Bridgeport was originally a parish of Stratford and only became a separate town in 1821. An 1824 map shows its streets lined with houses—including several sea captains’ houses—and a few small businesses. But Bridgeport was clearly in the rise, growing at an amazing rate of speed. It was incorporated as a city in 1836, the year John Warner Barber’s view was published in his Connecticut Historical Collections. At that point, the skyline was still dominated by the spires of its many churches, but by 1849, when Barber published an updated view, huge factories and warehouses lined the waterfront. Much of this transformation was due to the coming of the railroad. The New York and New Haven Railroad, the Naugatuck Railroad, and the Housatonic Railroad intersected in Bridgeport, connecting with steamboat lines, dramatically altering the movement of people of goods and opening the way for the increased industrial development that quickly followed. A young man or woman born in Bridgeport about 1815, just after the War of 1812, would have grown to adulthood watching Bridgeport evolve from a modest small town into a modern nineteenth-century metropolis, adapting as best they could to the rapid and sweeping changes. Probably some of them packed up moved on elsewhere, unable to make a living or uncomfortable in the new city that had grown up around them, but others would have stayed and thrived, celebrating change as progress and marveling at the wonders of the new industrial age.
Change is constant in people’s lives and it is constant in the lives of cities. We like to think of the Past as frozen in time, like Colonial Williamsburg or Historic Deerfield, but the reality is far different. Driven by politics and economics, by ambition and desire, cities inevitably change and grow. Young people want to do things differently. They see opportunities to make money or simply to make their mark in the world. Few people in the nineteenth century believed that anything old was worth saving. In the nation’s drive to embrace new technologies, it’s something of a miracle that anything from the past survived at all.
On October 3rd, the Connecticut Historical Society is opening a new exhibition, (Re)Building Hartford: A City Captured by Artist Richard Welling. The exhibition will use Welling’s drawings to document the changes that transformed the city of Hartford and the lives of its people during the late twentieth century. Of course, Bridgeport, too, continued to evolve and grow. Twentieth century Bridgeport, with its automobiles and parking garages, appears in a 1970 drawing by Richard Welling, showing the intersection of State Street and Lafayette, an area that lies at the heart of both Barber views and that appears on the 1824 map, occupied by houses, schools, and churches.