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"The first law
of the historian
is that he
shall never dare
utter an untruth.
The second is
that he shall
suppress nothing
that is true.
there shall be
no suspicion
of partiality
in his writing,
or of malice."

- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Brief History, Part III: 19th Century Middletown

Text & timeline graphics by R.W. Bacon
(Editor, The Middler, newsletter of the SMFSD)

Part I: Middletown in the 17th Century
Part II: Middletown in the 18th Century
Part III: Middletown in the 19th Century
Part IV: Middletown in the 20th Century

Links to Local & Regional History Books Online

The 1807 Embargo Act & War of 1812

In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson successfully advocated the passage of the Embargo Act in an effort to protect American interests. This, and the War of 1812 that followed, brought an end to Middletown's days as an important shipping port. While ships languished at the docks, the new city had its attendant city problems of overcrowding and crime. Politically, the city was polarized by the Jeffersonian vs. Federalist conflict, i.e. the party of the people and change vs. the party of the elite and status quo.(35)

Federalists vs. Jeffersonians

In the previous century, the earliest landed families in many cases were pushed aside by wealthy new arrivals looking to cash in on the trading and shipping boom. When the boom was over, the period from the late 1790s to the 1830s was marked by feuds, with the local Jeffersonians (led by the free-thinking Joshua Stow) harassed by the Federalists. When the Jeffersonians triumphed in national elections, there were cases of Middletown Federalists, out of political vengeance, acting to sabotage what was left of the local economy. The battle lines were also drawn between the Jeffersonian supporters of religious freedom (also led by Joshua Stow) who wanted to end government support of the Congregational church, and those who wanted to maintain the status quo.(36) These conditions combined to motivate victims of the economic downturn to look elsewhere for opportunity. Since Connecticut had retained its Western Reserve lands, many Middletown families removed to Stow, Ohio (named after Joshua Stow) and vicinity to make a fresh start.(37)

Peter Hall, in his overview of Middletown history, Middletown: Streets, Commerce, and People 1650-1981, wrote in 1981: "For many, the only hope was leaving Middletown ... Indeed, one of the most notable things about Middletown is the almost complete disappearance of its 18th-century families --- a great contrast to towns like Guilford, where the Dudleys, Leetes, and Griswolds are still numerous. There are more old Middletown families in places like Stow, Ohio, and Whitestown, N.Y., than in Middletown, Conn. in 1981."(38)

After the War of 1812, West Indies trade resumed at a reduced level until the 1850s. Some of the original Middletown families remained involved in the still-vital "coasting" trade throughout the century, transporting brownstone from the local quarries by ship to cities along the Atlantic seaboard.(39)

The rise of manufacturing

The 19th century saw the rise of manufacturing in Middletown. Prospering in the 19th century were companies such as Russell Manufacturing Co. (industrial belts for belt-driven factories; est. 1833), Douglas Pump Works (est. 1832), Nathan Starr Arms (swords & pistols; est. 1812), Wilcox Lock Co. (est. 1845), and Wilcox, Crittenden & Co. (marine hardware; est. 1869). The first wave of Irish immigrants filled the need for unskilled factory labor, and by 1850 the Irish represented 25% of the city's population. In mid-century, a second and third wave of Irish immigrants arrived.(40) The Civil War kept the factories churning out goods, as the town contributed over $5 million to the war effort --- in addition to 958 soldiers.(41) In the last decades of the century, immigrants from Italy, Poland, Sweden, Germany, and other countries came to Middletown to fill the factory jobs.(42)

The railroad impasse

The intellectual and cultural life in Middletown received a boost in 1831 when Wesleyan University was established in the city.(43) But the economic life of Middletown in the 19th century was negatively impacted by the town's inability to agree on proposed railroad service. As early as 1835 New York to Boston service through Middletown had been proposed, but was met with resistance by those whose fortunes were tied up in the steamship line running from New York to Hartford. A rail line was eventually built going through Meriden instead, connected to Middletown by a branch line. In 1868 the Saybrook-to-Hartford line was completed, with a depot at Middletown. In 1872 the Air Line Railroad from New York to Boston --- passing over a new 1250-foot bridge at Middletown --- opened with great fanfare, but its run of service was relatively short-lived, with passenger service on the route discontinued in 1902.(44) On a foggy night in 1876 the majestic steamer City of Hartford rammed the railroad bridge. The collapsed bridge was out of service for several months, and it was never fully determined whether the incident was accidental or intentional.(45)

A labor force of new Americans

By the end of the 19th century the city had been transformed by its flourishing manufacturing industries and labor force of new Americans. During this century Middletown established a high school (1840), hospital (1866), and library (1875). The prosperity was evident along the broad main street, which became lined with imposing brick commercial buildings. Down the middle of Main Street, replacing the horse-drawn trolleys, were the most modern of electric streetcars.(46)

Part I: Middletown in the 17th Century
Part II: Middletown in the 18th Century
Part III: Middletown in the 19th Century
Part IV: Middletown in the 20th Century

Links to Local & Regional History Books Online

Endnotes - Part III:

(35) Warner, Pictorial History of Middletown, pg. 21.
(36) Peter D. Hall, Middletown: Streets, Commerce, and People 1650-1981 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University, 1981) pg. 7-15.
(37) Warner, Pictorial History of Middletown, pg. 21.
(38) Hall, Middletown: Streets, Commerce, and People 1650-1981, pg. 19-20.
(39) Warner, Pictorial History of Middletown, pg. 38.
(40) Warner, Pictorial History of Middletown, pg. 38, 100.
(41) Wallace, Middletown 1650-1950, pg. 30.
(42) Warner, Pictorial History of Middletown, pg. 104-114.
(43) Warner, Pictorial History of Middletown, Pg. 34.
(44) Wallace, Middletown 1650-1950, pg. 25-28.
(45) Edmund Delaney, The Connecticut River, New England's Historic Waterway (Chester, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 1983) pg. 116-118.
(46) Wallace, Middletown 1650-1950, pg. 34.

About the author: R.W. Bacon, editor of The Middler, the newsletter of the Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants, is a publication editor/designer, historian, and museum professional based in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He is the author of Early Families of Middletown, Connecticut - Volume I: 1650-1654, published by Variety Arts Press.