Joshua Michtom has a habit we like: He wanders down old railroad tracks in Connecticut, takes photographs, and posts what he sees. “Part of the seduction of these long walks in quiet places is the possibility of finding something beautiful and forgotten, a treasure,” he writes. “The industrial ruins and other detritus that have accumulated along Connecticut’s railroads lend themselves to this seduction, for they have the custom of looming up unexpectedly from the woods, waiting patiently to appear until I have nearly stumbled over them.”
If you are from New York, or Boston, or really most anywhere outside of Connecticut and Rhode Island, you’ve probably never heard of Willimantic, Connecticut. Being 30 miles east of Hartford and with a population of less than 18,000, there’s no reason Willimantic should be well known. It’s well off the interstate, and isn’t one of those lucky small towns where someone decided to build a massive amusement park or corporate headquarters. But if you want to understand Connecticut—what it was and what it is—Willimantic is where you should go.
If Connecticut enters at all into the thinking of big city dwellers, it exists there as a vast, affluent gated community, Greenwich writ large, populated by bluebloods with preppy names and preppy clothes, who don’t have to feel self conscious about how square they are because they’re too rich to care. That’s how I always thought of it, anyway, during my childhood in Brooklyn and young adulthood in Boston.
The more initiated know that the real Connecticut is much different from what New Yorkers imagine. When I moved here seven years ago, I found a strange, segregated archipelago of small, desperately poor cities ringed by affluent and middle-class suburbs. The three largest cities—Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven—are easily as poor and violent as Bushwick was when I taught adult education there in the late 1990s (before anyone had reason to rebrand it as “East Williamsburg”). And unlike Bushwick (or East New York, or Brownsville), residents of Connecticut’s cities have little exposure to other options. There is no subway where poor and rich will cross paths, no vibrant and inclusive cultural scene that transcends class and race. Before setting foot in a classroom, freshmen at Yale and Trinity are pointedly instructed on which streets never to cross and which neighborhoods never to explore.
But there was another Connecticut once, prosperous not in the entitled, tennis-bracelet fashion of Greenwich and Darien, nor in the bunkered, good-school-district style that characterizes the corporate-funded suburbs. A century ago, they actually made stuff here—bicycles, cars, steam boilers, revolvers—and the cities were bustling. Every town’s main street was prosperous, teeming with hotels, restaurants, theaters, and banks. Hundreds of passenger trains and trolley cars rumbled across the state at all hours. A man could get paid at a factory in Hartford, go on a bender, get fired for coming to work drunk, sleep it off on the train, and find work that evening at a factory in Willimantic.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Willimantic would see 40 trains every day, in addition to streetcars, some of which could carry residents over 30 miles to the beach in Westerly, Rhode Island, with just one transfer. Multiple baseball teams, made up of workers from the many local factories, played every weekend, and the rollicking downtown supported numerous businesses and amusements.
Today, not even Willimantic’s biggest boosters would call the city prosperous. There are no hotels on Main Street, nor theaters, nor fancy shops. In 2002, the Hartford Courant made the city famous in a seven-part investigative report entitled, “Heroin Town,” which was followed by reports on 60 Minutes and in the Washington Post. A decade later, the poverty rate remains stubbornly high—nearly three times the state average. Sprawling, weedy lots and empty storefronts are at least as numerous as the new small businesses and artists’ collectives that have sprung up along Main Street near the well-marked historic district.
This little city contains a mighty monument to lost economic grandeur, but none of the signs in the historic district will tell you where it is. You will not spot the site from the riverfront, nor from any road. It lies in the woods southeast of the center of town, between the seldom-used railroad tracks and the Willimantic River. Head east along the railroad tracks under the south end of the Frog Bridge. After a quarter mile, you will see an open gate on your left. Go through, and follow the path through the trees.
You will probably not see another human being here, but there is plenty of evidence of those who have come before: beer bottles, old sleeping bags, and trash of all descriptions litter the scrubby woods. Away in the distance, under a pine tree, you may spy a tidy red tent—it has been there for at least a year, and seems to be inhabited. Walk around a little more, and you will find an abandoned car whose location and position defy explanation.
At some point, you will look up from the task of avoiding prickly undergrowth and see a small building containing rusting machinery and lots of garbage. Just a bit farther along the path is a vine-covered set of steps leading, it would appear at first glance, toward nothing but a bright, empty sky. Go up the steps, push your way through the crowding brambles, and step out onto the wide cement platform.
Suddenly, you are in the open, looking from above on a vast, open space in the middle of the woods, a distance of three or four football fields of paved floor and six-foot trenches and rusting machinery and rubble, framed by thick stone walls, but open to the sky. This is what remains of Mill Number Four, the first successfully electrified thread mill in the world, with a lighting system designed by Thomas Edison himself. Trains between New York and Boston used to stop here so passengers could see for themselves what was, for many years, the largest single-story building in the world:
The site once looked like this:
The tracks you see in this picture are at the right-hand side of the present-day photograph. And that enormous chimney in this old photo? Here’s what it looks like today:
A short rail spur once allowed trains to slide right up beside large brick outbuildings, where finished thread was made ready for shipping. These buildings remain, if barely. On one visit, I saw them with roofs collapsing, but walls intact. A year later, remnants of hurricane Sandy had brought down most of the wall.
Consider the sheer size of the main building: It’s not so different from any of the shopping malls that have long since outnumbered factories in Connecticut, but when Mill Number Four was built, no one had ever beheld such a vast indoor space. In 1880, between 5,000 and 7,000 people attended a Republican Party rally at the mill, possibly, as one observer put it, “the greatest collection of people witnessed under one roof in the state.”
Take a stroll across the mill floor and realize that you are walking where Thomas Edison once walked, a building that brimmed with innovation and was, as the Windham Town Historian, Jamie Eves, told me, “the prototype of every modern factory building.” Before electric lighting, mills had to be narrow buildings with plenty of windows so workers could see what they were doing. There wasn’t enough room for a whole assembly line to be on one level, so the mills were built several stories high, and product had to be taken off the line and hauled upstairs in huge elevators powered by draft horses. The machines were powered directly by river current, so the factories had to sit beside the river, and when the sun went down, work stopped because of darkness.
In Mill Number Four, the power came from steam, so the factory could sit on a hill above the river, unthreatened by floods. The assembly line could snake, uninterrupted, around the enormous factory floor, obviating the old horse-powered elevators. In older factories, machinery had depended on a power train that ran along the ceiling. In Mill Number Four, the power train ran through huge trenches in the floor:
The reason for this was to leave the ceilings free for the greatest innovation of all: Edison’s glass-enclosed, incandescent bulbs. These electric lights, unlike their predecessors, did not create sparks that could set cotton fibers ablaze. Now, there was no need for every part of the building to be near a window, and indeed, no particular need for daylight at all: this was the first textile factory to employ multiple shifts and to operate at all hours of the day and night.
Today, it’s just an open-air footprint of a once-mighty structure. The American Thread Company chased management-friendly labor laws to North Carolina in 1985. A decade later, the fate that Edison sought to avoid for Mill Number Four with his enclosed light bulbs was brought about by two fifteen-year-old boys and a book of matches: five million gallons of water and fifteen towns’ fire departments couldn’t save the building. It’s just as well. The city of Willimantic had already taken the property by eminent domain and planned to demolish it.
When you stand amid the trenches, the graffiti, the endless rubble, between the encroaching woods and wide open sky above Mill Number Four, resist the urge to feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. You are standing in a powerful allegory of Connecticut’s economic history. This place was the Silicon Valley of its time, where innovation seemed to insulate local businesses from economic turmoil: not only was the company that ran Mill Number Four unaffected by the stock market crash of 1873, it engaged in a constant, needless race with a factory in Germany, periodically expanding the mill’s footprint to keep bragging rights as the largest one-story building in the world. What today looks like a graveyard once buzzed with activity at all hours, and made Willimantic wealthy in a way that is hard to imagine now. This vast, empty space between rusting, unused railroad tracks and a struggling, hard luck city was the birthplace of an industrious, prosperous Connecticut that is already fading from memory.
See more of Joshua Michtom’s train-track wanderings at his website.