February 20, 1933 – Historical Talk at First Church
What the Senator Said
Senator Bradley explained that Birmingham existed only from 1836 (when it was so named by Anson G. Phelps, having previously called Smithville) until the beginning of the City of Derby in 1894. It comprised only the western portion of the town2, never including Ansonia or East Derby, which from the incorporation of the town on May 13, 1675, until 1894, was always referred to as “Derby”. For nearly two hundred years, the businesses, residential, and commercial portions of the town all centered on the east side. The beginnings of Birmingham came in 1833, when Sheldon Smith, born on Gilbert Street in 1791, but who had amassed a fortune in Newark, N.J., bought the Hawkins Point property3, Smith farm lands, and the Hull “Yellow Mills” and commenced the construction of a reservoir and canal. The first dwelling houses were erected in open fields, where Caroline Street is now located. Sheldon Canfield’s “Boston Store”, now corner of Main and Caroline Streets, and the stone store opposite were built in 1835 in a sand bank. In April of the following year, Smith was authorized to make a roadway sixty feet wide to be known as Second Street in Smithville (formerly known as the Point). This is modern Main Street. In the fall of the same year, Phelps bought out most of the Smith interests and changed the name of the village to Birmingham, after the great manufacturing city in England. Shops and mills were erected under the direction of Alman Farrel, the millwright, father of late Franklin Farrel4. Churches and schools were built; streets cut through; the green established.
The growth of the village was rapid and in 1842, Phelps sought expansion to the north. This was prevented by old Squire Booth, who bought up most of the land in what is now west Ansonia, and held out for exorbitant price. Phelps then purchased all of the eastern lands, and began the village soon known as Ansonia, after its founder’s first name. Birmingham in the meantime grew and prospered, and became a borough in 1851, with the elder Thomas Wallace, distinguished manufacturer, as its first Warden5. It sent its full quota tot he Civil War under Colonels Kellogg, Russell, and Wooster. It aided in the construction of the Ousatonic Dam in 1870 and the subsequent growth of the village of Shelton, named for Edward N. Shelton of Greystone, president of the Birmingham National Bank, state senator, and prime mover of the dam project.
Birmingham became a railroad center in 1871; had its greatest conflagration on January 12, 1879; was buried under the snows of the great blizzard of 1888, and emeged to see the first trolley road in New England completed April 30th6. A borough building (now city hall) was began in the same year7. Ansonia ceded from Derby in 1889. The (Ousatonic) dam burst on January 22, 1891; a new dam was completed in its place, and an iron bridge succeeded the old covered bridge to Shelton8. The cities of Ansonia and Derby were authorized by the legislature of 1893. Dr. Thomas J. O’Sullivan, last warden of the old borough of Birmingham, defeated Selectman Sidney E. Gesner in the ensuing election and became the first Mayor of Derby in January, 1894.
* A much more detailed history of Birmingham’s origins and history can be found in the book History of Derby, Conn. 1642-1880, by Rev. Samuel Orcutt and Dr. Ambrose Beardsley.
1. This is actually part of a larger article about a meeting at the First Congregational Church of Derby. The entertainment was Derby’s local historian at the time, Sen. Henry Bradley Jr.
2. The line actually crossed between the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers about where today’s Irving School is, so places like Derby Neck were excluded from Birmingham.
3. Hawkins Point is the eastern terminus of today’s Derby-Shelton Bridge.
4. This is the same family that ran the Farrel factories in Ansonia and Derby for generations.
5. A “Borough” was basically a special district within the town, where residents paid additional taxes for additional services, such as fire, police, sanitation, street department, etc. The “Warden” was the chief administrator. The Wallace family would later build factories in Ansonia, with Thomas Wallace Jr. credited with inventing the carbon arc light.
6. The first electric trolley system in New England began in Derby on April 30, 1888. Horse drawn trolleys existed before then.
7. This is today’s Sterling Opera House. It also initially housed the police department and the Bassett Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1.
8. Also in 1891 – located where today’s Derby-Shelton bridge is today. Replaced by the current span in 1919.