state of Connecticut, a hundred and fifty years later, in the great discussion out of which our Federal Constitution emerged into life. Connecticut had her governor and council elected by a majority vote in a suffrage that was nearly universal, while, on the other hand, in her lower house the towns enjoyed an equality of representation. During all that period of five generations, her public men, indeed all her people, were familiar with the combination of the two principles of equal representation and the representation of popular majorities. It therefore happened that at the critical moment of the immortal convention at Philadelphia, in 1787, when the big states led by Virginia were at swords’ points with the little states led by New Jersey, and it seemed impossible to agree upon any form of federal government, — at that fateful moment when nothing kept the convention from breaking up in despair but the fear that anarchy would surely follow, — at that moment Connecticut came forward with her compromise, which presently healed the strife and gave us our Federal Constitution. Equal representation in one house of Congress, combined with popular representation in the other, — such was the compromise which reconciled the jarring interests, and won over all the smaller states to the belief that they could enter into a more perfect union without jeopardizing their welfare. The part then played by Connecticut was that of savior of the American nation, and she was enabled to play it through the circumstances which attended her first beginnings as a commonwealth.

In the present survey our attention has been for quite a while confined to the north of Rocky Hill. It is now time for us to turn southward and glance for a moment even as far as the shores of Long Island Sound, in order that we may get a picture of the surroundings among which Middletown came into existence.

In their bold westward exodus to the Connecticut River the English settlers courted danger, and one of its immediate consequences was an Indian war. The blow which our forefathers struck was surely Cromwellian in its effectiveness. To use the frontiersman’s cynical phrase, it made many “ good Indians.” By annihilating the strongest tribe in New England it secured peace for forty years, and it laid open the coast for white settlers all the way from Point Judith to the East River. Previously, the English had no settlement there except the blockhouse at Saybrook erected as a warning and defense against the Dutch. But now the next migration from England, led by men for whom even the ideas of Winthrop and Cotton were not sufficiently aristocratic and theocratic, listened to the enthusiastic descriptions of the men who had hunted Pequots, and thus were led to pursue their way by sea to that alluring coast. In the founding of New Haven, Milford, Branford, Guilford, Stamford, and Southold over across the Sound, we need only note that at first these were little self-governing republics, like the cities of ancient Greece, and that their union into the republic of New Haven was perhaps even more conspicuously an act of federation than the act by which the three river towns had lately created the republic of Connecticut.

A spirit of federalism was then, indeed, in the air; and we can see how the germs of it were everywhere latent in the incompatible views and purposes of different groups of Puritans. Rather than live alongside of their neighbors and cultivate the arts of persuasion, they moved away and set up for themselves. It was not until a generation later that the Quakers thrust themselves in where they were not wanted, and through a course of martyrdom won for the New World its first glorious victory in behalf of free speech. The earlier method was to keep at arm’s length. There was room enough in the wilderness, and no love was lost between the neighboring communities. The New Haven people restricted the suffrage to church members, and vituperated their Connecticut neighbors for not doing likewise. It was customary for them to speak of the profane ” and “ Christless ” government of Connecticut. So in our own time we sometimes meet with people who — forgetful of the injunction “ Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s ” — fancy that a Christian nation ought to introduce the name of God into its written constitution.

But while the wilderness was spacious enough to accommodate these diverse commonwealths, its dark and unknown recesses abounded in dangers. With the Dutchmen at the west, the Frenchmen at the north, and the Indians everywhere, circumspection was necessary, prompt and harmonious action was imperatively called for. Thus the scattering entailed the necessity of federation, and the result was the noble New England Confederacy, into which the four colonies of Connecticut, New Haven, Massachusetts, and Plymouth entered in 1643. This act of sovereignty was undertaken without any consultation with the British government or any reference to it. The Confederacy received a serious blow in 1662, when Charles II. annexed New Haven, without its consent, to Connecticut; but it had a most useful career still before it, for without the aid of a single British regiment or a single gold piece from the Stuart treasury it carried New England through the frightful ordeal of King Philip’s War, and came to an honored end when it was forcibly displaced by the arbitrary rule of Andros. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this New England federation as a preparatory training for the greater work of federation a century later.

Thus we are beginning to get some correct appreciation of the political and social atmosphere in which Middletown came into existence. It was in the central home and nursing place of the ideas and institutions which to-day constitute the chief greatness of America and make the very name United States so deeply significant, so redolent of hopeful prophecy, like the fresh breath of the summer morning. Let us not forget that what is most vital, most organic, most prolific, in our national life, the easy and natural combination of imperial vastness with unhampered local self-government, had its beginnings more intimately associated with the banks of our beautiful river than with any other locality.

The Puritan exodus from England was something unprecedented for volume, and in those days when families of a dozen children were common a swarming from the parent hive was frequent. It might seem as if a movement downstream from Wethersfield would naturally have come first in order. But the banks of the river would seem to have been shrouded in woodland vegetation as dense as that of the Congo or some stretches of the lower Mississippi in our days. The settlers were apt to be attracted by smooth open spaces, such as the Indians called Pequoig ; such a place was Wethersfield itself. But the little Connecticut republic first made a long reach and laid its hand upon some desirable places on the Sound. In the eventful year 1639, Roger Ludlow, of Windsor, led a swarm to Fairfield, the settlement of which was soon followed by that of Stratford at the mouth of the Housatonic River. This forward movement separated Stamford from its sister towns of the New Haven republic. Then in 1644 Connecticut bought Saybrook from the representatives of the grantees, Lord Saye and his friends, and in the next year a colony planted at the mouth of Pequot River was afterward called New London, and the name of the river was changed to Thames. Apparently Connecticut had an eye to the main chance, or, in modern parlance, to the keys of empire ; at all events, she had no notion of being debarred from access to salt water, and while she seized the mouths of the three great rivers, she claimed the inheritance of the Pequots, including all the lands where that domineering tribe had ever exacted tribute.

In 1645, the same year that New London was founded, came the settlement of Farmington, and in 1646 the attention of the General Court was directed to the country above the Wondunk, or great bend where the river, forces its way eastward through a narrow rift in the Chatham hills. The name of the region west of the river was Mattabesett, or Mattabeseck (for coming from Algonquin mouths the dentals were not readily distinguishable from gutturals). It is the same name as Mattapoisett, on the coast of Buzzard’s Bay, and it means a carrying place or portage, where the red men would walk from one stream head to the next, carrying their canoes upon their shoulders. It may also mean the end of the carrying place, the spot where the canoe is relaunched, and in its application to Middletown there is some uncertainty, arising perhaps from embarrassment of riches. We have surely streams and portages in plenty. What with the Sebethe and its southwestern tributary that flows past Ebenezer Jackson’s romantic lane, what with the Pameacha and the Sanseer uniting in Sumner’s Creek, Middletown is fairly encompassed with running waters, which doubtless made a braver show in the seventeenth century than in these days of comparative treelessness and drought. Just when the first settlement was made in Mattabesett we are not too precisely informed, but it was probably during the year 1650, to which an ancient and unvarying tradition has always assigned it. In September, 1651, we find an order of the General Court that Mattabesett shall be a town, and that its people shall choose for themselves a constable. In 1652 we find the town represented in the General Court, and in 1653 the aboriginal name of Mattabesett gives place to Middletown. The Rev. David Dudley Field, in his commemorative address of fifty years ago, suggested that this name was “ probably taken from some town in England for which the settlers had a particular regard.” I have not found any Middletown in England, though the name Middleton occurs in Lancashire, and twice in Ireland, and perhaps elsewhere; but the lengthening change from a familiar Middleton to Middletown is not in accordance with the general rule in such cases, so that we must probably fall back upon the more prosaic explanation that the name was roughly descriptive of the place as about halfway between the upper settlements and the Saybrook fort. If so, it was one of the earliest instances in America of the adoption of a new and descriptive name instead of one taken from the Bible or commemorative of some loved spot in the mother country. Let us be thankful that it preserves the old dignified simplicity ; a later and more grandiloquent fashion would have outraged our feelings with Centreville !

Mattabesett had its denizens before the peaked hats of the Puritans were seen approaching the mouth of the Sebethe. They were Algonquins of the kind that were to be found everywhere east of Henry Hudson’s river, and in many other parts of the continent, even to the Rocky Mountains. The apostle Eliot preached to Mohegans at Hartford in the same language which he addressed to the Massachusetts tribe at Natick, and his translation of the Bible is perfectly intelligible to-day to the Ojibwas on Lake Superior. Between the Algonquins of New England and such neighbors as the Mohawks there was of course an ancient and deep-seated difference of blood, speech, and tradition ; but one Algonquin was so much like another that we need not speculate too curiously about the best name to be given to the tawny warriors who were gathered in the grimy wigwams that clustered upon Indian Hill. Very commonly the name of a clan was applied to its principal war chief. Just as Rob Roy’s proudest title was The Macgregor, so the head of the Sequeens in the Connecticut Valley was The Sequeen. Our ancient friend Sowheag, upon Indian Hill, was of that ilk, and it would not be incorrect to call him a Mohegan.

It is worth mentioning that the territory of Mattabesett was bought of Sowheag’s Indians and duly paid for. Sometimes historians tell us that it was only Dutchmen, and not Englishmen, who bought the red men’s land instead of stealing it. Such statements have been made in New York, but if we pass on to Philadelphia we hear that it was only Quakers who were thus scrupulous, and when we arrive in Baltimore we learn that it was only Roman Catholics. In point of fact, it was the invariable custom of European settlers on this Atlantic coast to purchase the lands on which they settled, and the transaction was usually recorded in a deed to which the sagamores affixed their marks. Nor was the affair really such a mockery as it may at first thought seem to us. The red man got what he sorely coveted, steel hatchets and grindstones, glass beads and rum, perhaps muskets and ammunition, while he was apt to reserve sundry rights of catching game and fish. A struggle was inevitable when the white man’s agriculture encroached upon and exhausted the Indian’s hunting ground ; but other circumstances usually brought it on long before that point was reached. The age of iron superseded the stone age in America by the same law of progress that from time immemorial has been bearing humanity onward from brutal savagery to higher and more perfect life. In the course of it our forefathers certainly ousted and dispossessed the red men, but they did not do it in a spirit of robbery.

The original extent of territory purchased from Sowheag cannot be accurately stated, but ten years later we find it stretching five miles or more southward from the Sebethe River, and northward as far as Rocky Hill; while from the west bank of the Connecticut it extended inland from five to ten miles, and from the east bank more than six miles, comprising the present areas of Portland and Chatham.

The original centre of settlement was the space in front of the present Catholic church, between Spring Street and the old graveyard. There in 1652 was built the first meeting-house, — a rude wooden structure, twenty feet square and only ten feet in height, — which until 1680 served the purposes alike of publie worship and of civil administration, as in most New England towns of the seventeenth century. A second meet’ ing-house was then built on the east side of Main Street, about opposite the site of Liberty Street. About that neighborhood were congregated most of the Lower Houses, as they were called ; for a couple of miles north of the Sebethe, and separated from this settlement by stretches of marshy meadow, was the village which within the memory of men now living was still called the Upper Houses. In those heroic ages of theology, when John Cotton used at bedtime to “ sweeten his mouth with a morsel of Calvin,” when on freezing Sundays the breaths of the congregation were visible while at the end of the second hour the minister reached his climax with seventeenthly, — in those days it was apparently deemed no hardship for the good people of the Upper Houses to trudge through the mire of early springtime or under the fierce sun of August to attend the services at the central village. Indulgence in street cars had not come in to weaken their fibre. But by 1703 there were people enough in the Upper Houses to have a meeting-house of their own, and we find them marked off into a separate parish, — the first stage in the process of fission which ended in 1851 in the incorporation of the town of Cromwell.

I do not intend, however, to become prolix in details of the changes that have occurred in the map of Middletown during more than two centuries. Many such facts are recounted in the address, lately mentioned, of Dr. Field, my predecessor in this pleasant function fifty years ago. It is a scholarly and faithful sketch of the history of our town, and full of interest to readers who care for that history. Instead of an accumulation of facts, I prefer in this brief hour to generalize upon a few salient points. As regards the territorial development of the town, it may be noted that while it long ago became restricted to the western bank of the river, its most conspicuous movement has lately been in a southerly direction. After the cutting down at the north there came a considerable development just below the great bend, in which the most prominent feature is the Asylum upon its lofty hill. Nothing else, perhaps, has so far altered the look of things to the traveler approaching by the river. But little more than a century ago, say at the time of the Declaration of Independence, the centre of the town was still north of Washington Street. There stood the town house in the middle of Main Street, while down at the southern end, just east of the space since known as Union Park, stood the Episcopal church, built in 1750. With the growth of the state there had been a creation of counties in 1668, and until 1786 Middletown was still a part of Hartford County. A reminiscence of bygone days was kept up in the alternate sittings of the legislature at Hartford and New Haven, but Middletown had grown to be larger than either of those places; with a population of between 5000 and 6000 it was the largest town in Connecticut, and ranked among the most important in the United States at a time when only Philadelphia, New York, and Boston could count more than 15,000. John Adams, in 1771, was deeply impressed with the town from the moment when he first caught sight of it from Prospect Hill on the Hartford road ; but his admiration reached a climax when he went to the Old North meeting-house and listened to the choir. About the same time, a well - known churchman and Tory, that sad dog Dr. Samuel Peters, the inventor of the fabled New Haven Blue Laws, said of Middletown : “ Here is an elegant church, with steeple, bell, clock, and organ ; and a large meeting without a steeple. The people are polite, and not much troubled with that fanatic zeal which pervades the rest of the colony.” This is testimony to an urbanity of manner that goes with some knowledge of the world. The people of the thirteen American commonwealths were then all more or less rustic or provincial, but there was a kind of experience which had a notable effect in widening men’s minds, softening prejudices, and cultivating urbanity, and that was the kind of experience that was gained by foreign trade. During the eighteenth century Middletown profited largely by such experience. In 1776, among fifty names of residents on Main Street, seventeen were in one way or another connected with the sea, either as merchants, shipowners, skippers, or ropemakers. The town was then a port of some consequence ; more shipping was owned here than anywhere else in the state, and vessels were built of marked excellence. After 1700 the cheerful music of adze and hammer was always to be heard in the shipyards. These circumstances brought wealth and the refinement that comes with the broadening of experience. The proximity of Yale College, too, was an important source of culture. Richard Alsop, born in 1761, grandson of a merchant and shipowner who sat in the Continental Congress, was a wit, linguist, pamphleteer, and poet, who cannot be omitted from any thorough study of American literature. There was a volume of business large enough to employ able lawyers, and thoroughness of training sufficient to make great ones. Such was Titus Hosmer, brilliant father of a brilliant son, whom men used to speak of as the peer of Oliver Ellsworth of Windsor and William Samuel Johnson of Stratford. In the society graced by the presence of such men there was also material comfort and elegance. The change in this respect from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century was strongly marked. On opposite sides of the old village green, until some thirty years ago, one might have seen the contrast well exemplified. While near the corner of Main and Spring streets a group of small houses preserved the picturesque reminiscence of one of the styles which our forefathers brought from their English lanes and byways, just opposite was the spacious estate of Captain Hackstaff with its majestic avenue of buttonball trees. The complete destruction and disappearance of that noble landmark, to give place to a railway junction, is a typical instance of the kind of transformation wrought upon the face of things by the Titanic and forceful age in which we are living. The river bank, once so proud in its beauty, like the elder sister in the fairy tale, has become a grimy Cinderella pressed into the service of the gnomes and elves of modern industry. The shriek of the iron horse is daily echoed by the White Rocks, and the view that from my study window used to range across green pastures to the quiet blue water is now obstructed by a tall embankment and a coal wharf.

The mention of the railroad reminds us of the fact that in the middle of the nineteenth century our town had ceased to rank as foremost in the state for population. The two capital cities, perhaps one or two others, had already passed it in numbers and in commercial activity, and when its growth was compared with that of American cities in general it had begun to seem rather small and insignificant. The Rev. Dr. Field, in this connection, pointed to the wholesale westward emigration of New Englanders. “ Why are there not more of us here ? ” he asks. Is it not because so many have found new homes in the central parts of New York and about the shores of the Great Lakes ? Truly, Connecticut has been a sturdy colonizer. In the Revolutionary period the valley of the Susquehanna was her goal, a little later the bluffs overlooking Lake Erie, and finally the Northwest in general, until she has come in a certain sense to realize the charter of Charles II., which gave her free sweep as far as the Pacific. The celebrated Alexis de Tocqueville, when he visited this country during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, observed that Connecticut sent two Senators of her own to Washington; but upon inquiry he discovered that nine members of the Senate first saw the light in this state, and a dozen more were born of Connecticut parents. I will not vouch for the figures, but I give you the point of his remark. Now, this westward migration, first greatly stimulated by the invention of steamboats, acquired an immense volume after the introduction of railways. Vast tracts of country, abounding in industrial resources, became tributary to sundry centres of rail and water traffic, such as Buffalo and Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago, and such centres offered business inducements which drew population westward as with a mighty magnet. After a time, however, this sort of depletion began to work its own cure ; for there can be no doubt that Eastern cities are far more prosperous through their myriad dealings with a civilized West than they could ever have become had the era of the Indian and the bison been prolonged.

In this rapid and extensive series of industrial changes, those towns and villages naturally suffered most that were left aside by the new routes of travel. The mountain towns were the first to feel the change, for the railroad shuns steep places. A century ago the largest town in central Massachusetts was Petersham, with 2000 inhabitants, and it was proposed to make it the shire town of Worcester County; to-day the city of Worcester numbers more than 100,000 souls, Petersham barely 1000. With Middletown there was no topographical reason why the railway between New Haven and Hartford should not pass through it; but undue reliance upon the river seems to have encouraged a too conservative policy on the part of its citizens, while Meriden, which had no such resource, was nerved to the utmost efforts. The result soon showed that, under the new dispensation, nothing could make up for the loss of the railroad. In the commercial race Middletown fell behind, and perhaps it was only the branch line to Berlin that saved her from the fate of the New England hill towns. The weight of the blow was increased by some of the circumstances which attended the Civil War.

I have already spoken of the maritime enterprise of Middletown at an earlier period. Her shipping interests suffered severely in the War of 1812, and some of the energy thus repressed sought a vent for itself in manufactures. Of the manufacturing that sprang up so generally in New England after 1812 Middletown had her fair share, and in this her abundance of water power was eminently favorable. But her shipping likewise revived, and its prosperity lasted until the Civil War. In the decade preceding that mighty convulsion there was a distinctly nautical flavor about the town. To this, no doubt, the fame of McDonough in some ways contributed, for it was linked with personal associations that drew naval officers here from other parts of the country.

How well I remember the days when the gallant Commodore Tattnall, last commander of the Merrimac, used to be seen on our streets, side by side, perhaps, with General Mansfield, who was presently to yield up his life on the field of Antietam, our hero of the Civil War, as Meigs and Parsons were our heroes of the War of Independence. Then there was a thriving trade with the West Indies and China, and visitors to what seemed an inland town were surprised at the name of Custom House over a brown-stone building on Main Street. But with the Civil War began a decline in the American merchant marine, from which it has not yet recovered. The cities fronting upon East River are seven times as large as in 1850, yet when the steamboat lands you at Peck Slip no such bewildering forest of masts now greets your eyes as in that earlier time. When this decline first became apparent, people had an easy explanation at hand. It was due, they said, to the depredations of the Alabama and other Confederate cruisers. Yet it continued to go on long after those mischievous craft had been sent to the bottom and the bill of damages paid. In truth, you can no more destroy a nation’s oceanic commerce with cruisers than you can destroy a lawn by mowing it with a scythe. If, after cutting down the grass, it does not spring up with fresh luxuriance, it is because some baleful influence has attacked the roots. It is much to be feared that the drought under which our merchant marine has withered has been due to unwise navigation laws, to national legislation which has failed to profit by the results of human experience in other times and countries.

However that may be, it is clear that a great change was wrought in the business aspects of Middletown. With the decline in her shipping interests she became more and more dependent upon the prosperity of her manufactures, and while these bravely flourished, every increase in their activity made more manifest the need for better railway facilities than she enjoyed. To supply this need the project for building the Air Line Railroad was devised, and speedily became the theme of animated and sometimes acrimonious debate. Among the topics of discussion on which my youthful years were nourished, along with predestination and original sin and Webster’s Seventh of March Speech, a certain preëminence was assumed by the Air Line Railroad. I think I found it more abstruse and perplexing than any of the others. Its advocates were inclined to paint the future in rose color, while beside the gloom depicted by its adversaries the blackest midnight would be cheerful. As usual in such cases, there were elements of truth on both sides. Great comfort was taken in the thought that the proposed road would shorten by twenty miles or so the transit between New York and Boston,—a point of much importance, perhaps ultimately destined to be of paramount importance. What was underestimated was the length of time that would be needed for carrying a thoroughly efficient double-track road through such a difficult stretch of country, as well as the resistance to be encountered from powerful interests already vested in older routes. For a long time the fortunes of the enterprise were such as might seem to justify the frowns and jeers of the scorners. The money gave out, and things came to a standstill for years, while long lines of embankment, mantled in verdure, reminded one of moraines from an ancient glacier, and about the freestone piers of a future bridge over the road to Staddle Hill we boys used to play in an antiquarian mood such as we might have felt before the crumbling towers of Kenilworth. In later years, after the work was resumed and the road put in operation, it turned out that the burden of debt incurred was in danger of ruining many towns before the promised benefits could be felt. For Middletown it was a trying time: taxation rose to unprecedented rates, thus frightening business away; among the outward symptoms of the embarrassment were ill-kept streets for a few years, an unwonted sight, and out of keeping with the traditional New England tidiness. Yet the ordeal was but temporary. There was too much health and vigor in the community to yield to the buffets of adverse fortune. The town is becoming as much of a railroad centre as circumstances require, and the episode here narrated is over, leaving behind it an instructive lesson for the student of municipal and commercial history.

Yet if Middletown has not kept pace in material development with some of her neighbor cities, she has had her compensations. It has become characteristic of us Yankees to brag of numbers and bigness. A real estate agent lately asked me if I did not wish to improve my property ; and when I asked his meaning, it appeared that his idea of improvement was to cut away the trees in the garden and build a house there, for some new neighbor to stare in at my windows. To make comfort, privacy, refined enjoyment, everything in short, subservient to getting an income from every available scrap of property, — such is the aim in life which material civilization is too apt to beget. I remember that John Stuart Mill somewhere, in dealing with certain economic questions, suddenly pauses and asks if, after all, this earth is going to be a better or pleasanter place to live in after its forests have all been cleared and its rough places terraced, and there is but one deadly monotony of brick and mortar, one deafening jangle of hoofs upon stone pavements “ from Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand.” There are other things worth considering in a community besides the number of individuals in it and the value of their taxable property. The city of Glasgow is three times as populous as Edinburgh and a thousand times noisier, but it is the smaller city that engages our interest and appeals to our higher sympathies. Of late years, in weighing the results of my own experience, after an acquaintance with nearly all parts of the United States, from Maine to California, and from Duluth to New Orleans, amounting in many places to familiar intimacy, and after more or less sojourning in the Old World, I feel enabled to appreciate more clearly than of old the qualities of the community in which it was my good fortune to be reared. We understand things only by contrast, and in early life we are apt to mistake our immediate environment for the universal order of nature. What is more beautiful than the view from one leafy hillside to another in the purple distance across some intervening lowland, especially if the valley be lighted with the gleam of water sparkling in the sunshine ? Such pleasure daily greets the eye in Middletown, and no child can help drinking it in ; but to realize the power of it one must go to some town that is set in a flat, monotonous landscape, and then after some lapse of time come back and note the enhanced effect of the familiar scene when clothed in the novelty of contrast.

Looking back, then, upon Middletown, in the light both of history and of personal experience, it seems to me that in an age and country where material civilization has been achieving its grandest triumphs, but not without some attendant drawbacks, in an age and country where the chief danger has been that the higher interests of life should be sacrificed to material ends, Middletown has avoided this danger. From the reefs of mere vulgarizing dollar worship her prow has been steered clear. In the social life of the town, some of the old-time charm, something of the courtliness and quiet refinement that marked the days of spinning wheels and knee buckles, has always remained, and is still to be found. Something — very much indeed — has been due to institutions of learning, the Wesleyan University and the Berkeley Divinity School; much also to the preservation of old traditions and mental habits through sundry strong personalities, — the saving remnant of which the prophet speaks : such men, for example, as that eminent lawyer and scholar, Jonathan Barnes, and his accomplished son, the gentle preacher, taken from us all too early, or that deeply religious and poetic soul, John Langdon Dudley. I could mention others, but to single out recent names might seem invidious. Those that have sprung to my lips well fitted their environment. In the very aspect of these broad, quiet streets, with their arching trees, their dignified and hospitable, sometimes quaint homesteads, we see the sweet domesticity of the old New England unimpaired. Nowhere is true worth of character more justly valued or cordially welcomed, with small regard to mere conventional standards ; and this I believe to be one of the surest marks of high civilization. It was surely in an auspicious day, fruitful in good results, that our forefathers came down the river and made for themselves a home in Mattabeseck.

John Fiske.

  1. Address delivered October 10, 1900, at the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Middletown.