The 1800s brought enormous change to Middletown, transforming its economy, its culture, and the very face of its people.
The changes began in 1807, when hostilities between the United States and Great Britain led Thomas Jefferson to ban international commerce. For Middletown, the result was disaster. The city's prosperity hinged on maritime trade which now decreased drastically. At the same time, many of Middletown's old farming families found there was not enough land left for their children to establish their own farms. With prospects dim, many Middletown inhabitants left for the more promising frontiers of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
But new livelihoods soon replaced farming and maritime trade. Local entrepreneurs opened factories to manufacture everything from pistols to pumps, from swords to suspenders. Many factories employed young women, in addition to men. In the stone quarries across the river, demand skyrocketed for brownstone to build homes and public buildings throughout the United States. Immigration solved the resulting need for labor. Refugees from the Irish potato famine began arriving in Middletown in large numbers in the late 1840s to work in the quarries and as domestic servants. By 1850 more than 650 of the town's 8,400 residents were Irish immigrants. The following year Middletown decreased
in area when the northern section became the separate town of Cromwell. Transportation, which had largely consisted of sailing ships, and horses and carts, now advanced dramatically. Beginning in 1822, steamboats carried passengers and freight from Middletown to Hartford and New York. Trains first ran through the city in 1849, and in 1872 the new Airline Railroad bridge spanned the river for the first time. In 1896, a bridge to carry pedestrians and vehicles opened. The 1890s brought electric-powered trolleys to the city, allowing townspeople to travel quickly and easily to places such as Lakeview Park (now Crystal Lake), for picnics, swimming and boating.
During the 1830s Middletown became a center of the controversial crusade to abolish slavery in the United States. Blacks and whites men and women, risked insult and even assault for speaking out against slavery. They also helped fugitive slaves reach freedom via the secret, illegal network known as the underground railroad.
When Wesleyan University opened here in 1831, Middletown achieved prominence in education, reinforced in 1840 with the establishment of Connecticut's first high school. Other important institutions followed: the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane (now Connecticut Valley Hospital) opened in 1868 and the Connecticut Industrial School for Girls, predecessor of the modern Connecticut Juvenile Training School was established in 1870. Russell Library opened its doors in 1875, and Middlesex Hospital was incorporated in 1895.
When the clash between North and South erupted into the Civil War, Middletown threw itself behind the Union cause. Out of a population of 9,000 Middletown sent 958 men into the military. More than 100 Middletown soldiers died in the conflict. On the homefront, local women rolled bandages, stitched shirts, and knitted socks for the troops. Women with husbands in the army found new independence and responsibility in running their households and raising their children alone.
In 1866 the incorporation of the city's southwestern section as the town of Middlefield completed the shrinking of Middletown. In other ways, however, the post-Civil War era was one of growth for the city. Existing factories expanded and new ones opened, making bicycles hammocks, rubber boots, and silver-plated tea sets. Immigrants from Germany, Sweden Poland, Italy, and Russia flocked to Middletown The establishment of churches for the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and other faiths reflected the city's increasing multiculturalism.
Local artist Patrick Shugrue painted this view of Middletown as it would have appeared in 1899, looking east from Broad Street. It was a colorful city quickly expanding with immigrants from such
Lands as Sweden, Russia, China, Italy, Poland and Greece. Residential neighborhoods stood side-by-side with factories and businesses, and the Connecticut River was still an integral part of the community.
- Courtesy of Patrick Shugrue
Middletown's many factories turned out swords, soap, fire engine pumps, suspenders, washing machines, and much more. Beginning in 1897, the Keating Wheel Company operated in a North End factory that later produced early automobiles and typewriters, and still stands today.
- Courtesy of the Connecticut State Library
Best friends Eddie Brewer and Amos Fairchild enlisted as Union privates in the Civil War. Both young men gave their lives for the cause, dying of disease far from their families.
- Courtesy of the Middlesex County Historical Society
This 1825 map reveals a city far different from the Middletown of today. Steamboat Wharf stood at the foot of Parsonage Street (now Dingwall Drive), servicing the boats that stopped on their way from Hartford to New York. The downtown neighborhoods of Centre, Elm, and Hanover Streets have disappeared long since, and Route 9 has replaced Water Street, which housed docks and warehouses.