This week’s trivia question

What city institution—still with us—was founded in response to a steam boiler explosion that killed 21 and seriously injured as many as 50 on March 2, 1854, at the Fales and Gray railroad-car factory near Dutch Point?

Answer

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Catching up

Here’s some news that got lost in the holiday hub-bub.

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The Hartford Courant reported that the 160-year-old Lewtan Building on High Street, just off Bushnell Park, will join the many downtown buildings undergoing conversion into apartments. (This Google Maps photo shows it in relation to the park.)

As reporter Ken Gosselin put it:

For nearly 160 years, people went to work at 28 High St. in downtown Hartford, employed in everything from silver plating and paper-box manufacturing to furniture making and, finally, turning out promotional products like the “Mighty Grip” jar opener.

Now, a developer is betting people will find the five-story building near Bushnell Park the place where they want to come home.

The Lewtan originally was known as the Batterson Building, named after the man who constructed it in 1860, James G. Batterson. Owner of  a highly successful cemetery monument business headquartered on Main Street, Batterson is best-known today as one of the founders of the Travelers Cos., as well as its first president. Learn more about his extraordinary life here.

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The new owner of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes is having his team play a couple of games this year in the uniforms of its previous iteration, the Hartford Whalers. The New York Times used the occasion to take a look at Hartford’s longing for its old team–and the very mixed feelings around here about the throwback games. The story,  headlined “The Whalers Are Back in the N.H.L. Sort Of,” includes interviews with former Whalers, including Ray Ferraro:

“I really liked living there,” said Ferraro, now an N.H.L. analyst for Canada’s TSN. “The insurance industry was still big, downtown was vibrant, the restaurants were packed. Plus, a lot of the players were in the same stage of our lives, in our early 20s. I liked everything about Hartford.”

 

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The Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor is leading an effort to restore the “Isle of Safety,” the trolley stop and shelter that stood at the corner of State and Main streets from 1913 to 1976.

The isle, with its distinctive red-tiled roof, was nearly destroyed in 1976, when State House Square was paved over, but it was rescued by the Knox Foundation and later re-erected at the Connecticut Trolley Museum, according to the Hartford Courant. But since then, it has fallen into disrepair; hence the recent announcement of a drive to raise $175,000 for the restoration.

“We are preserving not only a significant portion of Hartford’s history, but Connecticut’s history as a regional transportation hub,” Michael P. Speciale, chair of the development committee at the Connecticut Trolley Museum, said. “Tens of thousands of passengers were served by the Isle of Safety for seven decades, until the trolleys were replaced by buses. It became a common place for travelers to gather and seek shelter, all in the shadow of the historic Old State House.”

The museum says the work will include replacing all of the terra cotta tiles on the roof of the Isle of Safety. The same company that made the tiles in 1913 is still in business and has the mold to create new authentic tiles.

You can learn more about the Isle of Safety and contribute toward its restoration here.

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Anyone who cares at all about Connecticut history needs to follow Today in Connecticut History, a daily posting by state Historian Walter Woodward and Connecticut Humanities. You’ll actually learn something new every day–and often about Hartford History. The December 26 post, for instance, concerns Morgan G. Bulkeley. As Woodward writes:

While the state — and colony — of Connecticut has been helmed by a number of colorful personalities over its long history, few of them can compare to the widely-accomplished Morgan G. Bulkeley: Civil War veteran, financier, insurance executive, baseball enthusiast, and strong-arm politician who earned himself the nickname “the Crowbar Governor” while in office.

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Hartford stuff for your last-minute shopping

If you’ve got some last-minute holiday shopping to do and want to share the Hartford love, dash into Hartford Prints at 42 1/2 Pratt Street. You’ll find all kinds of Hartford-themed items, from calendars to Yard Goats and Whalers hats. It’s open till 7 p.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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This week’s trivia question

What key part of Hartford’s infrastructure is named after a man who grew up in the city and was killed in the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor? The answer is here.

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Dillon Stadium flashback

Cover of the book "Connecticut Gridiron: Football Minor Leaguers of the 1960s and 1970s."Today’s ceremonial groundbreaking for the renovation of Dillon Stadium put me in mind of the Hartford Knights, the minor-league football team that played there in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was nine years old when my father brought me to Dillon for the September 5, 1970 game against the Indianapolis Capitals. I don’t remember much of the game action, but I vividly recall an incident that put the game in the news: a bomb threat that prompted a temporary evacuation of the stands. All 5,000 or so of us were led onto the field, where we milled around with the players and coaches. Soon, we had cleared spaces to watch players toss footballs around–with fans as well as each other. Everyone was smiling, enjoying the novelty of the moment and (seemingly) not taking the scare very seriously. Maybe at that point in the era, bomb scares were taken in stride.

Andrew Crossley’s excellent blog about minor-league sports franchises, Fun While It Lasted, has a great entry on the Knights. Then there’s “Connecticut Gridiron: Football Minor Leaguers of the 1960s and 1970s,” a book by William J. Ryczek that confirmed my memories of the bomb-scare game. (See page 240.)

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New trivia question

What major artery of Hartford was originally called Talcott Mountain Turnpike? The answer is here.

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Remembering Hartford in World War I

If all the national coverage of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I has you wondering how the Hartford region got through the war, check out David Drury’s fine 2015 book, “Hartford in World War I.” At 141 pages, it’s a quick read yet packed with  information and photographs. (I was especially struck by a photo of the Army demonstrating one of its early tanks — in Pope Park.)

News of the Armistice signing reached the east coast of the U.S. around 3 a.m. on November 11, 1918, and Drury describes the jubilation that broke out despite the hour in Hartford and surrounding towns:

In the Connecticut capital, a crowd of onlookers began forming outside the {Hartford] Courant’s State Street office at 3 a.m. to catch the latest bulletins, their voices soon hoarse from cheering and singing patriotic anthems. Within an hour, downtown streets were filling up … Over the din of parades and marching, the ringing of trolleys, the tooting of auto horns and the spectacle of hanging the Kaiser in effigy, newsboys scrambled to hawk special editions. Factories and schools closed for the day, as did the saloons, and city officials made preparations for an evening Peace Parade, with the route ending in Bushnell Park beneath the Capitol.

He goes on to quote Mayor Richard J. Kinsella’s proclamation, which seems to capture the relief so many must have felt at the war’s end. Perhaps it was that relief which led him to predict such a war couldn’t happen again.

God is in the heavens and all is right with the world! Autocracy has been crushed and Democracy has been exalted. Never again will a deluded human being, intoxicated by the belief that he is a superman, from the vantage ground of a throne, crush the heads of his people in mad pursuit of abnormal ambition. The Kaiser in ignoble flight to save his own head is a picture that warms the hearts of the American people today.

Hartford honored its World War 1 dead by planting a Trees of Honor Memorial in Colt Park, featuring 186 American elm trees–the known number of dead at the time. To go with the trees, plaques were created for each of the deceased. They eventually numbered 209, to reflect the updated casualty list. But by the late 1960s, the trees and plaques were all gone. More on that later.

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CHS director moving on

The Hartford Business Journal reports that Jody Blankenship, CEO of the Connecticut Historical Society since September 2013, will leave in January to become president and CEO of the Indiana Historical Society. The CHS board of trustees will conduct a national search for his replacement, according to the Journal.

Established in 1825, CHS is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. Its headquarters at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford includes a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center–all open to the public and funded by private contributions. The CHS collection includes more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials. It is a Smithsonian affiliate.

 

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Listen as WWUH celebrates 50 years

WWUH, the FM radio station operated by the University of Hartford, is marking its 50th anniversary by airing a four-part documentary over four Fridays, at 12:30 p.m. The first installment has aired already; the next three are set for October 26, November 2, and November 9. Listen at 91.3 FM or http://www.wwuh.org/0043-listen-online. The project, produced and edited by WWUH volunteer Brandon Kampe, stems from interviews with more than 90 current and former staff members and a search of archival ta pes.

BTW, longtime WWUH staffter John Ramsey, now the station’s general manager and chief engineer, has created a huge archive of station history at www.wwuhhistory.org.

Longtime WWUH staffter John Ramsey, now the station’s general manager and chief engineer, has created a huge archive of station history at www.wwuhhistory.org.

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Rev. Paul M. Ritter, pastor and activist

The Hartford Courant reports that Paul Ritter, leader of the Warburton Community Congregational Church on Brookfield Street for 25 years until his retirement in 1997, died last week at age 82.

Ritter, a North Carolina native who came to Hartford in 1969, may be best known outside the city for his three unsuccessful runs for mayor, in 1979, 1993, and 2001. But he was best known around the city as an activist for those who lacked political power, particularly the poor and sick.

For instance, as the Courant notes, “Ritter had long been a voice for those living in Hartford’s public housing, much of it dilapidated, ridden with vermin, and difficult for the elderly and disabled to navigate. In 1977, his Brookfield Street church was ransacked after he spoke at a rally for low income tenants, the sixth time in 12 months his church had been burglarized … Earlier that year, its windows had been shot out after Ritter led a demonstration to rid a housing project of rats and roaches.”

In the 1990s, he pushed for giving those living HIV/AIDS a publicly funded apartment building on Wethersfield Avenue. That failed amid controversy–it was opposed by neighbors and even some HIV/AIDS activists who feared creating something of a leper colony–but Ritter and other clergy eventually opened a building on Homestead Avenue for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families, called Zezzo House.

According to his obituary, a memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 28, at the Victory Cathedral, at 205 Bellevue Street.

By the way, if you’re wondering where Warburton Community Congregational Church got its name, check out this great article on the Historic Buildings of Connecticut site.

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Joe Marfuggi, riverfront visionary

Joe Marfuggi, the man who led Riverfront Recapture for 29 years, died last week at age 77. It’s hard to think of anyone who did more to revitalize Hartford in the past half-century. The Hartford Courant summed up his impact nicely:

Marfuggi, energized by a vision of reconnecting residents with the Connecticut River waterfront in Hartford, ran the nonprofit from 1986 until his retirement in 2015. Under his leadership, the organization built a plaza at Riverside Park that has become one of the state’s major attractions, with more than 800,000 people visiting the area the year he retired.

State Treasurer Denise Nappier, who brought Marfuggi to Riverfront Recapture during her stint as the organization’s executive director, described his style for the Hartford Business Journal:

He was always that kind of person that garnered respect in a way that compelled others to want to be on his team … He was someone you could rely upon to get things done and done well.

According to his obituary, a celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 28, in the Belding Theatre of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

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How bad was the hurricane of 1938? This bad.

As Dennis House of WFSB-TV reminds us, today marks the 80th anniversary of the day an historically destructive hurricane began ripping through Connecticut, including Hartford.

CT Humanities, through its Connecticut history website, offers a nice summary and list of resources on the hurricane, and the Hartford Courant published this look back in 1999. For video, there’s the 1997 Connecticut Public Television documentary “When Disaster Struck Connecticut,” which looks at four historic weather disasters, including the ’38 hurricane. You can watch it in segments on YouTube.

The hurricane caused massive flooding of the Connecticut River on Hartford’s low-lying East Side, long an immigrant neighborhood. Glenn Weaver noted in his “Hartford: An Illustrated History of Connecticut’s Capital” that residents and merchants there were still recovering from the spring flooding of 1936, which had claimed five lives and still ranks as the worst flood in city history.

“In 1938,” Weaver wrote, “Nature struck again, with the most severe hurricane in the city’s history. On September 21 at 4 p.m., the hurricane struck with full force, leaving the city a shambles: streets blocked by fallen trees and utility polls, crushed automobiles, stranded trolley cars, and debris from hundreds of destroyed or damaged buildings.” Employees of the city and the Works Progress Administration, a federal program that gave work to people left jobless by the still-lingering Great Depression, joined college students and other volunteers in filling and stacking 50-pound bags of sand to reinforce the straining dikes. Around 5:30 p.m. on Friday, September 2, the river reached 35.1 feet above normal; it stayed there until 10 p.m., then slowly began to recede.

The most vivid and detailed account, though, may belong to William Manchester, in his epic 1974 social history “The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972.” Manchester had lived through the hurricane as a teenager in Springfield, but he relied on oodles of research to describe the destruction that convulsed all of New England and New York. (Nearly as great as the destruction was the shock; New England hadn’t experienced a hurricane since 1815, and the poor state of weather forecasting at the time resulted in almost no one seeing this one coming.)

Finally, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to re-post one of my favorite photos, taken in Hartford’s Riverside Park, on the path along the Connecticut River. The plaques on the pillar indicate the high-water marks for the 1936, 1938, and 1955 floods. The river is out of the frame, to the right, and down an embankment. It makes you thankful for the new and much bigger system of dikes that were already in the planning stages in 1938 and completed in the early 1940s.

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