“Williamantic” is an Algonquin Indian word meaning roughly “land of the swift running waters” - an appropriate appellation since the 90-foot drop in the Williamantic River from the town’s western edge to its junction with the Natchaug River has shaped the town from the very beginning. Those first mills were built back in 1706. In 1822 pioneer cotton spinner Percy O. Richmond purchased water rights here and soon there were six mills humming along the river.
In 1849 the railroad arrived in Willimantic and five years later the iron horse brought a group of Hartford capitalists to the banks of the Willimantic River looking to manufacture linen, napkins and shoe threads. At the same time, however, the Crimean War broke out and the new Willimantic Linen Company was forced to develop new technologies for the making of fine threads. This they did well enough that they earned the highest award at America’s Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. In 1898 the company merged with the American Thread Company which was soon operating the largest manufactory in Connecticut. Willimantic had earned the moniker “Thread City.”
All this prosperity translated in the late 1800s into fine residential neighborhoods on the hills above the mills and a bustling Main Street. There were commercial blocks built in the finest architectural styles of the day, fashionable hotels with over 100 rooms and powerful banks. The Loomer Opera House was considered the finest entertainment venue between Hartford and Providence. Buffalo Bill Cody, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel all appeared in Willimantic.
American Thread left town in 1985 and Willimantic lost its economic engine. It also lost its government; in 1893 the city was incorporated as a section of the town of Windham. In the 1980s the government dissolved and Willimantic was folded back into Windham.
Our walking tour will begin down by the “swift running waters” among the souvenirs left behind by the mills that spawned “Thread City”...
Windham Mills State Heritage Park
322 Main Street
Until the 1850s English and Scottish manufacturers dominated the market for cotton thread owing to unique atmospheric conditions in the British Isles that produced the ideal moisture content for spinning. Pioneering research by the Willimantic Linen Company, organized here in 1854, developed the first cotton thread manufactured in the United States. The American Thread Company bought these mills in 1898 and eventually constructed six large gray mills on the site. Mill Number 4 was the largest mill in the world and the first to have electricity. The largest factory of any kind in Connecticut, it employed 3,500 workers. The mills closed in 1985 and have since been converted to commercial use; two were torn down. The double-arched bridge was built in 1857, designed to stand up to the floods that has washed away previous wooden bridges. It carried vehicles until 2001 when it was replaced by the “Frog Bridge.” It is now a garden, which can be reached by climbing the stairs in the park.
WALK ACROSS MAIN STREET AT THE CROSSWALK.
Windham Textile and History Museum
411 Main Street
The Windham Textile and History Museum is housed in the 1877 headquarters of the American Thread Company. Exhibits shine a light on the culture that helped shape a large part of Connecticut life from the factory to the mill owner’s mansion.
TURN LEFT AND WALK UP THE HILL ALONG MAIN STREET.
South Street at Main Street
On a moonless June night in 1754 the villagers of Willimantic were alarmed by piercing shrieks from the nearby woods. Fearing attack by Indian warriors - or worse, many barricaded themselves in their homes while others pumped volley after volley of musket fire into the still darkness. But there was no sign of the source of the blood-curdling clamor. It was not until the following daybreak that the evidence of the great battle was revealed - hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bullfrogs had fought and died for a piece of a drought-stricken millpond. Where other communities may have breathed a sigh of relief, laughed it off and went about their lives, Willimantic adopted the frog as its mascot for evermore. The bullfrog appears on the town seal and in 2000 the new 500-foot, $13 million bridge over the Willimantic River was adorned with four 11-foot frogs.
Windham Historical Society
627 Main Street
Asa Jillson arrived in Willimantic Falls in 1826 and with his brother Set retooled an old mill and built another stone mill. a wooden mill and a stone dwelling house. The house was built from gneiss granite which was quarried from the nearby Willimantic River, the same as the mills. The water was actually diverted from its bed to access the stone; you can still see traces of the quarry along the river today. The house was originally slated for demolition during 1970s redevelopment, but was saved by the Windham Historical Society and stands alone today as its headquarters.
First Baptist Church
667 Main Street
The First Baptist Church of Willimantic was officially organized in 1827. The current building was built in 1858 and enlarged in 1889. Of Italianate design, this wood-frame structure is capped .by an octagonal tower with round-arched vents in the four principal faces. The three-bays of the facade are framed by ornate Italianate pilasters. In 1968 The First Baptist Church of Willimantic had an opportunity to sell its building after a Valentine’s Day Fire destroyed the 1865 Union Block. The declining church voted not to sell, and to remain a downtown church, which is where it still stands.
824 Main Street
The concrete screen masks the old Gem Theater, along the Capitol Theater, one of the town’s esteemed movie palaces.
Developed by Seth Chauncey Hooker, the hotel was considered among the state’s finest lodgings when it opened in 1887. Soon after Hooker sold the property in 1909, the burgeoning use of automobiles and lack of parking at the site sent the hotel into a long period of decline. For many years the building, severely compromised by a ground floor alteration, has operated as a residence hotel.
Victorian Neighborhood Association
869 Main Street
This modest Greek Revival house was built by John Gray in 1831. Details include corner pilasters and a semi-circular window in the gable. It is currently the home of the Victorian Neighborhood Association.
ACT Capitol Theater School
896 Main Street
The luxurious Capitol Theater opened on January 12, 1926 with 1,224 seats of leather on two floors and with a quartet of private boxes. Patrons found inside a marble staircase and brass lighting fixtures. It began as a Vaudeville house but by 1930 was only screening movies. The Capitol closed its doors on October 20, 1973. The last two movies shown were “Paper Moon” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It has since been renovated as an arts academy.
Old U.S. Post Office
967 Main Street
This is the third historic home for the Willimantic Brewing Company. They began life in 1991 in the lobby of the old Capitol Theater building and then moved into the 1880, bay-windowed brick building at 877 Main Street. One more move found the brewpub here, inside the Neoclassical post office constructed of granite and limestone in 1909. A newer post office opened on Main Street in the 1950s and the federal government abandoned this building in 1967. It spent most of the remainder of the 20th century vacant.
979 Main Street
It took 1.25 million bricks to construct the Romanesque-inspired Town Hall in 1896. The Victorian confection rests on a foundation of ashlar brownstone and is capped by a copper clock tower with cupola. Warren Richard Briggs was the architect.
TURN RIGHT ON WINDHAM STREET PAST THE TOWN HALL AND WALK UPHILL TO THE “HILL SECTION,” A 40-BLOCK AREA THAT BOASTS MORE THAN 800 VINTAGE HOMES AND BUILDINGS. THE VAST MAJORITY OF HOUSES WERE BUILT AFTER THE CIVIL WAR AND THE DISTRICT WAS FILLED IN BY 1910, THE ACCEPTED END OF THE VICTORIAN ERA.
Willimantic Normal School
83 Windham Street
The Connecticut General Assembly established the Willimantic State Normal School, the forerunner of today’s Eastern Connecticut State College in 1889 and 13 students began instruction on the third floor of the Willimantic Savings Institute. In 1895 the new Normal School was erected on six acres of land deeded to the State by the Town of Windham in 1890. This “model” school for training teachers was constructed in the Beaux Arts style in 1907.
Edward George House
90 Windham Street
This house that was originally built in 1880 was heavily influenced by the Shingle Style variant of Queen Anne architecture as noted by the dominating, wide front gable and the shingle sheathing. The Reverend Edward George once lived here.
Albert Scripture House
114 Windham Street
Albert Scripture came to town to work as a grocery clerk in the company store of the Willimantic Linen Company in 1885. The last dozen years before his death in 1922 at the age of 66, he served as the town clerk and treasurer. His late Victorian home was constructed in 1885.
Wilson Little House
122 Windham Street
Edith C. and Wilton E. Little, an employee of Hillhouse & Taylor, bought the property at 122 Windham Street from the Windham Cotton Manufacturing Company in 1892. In 1896, they sold the land and house to George P. Phenix, the 2nd Principal of Normal School, now ECSU. The property was then sold in 1904 to Henry Burr for whom ECSU’s Burr Hall is named. The house was sold once again to Albert French who sold it to Roland B. Jordan, owner of the Jordan Auto Company. His daughter, Elizabeth, sold it to David Meyers in 1980. The house has been lovingly restored as the detail of the exterior attests.
TURN RIGHT ON PROSPECT STREET.
William Grant House
northwest corner of High and Prospect streets
This picturesque Queen Anne Victorian house was constructed for William Grant and his wife Jenny in 1895. Signature details include the wraparound porch, asymmetrical massing and corner turret. It remained in the Grant family until 1998 when it was purchased by the state of Connecticut and is now used as the Alumni House for Eastern Connecticut State College.
George Tiffany House
272 Prospect Street
Although George Tiffany’s occupation or source of income is lost to history, he was a prominent landowner in Willimantic in the last half of the 19th century. He owned several properties on Main Street and a large chunk of this block, which he bought in 1890. His front carousel porch mimicsa merry-go-round, which was a favorite entertainment, especially among the young Victorians.
TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
220 Valley Street at southwest corner of Walnut Street
During The Civil War, enough Episcopalian families came to work in the new thread mills to warrant the Diocese to recognized the existence of a church in Willimantic. The small congregation assembled in various halls in town. In 1883 the first St. Paul?s Church was erected at the present site. It was a gingerbread style church, which came in three sections from Central Village. The current stone church was constructed in 1912.
TURN LEFT ON VALLEY STREET.
First Congregational Church of Willimantic
199 Valley Street
The First Congregational Church of Willimantic organized in 1828 with 16 members. The next year membership had grown to 45 and a church edifice was immediately erected and, with enlargements, put in 40 years of service. The current brick sanctuary was completed in 1871 at the cost of $46,700, including grounds, chapel, furniture, organ.
Saint Mary Roman Catholic Church
46 Valley Street
Fr. Florimond DeBruycker, the third pastor of nearby St. Joseph Church, willed this property onValleyStreet for the building of a church for the French-CanadianCatholics of Willimantic. In 1903 construction began inaRomanesque Style of architecture as practiced in France.
Saint Joseph Roman Catholic Church
99 Jackson Street at northeast corner of Valley Street
The cornerstone of this beautiful Gothic-style church was laid with much fuss on Sunday, April 17, 1873. In the roughly ten years of its existence the Catholic population of Willimantic had exploded with an influx of Irish workers into the town’s textile mills. Architect E.S. Howland gave the brick building abundant granite trim and a graceful tower surmounted with a spire, the cross on the top of which is 172 feet about the street. Inside the magnificent high altar was imported from Munich, Germany. The great Hurricane of 1938 claimed the church’s tower as one of its victims. The tower was rebuilt immediately but it would not be for another half-century that the congregation could afford to install a six-ton replica of the original steeple.
TURN RIGHT ON JACKSON STREET. TURN LEFT ON UNION STREET AND FOLLOW DOWN THE HILL TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE WINDHAM MILLS COMPLEX.