The Creation of the City of Ansonia and Today’s Valley in 1888-1889

(originally written in March and April of 2003 by Robert Novak Jr. for the weekly newspaper Huntington Herald)

Part I

            In November of 1888, a series of events began across the Housatonic River which threw the entire Lower Naugatuck Valley into turmoil. The heart of the conflict involved a petition signed by 1,100 residents of the Borough of Ansonia, asking the State General Assembly seeking that area’s independence from the Town of Derby. The petition was vigorously opposed by Derby, particularly its other borough, Birmingham.

            While the most basic principals and result of the conflict are known, many of the details are not. First, a brief regional history lesson. On the Fairfield County side, Huntington (as today’s City of Shelton was called at the time) became an independent town from Stratford in 1789. At the time, the entire New Haven County side of the Lower Naugatuck Valley was Derby. The heart of Derby was located along the east banks of the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers, from about Commerce Street (the area was called Derby Narrows in the 18th and 19th centuries) to above the current Derby-Ansonia town line (called Uptown in the 18th and 19th centuries). There were scattered farmhouses and settlement clusters throughout what is now Derby, Ansonia, Seymour, and Oxford. The farthest flung settlement from the heart of Derby, Oxford Parish, left Derby to become an independent town in 1798.

            In the early 1800s, David Humphreys returned from his diplomatic service in Portugal and Spain, with a flock of nearly 100 Merino sheep – one of the first flocks in English-speaking North America. Purchasing and rebuilding a Naugatuck River dam, he and his partner Thomas Vose established one of Connecticut’s first true factories, manufacturing high quality wool cloth. The area around the factory became known as Humphreysville, quickly growing into a community of its own.

             After a period of economic turmoil in the first decades of the nineteenth century, a dam was constructed across the Naugatuck River in the 1830s, well below Humphreysville, in what is now Ansonia. A canal, running down the Naugatuck’s west bank all the way to the Housatonic River, was attached to the dam, providing cheap waterpower for large mills. The leading proponent of Derby’s new ‘factory village’, Sheldon Smith wanted to follow David Humphreys’ lead and name it Smithville. However his partner, Anson Phelps, vetoed the idea and the place was named Birmingham, a nod to the industrialized English city of the same name. Birmingham was such an unqualified success that by the 1840s it had run out of room to expand, its triangular boundaries composed of the Naugatuck and Housatonic Rivers, and a land speculator who priced his property out of the market to its north.

            By this time, Sheldon Smith had left the area, leaving Anson Phelps to expand Birmingham interests above Derby’s colonial center on the Naugatuck’s east bank, and found a second factory village. Like Birmingham, the village radiated from a workable power canal, completed in 1846, that paralleled the Naugatuck River. Originally he wanted to call the place Phelpsville, but after learning there was another community by that name in New England, he followed the advice of Birmingham’s Dr. Ambrose Beardsley and came up with a “Latinized” version of his first name – Ansonia. Lacking the geographic limitations of Birmingham, and benefiting from a new railroad line that extended into Ansonia from New Haven and (east) Derby in 1849, the area rapidly expanded into a virtually autonomous town, boasting a healthy mix of residential, commercial, and industrial areas. 

            In 1850, Humphreysville established itself as an independent town from Derby. It renamed itself after the Governor of Connecticut at the time – Seymour. Birmingham became a semi-autonomous borough within the Town of Derby in 1852, and Ansonia likewise became a borough within Derby in 1864.

            By the end of the Civil War, most of the waterpower along the Ansonia canal was already in use, and the area once again looked to expand its manufacturing interests. This time, the power of the Housatonic River was harnessed, with the construction of the Ousatonic Dam in 1870. Two canals were run from the dam, one along each bank. The development of the shorter canal in Birmingham was somewhat disappointing until the turn of the twentieth century, while across the river, development of the canal in Huntington boomed.

            The heart of today’s downtown Shelton was owned by a single corporate entity, the Ousatonic Water Company, headquartered in Birmingham. The OWC leased or sold property and water rights in Shelton piecemeal. Known better as “West Birmingham” in the 1870s, the area was incorporated as the Borough of Shelton within the Town of Huntington in 1882. Shelton was a virtual fiefdom of Birmingham for its first twenty years. The selectmen of Huntington Center, most of whom were farmers, had no wish to tangle with the savvy Valley businessmen investing in Shelton, or their lawyers.

            The creation of Shelton relieved pressure on Birmingham, whose government then focused on becoming the Valley’s social and commercial center. Birmingham had the best of both worlds – it did not have to worry about setting up an infrastructure to support the new factories, as they were across the river in Shelton under the OWC. It was, however, collecting the taxes from the majority of the Shelton factory owners, who lived in Birmingham, not to mention those coming in from Ansonia. With all this wealth, Birmingham could focus on beautifying its Green, paving its streets, and projects like constructing the Sterling Opera House. Unfortunately, these projects proved a bit too ambitious, resulting in Birmingham accruing a considerable debt.

            This was a major source of resentment for the area’s most developmentally balanced borough, Ansonia, who felt too much of their needed tax revenue was being taken away to benefit Birmingham. Ansonia had 10,000 inhabitants, more than any other section of Derby. Ansonia’s decision to seek independence in November of 1888 was a complicated one, and elicited strong, often conflicting emotions on both sides. The weekly newspaper Derby Transcript started a daily edition called the Evening Transcript the following month. Never one to reserve its editorial opinions, the Transcript immediately became a mouthpiece for the preservation of the union of Derby, Birmingham, and Ansonia. Unlike its rival, the Ansonia Evening Sentinel, most Transcript issues from this time period have survived.

            In 1886, Ansonia tried to annex West Ansonia, the area directly across the Naugatuck River from downtown Ansonia which was then part of the Town of Derby, into its Borough. Led by West Ansonia resident respected attorney Col. William B. Wooster, the effort failed. Two years later, Ansonia elected a slate of officials who promised independence from Derby. The independence drive was backed by Ansonia’s three largest employers – the Ansonia Brass and Copper Company, the Farrel Foundry, and Wallace & Sons. These three factories employed 2,200 people. Accounting for nearly 20% of Ansonia’s Grand List, the factory owners were displeased with the possibility of having to bail out Birmingham’s debt. Opposing Ansonia were most of Derby and Birmingham, and many residents in West Ansonia.

            By early December, some of Ansonia’s independent-minded thinking spread to Shelton, and a petition circulated there and in Huntington a separate probate district. Most of Huntington fell into the Bridgeport Probate District, while the Borough of Shelton fell within Derby’s. In seeking to form a probate district independent of Derby and Bridgeport, Shelton was taking its own first steps toward reasserting control of its own affairs.

A bombshell was dropped on December 26, 1888. The Transcript had already announced on Christmas Eve that a petition was circulating to incorporate Derby as a city. The formal notice appeared two days later stating “Notice is hereby given that an application will be made to the next General Assembly for a city charter, to cover the whole territory included in the town of Derby, and the Borough of Shelton, and all the territory lying between the said Derby and Shelton”. The “territory lying between” was the Housatonic River and Ousatonic Dam, and the town of Derby, of course, included Ansonia.

The next day, December 27, the paper editorialized “The Transcript is glad to know that a movement has been started, and a petition is to be presented to the legislature at its coming session asking for a city charter to embrace the town of Derby and the borough of Shelton, bringing them all under one local government”. “United in one community we would soon advance to the front rank among the prominent and progressive towns of the State”. The following day, the paper reported a “strong sentiment” in Birmingham to incorporate a city and annex Shelton from Huntington. The same paper reported another petition for separating Ansonia from Derby was being “extensively signed” in Ansonia.

            The evening of December 29, a group of just over a dozen prominent Birmingham residents gathered. The group formed a formal committee opposed to the division of Derby in any form, including its probate district, which of course ran counter to both Ansonia and Shelton’s intentions. The man who drew up the committee’s motions was Derby Superior Court Judge David Torrance.

Part II

“There is nothing now to be done but accept the inevitable”

            January of 1889 found a bitter dispute between the Town of Derby and its Borough of Birmingham against its other Borough, Ansonia. Two competing plans had been presented- one to establish Ansonia as independent of the Town of Derby, while the second wishing to see Derby consolidate as a City.

The daily newspaper Evening Transcript clearly reaffirmed its stance on January 25, when it proclaimed a “powerful legal battery” had been hired for “Derby’s defense”. In addition to the hopes of relegating Ansonia’s petition to separate from Derby as something for “a lover of curiosities for future ages to gaze on”, the lawyers were also instructed to “oppose the taking away of Shelton from the probate district”. Severing this tie in favor of a Huntington-Shelton probate district would effectively end any political legitimacy to Derby’s attempt to annex Shelton.

The following day, a “communicated” message from Shelton appeared in the Transcript, stating “It is now eight years since the organization of the borough, and the record of progress and advancement of material interests of the place during the time is one to be justly proud of. We think no village of its size in the State can show a better percentage of gain in population and wealth during that period than this. Our improvements have been many, our taxes not excessive, and our debt is comparably light. In this connection, it might not be out of place to inquire what further benefits could be secured by a consolidation of interest with less favored boroughs in the form of a city government. We assert confidently that the reasons in favor of such a change are few and those against it are substantial and many. Let us jog along as we are, progressive, prosperous, and in the main, happy, until such time (and it may never occur) when the city of Shelton may wish to enlarge her borders on the east, and consent to take in her discontented neighbors. In the meantime, all we ask is to be let alone”. This message likely sprang from a special meeting of the Borough of Shelton held two days before.

To proponents of the consolidation movement, the above statement must have been absolutely devastating. Not only was Shelton rejecting a union with Derby, but it made (in their eyes) the absolutely preposterous suggestion that, maybe, if they were lucky, Derby could be absorbed, wholly or piecemeal, into Shelton! No doubt some interesting conversations and incidents not reported in the newspapers swirled around the area after this piece was published.

After the petition to form a town-wide “Huntington Probate District” was scheduled in Hartford, the Transcript grumbled January 29 “This seems to be one of the schemes for the further cutting up of our community, and like the other (Ansonia) seems to us unwise”. Despite this, most opposition from the Transcript afterwards was largely passive, likely because the paper and its supporters decided to focus its energy on keeping Ansonia within Derby before going after Shelton.

The hearing on the Huntington Probate District was held before a legislative Committee on New Towns and Probate Districts in Hartford on February 7. The committee allowed the lawyers on each side to present three witnesses. It is interesting to note the witnesses selected to testify opposing the break from Derby’s district included Edward N. Shelton, for whom the City of Shelton is named, and Charles Nettleton, who was the first head of the Borough of Shelton, from 1882 to 1883. The Transcript alluded that more signatures came from Huntington Center than Shelton, and “There are many sound businessmen in Shelton who think unfavorably of the movement”. Perhaps stung by this criticism, a second petition was prepared advocating a new Probate District “from Shelton, with a long list of signatures”, in early March. On April 5, the House voted 126 to 57 in favor of creating a Probate District in Huntington. Never again would any town make an attempt to annex all or part of Shelton.

The big fight, between Derby and Birmingham against its independent minded borough Ansonia, began before the Committee on March 7, and lasted for three days. The Transcript published the testimony and cross-examinations verbatim. Some Ansonia proponents even went so far as to make the intriguing accusation that Birmingham allowed Seymour to become an independent town in 1850, and built up Shelton starting in 1870, all in an attempt of preventing Ansonia from usurping Birmingham as the center of influence within Derby, an argument their opponents vehemently denied. The interesting reality, however, is had neither event occurred, Ansonia would have been the geographic heart of Derby. 

Many of the Birmingham residents voicing opposition to dividing Derby at the Hartford hearings were factory owners, causing the pro-division lobby to ask them why, if they were so dedicated to preserving Derby, did they relocate their factories to Shelton? They were told the answer was the same reason they invested in Ansonia in the 1840s – additional space and cheap waterpower.

The majority of the Committee voted to side with Ansonia on March 19, though the minority report was also persuasive. On April 3, the Derby Division bill passed the State Senate 17 to 3 and was sent to the House of Representatives. The final blow came on April 11, 1889. With its party lines shattered, the House voted 125 to 76 to divide Derby and create a new Town of Ansonia. An attempt was made by Derby’s State Representative Charles S. Chaffee to derail the independence drive by attaching an amendment to the bill, saying Ansonia’s independence would be contingent upon a town-wide referendum (Derby, Birmingham, Ansonia, West Ansonia) to approve the measure passing. The amendment failed by a vote of 121-90. 

The Ansonia independence bill was passed again by the Senate on April 15, 1889, due to an amendment providing a minor border adjustment having been inserted by the House.. The bill was signed by Governor Buckley the following day, even as Judge Isaac Wolfe of New Haven made a last-ditch attempt to stop the division by making a motion to reconsider the action before the House (the attempt failed by a vote of 90-67).  The same day, the Transcript conceded its crushing defeat, and the birth of the Valley as we know it today, saying “There is nothing now to be done but accept the inevitable”.

In an incredible irony, the Sterling Opera House, held it first performance on April 2, 1889, a New York production prophetically titled Drifting Apart. Built with public funds, the upper floors of the Sterling served as a playhouse, in direct competition with the Ansonia Opera House built in 1870. The ground floor and basement were meant to serve as Birmingham’s Borough Hall. But the space far exceeded what was necessary for Birmingham, and many presumed the real plan was for the Sterling to serve as the proposed greater City of Derby’s City Hall. The Sterling was a particular cause of agitation for Ansonia. 

Part III

            On May 17, 1889, even as surveyors were driving stakes to mark the boundary between Derby and the new town of Ansonia, the daily newspaper Evening Transcript reported an informal meeting held in the Borough of Birmingham. Conducted in the office of the borough’s warden (the equivalent of its mayor) office, the group met to talk over “the proposed union of the old town of Derby (including Birmingham and Ansonia) and perhaps also Shelton into a city”. The group agreed to put out feelers to Ansonia, to see if, after the bitter, six-month long fight for independence from Derby, there was enough support among its prominent residents to reunite the fractured town and form a larger city.

            Three days later, the Transcript reported that everyone polled in Ansonia “expressed himself against the project, and stated he would strenuously oppose it”. This marked the final gasp of the era’s greater “City of Derby” concept. Perhaps if this gentler diplomacy been tried with Ansonia six months earlier, had the political wind been different, or had the “City” concept been introduced ten years earlier, the Valley’s history might have turned out quite different.

            The six-month period from November 1888 to April 1889, saw a flurry of petitions from the area sent to the State General Assembly, including one which resulted in Shelton and Huntington breaking from the Derby and Bridgeport Probate Districts, respectively, and forming one of their own. The election for the first judge of the Huntington Probate District quickly turned bitter, with interests from Birmingham trying to sabotage the candidacy of Republican Joseph Tomlinson. A letter writer to the Evening Transcript alleged on May 6 that Tomlinson sided with those who favored, and recently won, the division of both the Town of Derby (including Ansonia) and the Derby Probate District (which included Shelton) in the hopes of being elected.

The allegation was bitterly refuted the following day, with a ‘Sheltonian’ basically telling Birmingham to stop trying to “stir up discussions and discord in another town”. An insurance and real estate agent who lived in a beautiful new house on Howe Avenue below Myrtle Street, Mr. Tomlinson won the May 8 election by only 20 votes, becoming one of the most powerful, and by some feared, men in town. A telling aspect of how divided opinion was, Tomlinson actually lost the election in Shelton by 3 votes, yet won the rest of Huntington by 23.

Within a year, cooperation between Derby, Huntington, and their respective boroughs resulted in the construction of a new iron bridge to replace the covered one across the Housatonic River. The two towns’ trolley systems were connected. The fruits of this cooperation were made apparent when the Shelton line was extended to Bridgeport in 1899, and Derby’s to New Haven in 1901, benefiting the Valley immensely. Although Derby, Ansonia, and Birmingham’s trolley systems were already connected by 1889, needed improvements like maintenance and improvement of Division Street and its bridges took years to accomplish – no doubt a result of the bitterness of 1888-1889.

            Ansonia reincorporated itself as a City in 1893 – the first municipality in the Valley. Derby followed suit a year later, ending the Borough of Birmingham, but giving rise to the curious and completely false rumor that lingers to this day that the whole Valley was once named “Birmingham”. The smaller City of Derby’s City Hall was the first floor and basement of the Sterling Opera House until 1965. The Town of Huntington became a city in 1917, but took the unusual step of naming itself after its borough, becoming the City of Shelton.

            The conflict between those who wished to consolidate the Valley and those who wished to form smaller cities out of it riveted the entire State. What makes the conflict so intriguing is, had a few things turned out differently, we could have had a very different history. A city of  about 13 square miles would have been created in the heart of the Naugatuck Valley in 1889, with a population of about 20,000 people. Downtown Shelton would have become part of New Haven County, and its fate and destiny would have been determined in large part by forces from across the Housatonic River. How similar or different the area would have looked today is a matter of speculation.

            In the century that followed the great division debate, suggestions still occasionally popped up to unite Derby, Ansonia, and Shelton, but unlike the serious attempt of 1888-89, these were more of an idealistic nature, and never seriously considered. Prior to World War I, some suggested consolidating the three into a city called “Deanshel”, the name taken from the first letters in each of the three communities. In the late 1960s an Ansonia state legislator also broached the topic, suggesting the new city be named “Birmingham” – possibly giving rise to the false rumor that the whole Valley was once called Birmingham. The idea went as far as a $25,000 study, conducted by the University of Connecticut, which concluded that while a successful city might have been created out of Derby, Ansonia, and Shelton, the idea would never fly with their residents, who despite the irony of living in an area which serves as a model for regional cooperation, were far to proud of their smaller communities’ institutions and heritage to consider consolidation.