Derby likes to boast that it is “Connecticut’s smallest city.” But for those who settled at the confluence of the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers, the advantageous location has always caused residents to think big. The Paugassett and the Pootatuck lived here for centuries but it didn’t take long for European settlers to realize the promise of the power of water. Fur traders from new Haven came first and a trading post was established at Derby Docks by 1642. In 1681 a water-powered grist mill was operating.
In the 1830s Sheldon Smith, an industrialist who made his fortune in New York City, had a vision for developing his land inside the meeting of the two rivers, the area without direct access to the coast. He brought his friend Anson G. Phelps, in on the scheme to create a new industrial community they first called Smithville and the Birmingham. Smith and Phelps convinced the local government to build the street system while they supplied the planning, including setting aside two acres for a public green, and a new copper mill. By 1870 a great dam was completed on the Housatonic River that provided power to this burgeoning industrial hub but also permanently erased Derby’s character as a fishing and farming community.
The various villages and towns and jurisdictions around the historic junction of the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers came together and were chartered as the city of Derby in 1893. The Borough of Birmingham thus became “downtown” and that is where our walking tour will take place. We’ll start at the historic library and work our way down to the Housatonic River where the Derby Greenway links two rivers, three cities and six bridges...
Derby Public Library
313 Elizabeth Street
With the opening of this library in 1902, Derby ceased to be the only city in Connecticut without a freecirculating library. The town did, however, have a free reading room as early as 1868. Architect Hartley Dennett designed the building in Colonial Revival style with Flemish gables and white Ansonia granite ashlar walls. The funds for the building, land and a $5,000 stipend for books (provided the town came up with a like amount) came from the Colonel H. Holton Wood family in memory of their 11-year old boy, Harcourt, who had died in 1897. Wood, a native Canadian, came to Derby in 1887 as a vice president of the Derby Street Railway company, the four-mile line was the first electric railway in New England.
FACING THE LIBRARY, WALK DOWN ELIZABETH STREET TO THE RIGHT.
Edward F. Adzima Funeral Home
253 Elizabeth Street
This elaborate Queen Anne house was constructed in 1880-81 for R.W. Blake, president of the Sterling Piano Factory of Ansonia. Blake died in this house in 1901 after a revolver he was examining accidentally discharged, sending a bullet into his face. He was 60 years old.
The Church of Saint Mary
212 Elizabeth Street
On September 10, 1833, the sloop, The Guide, landed in Derby and among its passengers were the first Irish immigrants to Derby - Matthew Kelledy, his wife, his child and John Phelan. In that first year the first Catholic mass was held in the town with 28 persons present. After meeting in various homes for the next dozen years the first small church, 55 feet by 33 feet, was constructed on land donated by Anson G. Phelps of New York City, owner of most of this slice of Derby. Over the next 40 years, with Ireland suffering drought and famine, the Irish Catholic population swelled by over 3,500 in Derby. Despite two enlargements, the overburdened original church was replaced in 1882 with the current Gothic edifice.
Derby United Methodist Church
17 5th Street at Elizabeth Street
The largest, most elaborate building on the Green, the Methodist Church was the last to be built, in 1895. The Romanesque Revival style features trademark elements including round arches, tall square tower and heavy detailing in brick and brownstone. The architect was George Washington Kramer, America’s leading practitioner in designing Methodist churches. Kramer is reported to have designed more than 2,000 buildings, most of which were Methodist churches, including 28 in Connecticut. Derby United Methodist Church is the home of Pack 3, the oldest Cub Scout Pack in the United States.
The land for Derby Commons was set aside for public use in a deed dated April 25, 1845. The Commons was designated to remain forever a ‘Public Green” on the condition that the citizens of the town build a fence to keep sheep and residents off its grass. On October 4, 1852, a second document transferred ownership to the town for the sum of one dollar, forbidding any buildings to be placed on the land and restricting its use to military or public activities. In 1877, the highest point in the Green was chosen as the location for the Civil War Monument. It was designed by M.J. Walsh and was dedicated on July 4, 1877. It features a high granite pedestal with a life-size bronze soldier at rest. When additional moneys were raised, the monument was remodeled and rededicated on July 4, 1883, in front of 8,000 people. For many years, a town pump on the southwest corner of the Green provided fresh water to residents who often lined up with jugs and pitchers to take home fresh spring water drawn from a 50-foot well below. In 1960, the well was deepened to 90 feet and the pump was replaced by a fountain.
Second Congregational Church
136 Elizabeth Street
The Second Congregational Church was built in 1845 for the Birmingham Congregational Society at a cost of $6,000. The land for the Greek Revival styled church on the west side of the Green was donated by Anson G. Phelps with the stipulation that the property be restricted to church use for ever. So far the citizens of Derby have upheld the bargain but Mother Nature did not sign the agreement - it once had a tall steeple that was destroyed by Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and has not been replaced.
Sterling Opera House
100 Elizabeth Street
The Sterling Opera House was the first structure in Connecticut to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in 1889 to serve the cultural and political needs of Derby and the Lower Naugatuck Valley. Designer H.E. Ficken, whose resume includes Carnegie Hall, combined several architectural styles in the Sterling. The exterior and roof-top and the interior walls and doorways are Italianate Victorian and display the final evolution of the Italian Baroque opera house. The auditorium boasts an orchestra pit, two gracefully sweeping balconies, and fine examples of bottle glass, keystone arches and wrought iron work. Acoustically, the Sterling has no equal. Even a whisper can be heard clearly from all areas of the auditorium. The Opera House was named for Charles Sterling, whose Sterling Piano was one of the largest factory concerns in Connecticut’s Lower Naugatuck Valley. At the time it was composed of 16 buildings fronting 640 feet along the canal and railroad, several drying kilns, and two waterwheels. The theater closed in the 1940s and City Hall, which operated out of the lower level, moved in 1960 to nearby Fifth Street. The exterior has been recently renovated and plans are in place to complete a $10 million make-over of the historic interior as well.
73 Elizabeth Street
The formal organization of the Derby lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks took place on April 17, 1900 with 61 members. This property was purchased by the Elks in 1915 and the four-story lodge constructed. Note the use of decorative bricks used only on the facade. Thanks to a $20,000 gift by F.A. Russ, president of the R.N. Bassett Company, a specialty metal manufacturer, the mortgage was burned in 1917.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET AT THE HOUSATONIC RIVER.
Birmingham National Bank
285 Main Street
Here is a glimpse into what downtown New Haven looked like 200 years ago. This Federal style home belonged to Jonathan Mix, circa 1799. The first floor window heads and cornice detail show that Mix was a bit more well off than his neighbors. The Graduate Club, a social club for Yale alumni founded in 1892, purchased the house in 1901.
Home Trust Company
293-295 Main Street
The Home Trust Company organized in 1893 and constructed this classically inspired building of orange Roman brick in 1900. In the 1970s the bank was merged out of existence and today it is the activity hub for Derby’s senior citizens.
Derby Savings Bank
315 Main Street at Olivia Street
The four principal north-south streets in Derby were named for the women in the founders’ lives: Elizabeth, Minerva and Caroline were Sheldon Smith’s daughters and Olivia was Anson Phelps’ wife. In its 150-year run as the town’s most famous bank, Derby Savings Bank at one time or another stood on the corner of all four. The bank was chartered in 1846 and could hardly have experienced more humble beginnings - it operated from the back room of a shoe store. This Colonial Revival building opened for deposits in 1923 and had the longest run of any of its homes - 53 years. In the 1990s Derby Savings Bank disappeared in a flurry of mergers.
Kraus Corset Factory
Main and Third streets
Not only were corsets manufactured here but hoops for the popular hoop skirts of the Victorian age. None are needed today and neither is the factory which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The factory has been converted into apartments today.
TURN AND RE-TRACE YOUR STEPS ON MAIN STREET TO THE ELIZABETH STREET.
1 Elizabeth Street at Main Street
Derby’s government has operated out of an armory, an opera house, its own place and, since 2005, here in an old bank. More specifically the last headquarters of the Derby Savings Bank that opened with much fanfare in 1976.
TURN LEFT ON MINERVA STREET
Imanuel St. James Church
123 Minerva Street
The land for an Episcopalian church was donated by Sheldon Smith and Anson Phelps. The Gothic church was built in 1843 by stonemason Harvey Johnson and carpenter Nelson Hinman; the rectory next door was completed in 1853. The first rector was Reverend Richard Mansfield, who held the position for 72 years, among the longest of any clergyman in the country.
TURN RIGHT ON 5TH STREET AT THE END OF THE DERBY GREEN AND WALK DOWN THE HILL ONE BLOCK TO CAROLINE STREET. TURN LEFT.
John I. Howe House
213 Caroline Street
Connecticut-born John Ireland Howe began the study of medicine at the age of 19 in 1812 and for many years was a physician in New York. At his core, however, he was an inventor. He constructed a factory for the manufacture of rubber but abandoned it after finding little success. In 1832 he patented a machine to manufacture solid-headed metal pins. Although it was imperfect it represented one of the world’s first machine to mass produce a product, helping to usher in the Industrial Revolution. In 1838 the Howe Pin Company was moved to Birmingham and that year he introduced a new “rotary machine” that churned out pins without any material improvement for thirty years. The Howe enterprise continually undersold its English competition until 1908 when it was sold to Plume and Atwood, another Connecticut concern. Two years later the Howe family donated the Howe pin-making machine to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. This is the house John Howe lived in until his death in 1876, today perhaps the most oddly situated historic hose in Connecticut.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS UP THE HILL BACK TO THE DERBY GREEN. TURN RIGHT ON MINERVA STREET.
16. 149 Minerva Street
This Queen Anne confection, all angles and nooks and crannies, has anchored this Victorian block since 1886.
Derby High School
187 Minerva Street
The unusually decorated Derby High School grew to its current size in several stages. It housed the high school until 1969 and then was put to use as the Derby Middle School and then the Lincoln School when it was boarded up and abandoned for many years. Renovations in 2004 created a senior-living facility.
TURN RIGHT ON COTTAGE STREET. TURN LEFT ON CAROLINE STREET AND WALK BACK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.