History of the Woods

Let us return to earlier times to trace the story of this site, which is long and fascinating...

 

Before the advent of urbanization, the body of water we know as Yellow Mill Pond extended north of the present railroad tracks and drained an extensive salt marsh that went north as far as Boston Avenue.  The shores of this salt creek were apparently of spiritual significance to Native Americans, as it was the location of a great medicine wheel — a veritable American Stonehenge -- built along its banks. This ceremonial center consisted of rounded granite posts a foot in diameter and about seven feet in height, arranged in concentric circles. It remained intact until 1846, when the New York and New Haven Railroad plotted their trackline exactly through where the Indian megalith stood.  "We dug out loads and loads of these posts and threw them into the mill pond with brush and limbs and heaped dirt upon them," recalled one of the construction laborers in Orcutt's 1884 History of Stratford.  A Mr. Tuttle of Stratford Center heard about the mysterious relics being disposed of and had one of the posts hauled to his front yard and set up as a curiosity.  It remains there to this day, its origin unknown to all but a few, in front of 753 Stratford Avenue.

 

In the Algonkian language the word "pan" denotes a waterfall.  At a place where the fresh waters of Stillman's Brook rushed over a precipice to the salt estuary below lived into historic times a band of Indians known as the Pan tribe, the "people of the waterfall."  This spot, at 2 1/2 miles distance the closest water power to the colonial village of Stratford, was coveted soon after settlement as a gristmill location.  And so by 1650 a mill here was grinding the town's corn and other grain, and the "Pan Brook" recorded in early deeds was soon anglicized to Pembroke.  This was the "old mill" the Green was named for.

 

A village began to coalesce in this vicinity by the onset of the 18th century.  Remarkably, a shipyard making ocean-going vessels was located halfway up Boston Avenue hill (near Bell Street) at the time of the Revolutionary War, when General George Washington himself was given a tour.  The boats were skidded down to Old Mill Creek on winter snows, and when ice broke in the early spring they were maneuvered out to the harbor.

 

By the beginning of the 19th century the Puritan view of the world was being supplanted by the romantic, and the beauty of this locality was being realized by artists and writers.  "There is not in the state a prettier village than the borough of Bridgeport," wrote Rev. Timothy Dwight, President of Yale College, in his Travels in New England of 1821. "The situation of this village is very handsome, particularly on the eastern side of the river. A more beautiful and elegant piece of ground can scarcely be imagined than the point which stretches between the Pequonnock and Old Mill Brook, and the prospects presented by the harbors at the mouths of these streams, the Sound, and the surrounding country are, in fine season, gay and brilliant and, perhaps, without parallel."

A Barnum connection
Thirty years later one Bridgeport citizen decided there was room for improvement in this rural idyll.  P.T. Barnum had purchased a half-interest in a 220-acre tract in 1850 on which he set out to develop the new community of East Bridgeport.  Radiating out from its focal point at Washington Park, this residential and industrial community became within a dozen years the world center of sewing machine manufacturing. Barnum described our site in his autobiography:

The eastern line of East Bridgeport, when I first purchased so large a portion of the property, was bounded by a long, narrow swale or valley of salt meadow, through which a small stream passed, and which was flooded with salt water at every tide.  At considerable expense, I erected a dam at the foot of this meadow, and thus converted this heretofore filthy, repulsive mosquito-inhabited and malaria-breeding marsh into a charming sheet of water, which is now known as Pembroke Lake.  If this improvement had not been made, in all probability the eastern portion of my property would never have been devoted to dwelling houses; as it is, Barnum (Avenue) has been extended by means of a bridge across the lake, and the eastern shore is already studded with houses.

Barnum was never a man to rest on his laurels, and he had to find a way to get more than an aesthetic return on his new lake.  In short order he hit upon a revolutionary idea — a winter resort.  One local couple, William and Martha Mills, were famous throughout the region, for the clambakes they prepared on what is today known as Pleasure Beach during the summer months.  It was Barnum's genius to make use of their estimable talents during the cold season.  An article in the Bridgeport Standard in late November, 1862, announced the opening of the new Pembroke Lake House:

 

Those of our readers who have enjoyed the clam bakes at Long Beach, and especially the bread, cakes, coffee and pastry, for which the landlady, Mrs. Mills, is so famous, will be glad to see, by advertisement, that herself and husband have leased the new Lake House.  Mr. Barnum erected this hotel for the special accommodation of skaters and social parties in winter... The building is placed near the edge of the lake, and a canal brings water to the very door of the room set apart for skaters.  Altogether, it is a delightful place, and we bespeak for Mr. and Mrs. Mills the patronage which, we are sure, they will strive to merit.

The advertisement follows:

 

LAKE HOUSE, Pembroke Lake, East Bridgeport - -

The subscribers, grateful to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Bridgeport for the liberal patronage bestowed upon them at the Summer House, at Long Beach, beg to announce that they have leased the above new and commodious Hotel.  The house is newly furnished, and possess superior accommodations for parties desiring Oyster Suppers or other Refreshments of any description at all reasonable hours, day or evening.  We have also leased Pembroke Lake and made arrangements for having it flooded when necessary, so that skaters (for a small fee) will enjoy this healthful sport on an ice surface ten times larger than that in the famed Central Park.  The large saloon, with a cloak room attached in the basement, will be kept warm for skaters to adjust their skates, and they can step from the door directly on the ice.  Call and see how beautifully everything is arranged.

MR. and MRS. WILLIAM MILLS

Barnum spoke of the eastern shore of the lake being "already studded with houses" when he penned his autobiography in 1869. A news item from June, 1865, described the nucleus of this settlement along today's Seaview Avenue:

 

LAKE VILLAGE -- This is the name given to a little gathering of houses that have recently been put up just across Pembroke Lake in the town of Stratford.  There is a street laid out from Peacock Lane (today's Central Avenue) down to the Lake which connects with Barnum Street on this side, running east and west.  There will probably be a bridge built across the lake in one or two years.  There are at present some ten or twelve houses: the last one was put up this last spring expect to see in a few years quite a large village there.  Mechanics who think of purchasing would do well to take a look at the lots.


A bucolic village grows

Just to the south of Lake Village, Francis O'Came began offering lots for sale at a place known as Deacon's Point in March of 1866:


FOR SALE - Twenty of the most desirable building lots ever offered in this vicinity, situated a short distance from Yellow Mill Bridge in plain view of the Sound and Bridgeport Harbor.  These lots are all one acre each, of light, dry, and early gardening land, and the price is less than the seven by nine city lots, where one cannot stretch without trespass.  To see plans and get particulars call on STAPLES, 12 State Street.


The villages were built up with simple Victorian cottages of picturesque Italianate or Gothic design.  They were constructed usually with wrap-around verandas to take advantage of lake or bay views and cooling breezes during summer months in days before air conditioning was dreamed of.  Every home was equipped with a small barn for the family horse and cow, and a chicken house kept the family supplied with fresh eggs and meat.  The lots were commodious enough so that fruit orchards and vegetable gardens provided a measure of self-sufficiency.

The celebrated beauty of Pembroke Lake attracted the parishioners of St. Augustine's Church, Fairfield County's first Roman Catholic congregation, to acquire land there for a cemetery in 1864.  Here, overlooking the verdant banks, monuments were erected to the progenitors of Bridgeport's oldest Irish families.  In 1878 Pembroke Cemetery -- today known as Lakeview — was established overlooking Stillman's Pond.  "It has the most desirable grounds for burial purposes in the State," proclaimed a contemporary advertisement; indeed, with views that looked across a pristine lake to the wooded heights beyond it must have seemed like a glimpse of the paradise to come.  Poignantly, and certainly by design, neighbors who shared lives together in the old communities of Lake Village and Deacon's Point are often buried in close proximity to one another amid the groves of Lakeview.

 

The year 1867 marked the small beginning of a great transformation in the tranquil nature of the Pembroke Valley.  In that year the Union Metallic Cartridge Company opened its works at the lower end of the lake, sandwiched between Barnum Avenue and the railroad tracks.  For many years it was to coexist with the resort-like atmosphere of the lakeshore, and for almost forty years Pembroke Grove, located just to the north, remained one of the city's primary destinations for family and group picnics.  But Union Metallic Cartridge provided a product that was in demand throughout America, in good times and bad, and through continual innovation it far surpassed any competition in the marketplace.  The seeds were thus sown for the subjugation of a beauty spot so that an industry and a city could progress.

 

Union Metallic Cartridge was from the onset a wholly owned subsidiary of the Remington Arms Company, headquartered in Ilion, New York.  The company produced a unique product — as the name explains, their gun cartridges were made of metal rather than the paper that had been universal with the competition.  UMC, as it came to be known, captured the lion's share of the world market and two-thirds of American production due to product superiority.

 

There was a down side to the presence of this plant in Bridgeport, however.  The nature of its work was inherently quite dangerous.  The book Remington Arms in American History describes the scene at the beginning of the last century:  "As the plant coasted along, the workers, following the ruts of routine, grew too familiar with the deadly materials they handled, and custom led to carelessness."  A series of explosions rocked the plant, and descriptions that appeared in the local press seem to have anticipated Hiroshima:  "A cyclonic cloud with a long tail arose in the air.  This funnel-shaped cloud kept its form for several minutes and was watched by thousands."

The situation reached a culmination on May 14, 1906, when 16 tons of gunpowder exploded at the company's unprotected powder magazine at Success Hill.  Nearly every other window in Bridgeport was blown out and damage was reported as far away as Long Island; people in Old Saybrook at first thought they had been hit by an earthquake.  Incredibly, there was no loss of life.  The newspapers screamed for someone's head.  In a front-page editorial entitled "Draw the Death Line," the Sunday Herald spelled out the prevailing sentiment:

 

The greatest problem Bridgeport has on her hands today is relative to the danger to which the citizens are exposed by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.  The explosion of the four powder magazines last Monday has brought every person in the city face-to-face with an element of danger that is likely to create chronic nervousness.  The rather frequent intervals at which these explosions occur gives rise to apprehension that a great loss of life may result eventually.

 

Concerns begin to mount

 

Management proceeded at once effecting changes, that must have made the heads of those old complacent workers spin.  Four hundred acres were secured to the north of Stillman's Pond to create the "Powder Park" following the Herald's admonishment: "The only thing to do now is to prevent loss of life and property by placing the danger zone as remote from the city of Bridgeport as possible."  A new state-of-the-art plant on the north side of Barnum Avenue was commenced, and the aging overseers of the plant were replaced with young blood trained in cutting-edge scientific technique.

 

As the plant was being revamped a situation developed around the procurement of gunshot.  The operations required up to one hundred tons per day, but due to corporate mergers the sole source of supply in Illinois was able to escalate costs to unconscionable levels.  The head plant engineer, Harry H. Pinney, approached company president Marcellus Hartley Dodge with the proposal that UMC build its own shot tower and make its own shot.  The Remington Arms Company history records the unfolding of events:

 

That seemed like a sensible way to save (money), but shot towers are expensive and there were objections to obligating the company for what might prove a costly experiment.  However, Dodge, was convinced that Pinney was right, and he dared to go ahead on his own, putting up the money from his personal fortune.  The shot tower was begun in July, 1908, and completed seven months later, in February, 1909.  Ten stories high, one hundred ninety feet to the top of the flagpole, it dominated the Bridgeport skyline.  Realizing that it might be either as beautiful as a campanile or as obnoxious as a gasometer, Dodge insisted that no expense be spared to give it that campanile look and make it an ornament to the city.

Unprecedented growth begins

 

And what an ornament it was!  The tower, tallest building in Connecticut for many years, was the most prominent and remarkable structure in town and became a favorite subject for picture postcard makers. The building is "of red Brick construction with trimmings of concrete made by a secret process," said the Herald.  "This concrete cannot be told from real granite.  The concrete trimming were manufactured in Bridgeport after a process invented by John H. Flood.  The tower can be seen for miles in any direction.  It can be seen by mariners for miles on the Sound and by people many miles inland."  The shot tower functioned by dropping molten lead from a height of 133 feet into vats of cold water six feet deep.  The result was perfectly spherical, uniform shot. The Remington Arms history concluded their description of the shot making process by stating, “The people at Remington’s Bridgeport plant are as fascinated bv the shot tower as a small boy by an electric train.”

 

More remarkable progress came within a few years.  The year 1914, when president Marcy Dodge was a mere 34 years of age, saw the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo that was to plunge Europe into the abyss of World War I.  Orders for armaments flooded the company from overseas, and a huge expansion was underway almost immediately.  Seven four-story brick buildings were added first adjoining the original factory, and then a row of one-story structures farther up Helen Street for the manufacture of Bayonets.  The book, "The Story of Bridgeport", describes the scene at plant headquarters:

 

All day long a line of men stood outside the Remington Arms Company waiting to be hired and it was said of the firm that one new man joined the force every 20 minutes.  Suffice to say that 1400— 1600 men were taken on every month for nearly a year.  In November, 1915, 3000 were employed.  By April 1, 1916 the number had jumped to 16,000, and 20,000 more were expected.

 

The plant was supplying the bulk of armaments needed by both French and British government armies. But then an overwhelming order was received from the Russian government of Czar Nicholas II: 1 million rifles and 400 million rounds of ammunition.  This would certainly call for an increase in production facilities!  Under unimaginable pressure, UMC/Remington worked for five months, from March 16 to August 16, 1915, constructing the immense Russian Rifle plant, largest factory that had ever been built in the United States all at one time.  Its 13 parallel components — separated so that an explosion would not be able to start a chain reaction and take the whole plant -- contained 80 acres of floor space.  Construction was closely guarded by the National Guard against possible sabotage by anarchists and Bolsheviks.  For a time, this spot, overlooking old Stillman's Pond, was one of the most important and protected places on the planet.

Growth spirals, strains, emulates and innovates
 
The flood of new workers and their families put a great strain on the city, which tried desperately to keep up with the need for school space and social services.  The most acute need, however, was for housing. Despite the construction by private individuals of hundreds of multifamily dwellings on Old Mill Hill and the upper East Side, Elsie Dannenberg wrote: 


New workers coming into the city often had to sleep in the railroad station for two or three nights before a room could be found for them.  Boarding houses became so crowded that beds were shared by two and sometimes three workers, one using the four poster at night, a second in the morning, when he came off the night shift, and a third, in the afternoon.


When the situation deteriorated to the point where new workers were no longer coming to the city knowing there would be no place to sleep, Remington/UMC, with characteristic decisiveness, established a real estate department.  On the hillside overlooking the Russian Rifle plant they undertook the creation of "Remington City" for their workers, a planned community that was to one day house more than 100,000 people with a four-lane boulevard leading from somewhere out in Stratford to the very gates of the factory.  Despite the pressures and shortages of wartime they created a remarkable community of outstanding architecture, with 42 four-familv houses of Greek Revival style reminiscent of old New York City townhouses; 63 row houses identical to those in northeast Philadelphia, replete with back alleys; and four dormitories for single women, indistinguishable for the most urbane and fashionable apartment houses.

 

The government in Washington took careful note of this achievement and decided to make Bridgeport a national model for progressive urban development.  In August, 1916, the Bridgeport Housing Corporation was chartered with the goal of constructing 1,000 units of "wartime emergency housing."  The government used its special powers to draft America's finest planners and architects and to requisition quality building materials to show the world what our country could do.  The result was nine urban villages -- six in Bridgeport itself, two in Fairfield, and one in Stratford -- that were the first flowering of the "garden city" concept on this side of the Atlantic.  These brilliant creations are still influencing and inspiring architects to this day.  One example, Lakeview Village, is located a short distance west of the plant and is the fanciful recreation of a colonial New England village with evocative names (Standish, Plymouth, Carver) for its streets.

Boom to bust

 

While all of this was taking place, arguably Bridgeport's finest hour, all was not well at the plant.  The specifications for the rifles to be made arrived from Russia, and proved to be totally unsuited to 20th-century mass production methods.  Furthermore, the Czar sent over 1500 uniformed military inspectors to ensure that specifications were followed to the letter.  These inspectors, whose uniforms included fur hats and dress swords, slowed production to a crawl and the plant fell far behind in its production schedule.  As a final insult, when 750,000 of the guns were somehow completed and ready for shipment, Nicholas II was deposed.  The new Kerensky government refused to honor the Czar's agreement.

 

Ah, the anguish that must have been felt in Bridgeport as those heady days came to a sudden and crashing halt.  Esoteric questions of how best to shepherd Bridgeport into an urban planner's conceptual dream with a population of a half million were replaced with the more prosaic and frightening question of how to pay off the crushing company debt.  No, Remington City would not extend over hill and dale to Stratford, home to scores of thousands; it would remain an interesting anomaly, a vision of one-time urbanist aspirations.  The grand arterial boulevard would run for three city blocks only and stop dead for all time.

 

Relief of sorts came after six long months of managerial nail-biting when America entered the war.  Uncle Sam agreed to purchase 600,000 of the 750,000 Russian rifles, and ammunition needed for the Allied cause kept the plant humming.  The enormous relief at the signing of the Armistice on November 11,1918, brought out the biggest street parade Bridgeport ever saw.  The next day, layoff notices began circulating.

 

Remington Arms retracted into peacetime production after the war with a heavy emphasis on supplying goods for sportsmen.  The huge Russian rifle plant, one-time pride of the American can-do spirit, was handed over to the General Electric Company in May of 1920.  Together the plants were a mainstay of the Bridgeport employment scene over the next six decades.

 

The 1970's and '80s were a time of alarming change in Bridgeport.  Like dominoes it seemed that all the sprawling factories that had provided the city's income and identity were closing, and the local economy went into a tailspin.  One after another, ideas were brought out to reinvent the town — a jai alai fronton, Harborpointe, the Renaissance Center, racetracks, and an entertaining series of proposals for the development of Pleasure Beach.  Nothing seemed to fit.  Perhaps Historic Preservationmagazine put it best: "The working-class city that for more than a century provided middle-class America with many of its trappings deserves better."