Sunday, May 09, 2021

Gold Fever

Gold! Gold! Gold! The California Gold Rush is legendary. Thousands of people flocked west to mine for gold following the 1848 news that there was gold in abundance. Waterbury was not immune to the "gold fever." An unknown number of people from Waterbury rushed out west following the discovery of gold in California, hoping to get rich quick. Very few had any success. Some lost their lives.

Currier & Ives, Gold Mining in California, c. 1871
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Public Schools, 1674-1868

There’s been some ongoing debate about forgiving students loans and making college free, which piqued my interest in the history of public education. We often assume that what we have now is what has always existed, but of course that’s not true. When Waterbury’s first public high school opened in 1851, it wasn’t free. In fact, legislation protecting the right of all children to attend any public school in Connecticut regardless of income or race didn’t exist until 1868. Earlier laws in Connecticut attempted to guarantee that children who had jobs would still get a basic education, but those laws weren’t always enforced.

Waterbury's first High School
From Richard Clark's Map of Waterbury, 1852

Nineteenth-century advocates for free education argued that it was in everyone's interest to ensure that all children could get the best education possible, that no one should be deprived of fulfilling their potential. Thanks to their advocacy, education is free through 12th grade.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Carmine Capobianco

Waterbury lost one of its greats this weekend. Carmine Capobianco lived his live to its fullest and left behind creative work that will help future historians understand Waterbury in 20th century. I consider myself very fortunate to have known him. He was a genuinely kind, warm-hearted person with a sense of humor that made the world a little brighter.

Carmine Capobianco
Photo from his Facebook page


Saturday, October 31, 2020


Advertisement, Middlesex Gazette, 12 March 1791, p. 3


 We’ve almost forgotten about it, but for thousands of years, smallpox was a constant threat, a terrifying disease which could cause massive scarring, blindness, and death. It was fatal in about 3 out of every 10 cases. Thanks to an international campaign coordinated by the World Health Organization, smallpox was eradicated in 1979, the first disease ever to be wiped out by human effort.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Early Jewelers

From the 1670s through the 1830s, Waterbury was primarily a farming community. During the 1840s, Waterbury's industrial entrepreneurs and financial speculators helped transform the rural farm town into a bustling center of commercial activity. A growing middle class and increasing wealth of the upper class helped support the expansion of retail, personal services, and luxury goods.

Completion of the Naugatuck Rail Road in 1849 was essential to Waterbury's transformation. Having an affordable, efficient, and safe way to travel to New York City made Waterbury's economic growth possible. The town's population hovered around 3,000 people during the early 1800s. By the time the train arrived, the population was growing rapidly. By 1850, the town's population was just over 5,000 people and by 1860, it reached 10,000 people.

M. Richardson

M. Richardson may have been Waterbury's first jeweler, operating a store in the center of town during the mid-1840s. I have not yet been able to find any further information about him.

M. Richardson advertisement,
Waterbury American
, 6 September 1845

Silas Bronson Library microfilm

Friday, August 07, 2020

The Fight Against Housing Discrimination, 1900-1970

Like other cities in the U.S., Waterbury has suffered from the impact of racism on housing. Throughout the twentieth century, there have been numerous efforts to combat housing discrimination in Waterbury. There is still a lot of research to be done on the topic, but here are some highlights of what I've found so far.

James Kefford and the Waterbury Negro Business League

James Kefford (1871-1940) came to Waterbury from Virginia during the 1890s. He started a real estate business in 1904, successfully competing with white realtors in Waterbury. Kefford bought and sold houses and served as a manager for various rental properties including the building with his office at 95 Bank Street.

In 1905, Kefford began constructing apartment buildings to rent to Black people. Housing discrimination was unchecked at this time: there were no laws preventing property owners from refusing to rent to non-white people, and as a result it was very difficult for non-white people to find quality housing in Waterbury. (James E. Kefford, speech given at the Sixteenth Annual Convention of the National Negro Business League, Boston, MA, 1915)

James E. Kefford

Waterbury Republican, 15 September 1912
Silas Bronson Library microfilm

Friday, July 03, 2020

Rat Pack Motorcycle Club

There was a rally at City Hall yesterday intended to draw attention to the problem of racism in society today. The lineup of speakers included familiar names, Waterbury residents who frequently speak out on issues that are important to them. I figured it would be a pretty straight-forward event, exactly as billed, a series of speakers at a peaceful gathering. I wasn't able to attend, but I was curious to see how it went, so I went on social media last night to look for images and videos.

As soon as I saw the Rep-Am report that the Rat Pack Motorcycle Club (RPMC) had staged a counter-protest at the rally to "protect" the statue of Christopher Columbus, alarm bells went off inside my head. Members of the RPMC doing their best to look tough and intimidating towards Black people holding a rally at City Hall is something Waterbury has seen before. The past is repeating itself, and not in a good way.

News coverage of the clashing groups outside City Hall, Rep-Am website, 2 July 2020. Photo by Jim Shannon.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Horace Weston, World's Greatest Banjo Player

During the 1880s, Horace Weston was the world's greatest banjo player. He toured the U.S. and Europe, wrote music, endorsed a line of banjos, and influenced countless musicians. Weston spent a formative portion of his childhood in Waterbury, and it was here that he first learned to play musical instruments, setting him on the path to stardom.

Horace Weston, c. 1880
Harvard Theater Collection, HTC Photographs 1.1073

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Waterbury Clock Company Complex

As announced in the Rep-Am on June 26, the former Waterbury Clock office building will soon be demolished, along with portions of the factory complex. The buildings have been crumbling apart for decades. The factory complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Properties.

The former Waterbury Clock Company office building in 2007

Aerial View of the former Waterbury Clock Company factory complex, 2020

The Waterbury Clock Company was formed in 1857, a spin-off of the Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Company. It became a highly successful company, selling its products all over the world.

Although the name of the company specified clocks, they also produced watches, most notably the "dollar watch" starting in the 1890s. The watch was an oversize pocket watch with a mechanism based on alarm clocks. The company teamed up with Robert H. Ingersoll, a retailer in New York City, to improve and market the watch under the Ingersoll name. By 1910, Waterbury Clock was producing 3,500,000 dollar watches each year for Ingersoll. The watches were so ubiquitous, Ingersoll declared the product to be "the watch that made the dollar famous."

Despite the popularity of the dollar watch, Ingersoll went into bankruptcy in 1922. Waterbury Clock bought out their holdings, continuing the use of the Ingersoll name for a line of cheap watches. They later added a line of Disney character watches, including a highly collectible Mickey Mouse watch.

Waterbury Clock is also known for the devastating effects of radium on its employees. Radium was used in the early 1900s by several companies to highlight the dials on clocks and watches, making them visible in the dark. The radiation that made the dials glow in the dark also sickened and killed many of the young women hired to paint the radium onto the dials. All of the buildings in the North Elm Street complex have been tested for radiation hazards.

Waterbury Clock Company was purchased by Norwegian investors in 1942 and was renamed United States Time Corporation in 1944. The name was changed again in 1969, to Timex.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Hall Memorial Chapel

Located next to Route 8, at the entrance to Riverside Cemetery, is a small Victorian chapel in need of repair. Built during the 1880s, the Hall Memorial Chapel was actively used for funeral services until 1971. The Friends of Riverside Cemetery is currently trying to raise money for the building's restoration, saving it from destruction and allowing it to be put back into use as a community resource.

Photograph by Lisa Hendricks, Wikimedia Commons, 2013

Waterbury's first burial ground was located on Grand Street, where the Silas Bronson Library is today. By the 1840s, as Waterbury was transforming itself from a small farming community to a growing industrial city, it became clear that a new cemetery was needed. In 1850, the Riverside Cemetery Association was formed.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Porter House

One of Waterbury's most underappreciated buildings is the Porter house on East Main Street, across from Hamilton Park. The history of the house, from its construction to its role as a station on the Underground Railroad, make it worthy of recognition and preservation as an important historic property.

The Porter House, April 2020

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Influenza Pandemic of 1918

As we slog our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, I have found some reassurance from studying the 1918 influenza pandemic, the worst pandemic of the 20th century. While the parallels between the two pandemics are frightening, the 1918 pandemic didn't last forever, and this pandemic won't either. We also have some huge advantages that didn't exist in 1918, from ventilators to a drastically better understanding of how to respond to a virus. There's a lot we can learn from what happened in 1918, both from the mistakes made and from the community spirit and volunteerism that emerged to defeat the epidemic.

U.S. Public Health Service Broadside, 1918
Library of Congress

General Overview

The 1918 influenza pandemic was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Approximately one-third of the world's population was infected by the virus, leading to the death of 50 million people worldwide. Approximately 675,000 in the United States were killed by the pandemic, of which approximately 9,000 were in Connecticut and more than 1,000 were in Waterbury. Most of Waterbury's deaths happened in a single month.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Unidentified Civil War Veteran

Every so often, I visit the Library of Congress website to see what new Waterbury material has been digitized. My latest search pulled up a photograph of an African American Civil War veteran whose photograph was taken in Waterbury. His name is not on the photograph, so his identity is currently unknown.

Collection of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The photograph is a carte-de-visite, a print mounted onto a card, with the name of the photographer below the photograph.The medal on the man's chest is the medal of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) veterans organization.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Old Houses at Bucks Hill, Part One

Bucks Hill (also spelled Buck's Hill) was far enough removed from the center of Waterbury to be considered a satellite settlement during the early 1700s. The origin of the name is unknown.
Bucks Hill District, 1874