The Industrial History of Willimantic

Meghan Brooks   Staff Writer

Our town of Willimantic holds a rich history. Like many old towns in this state, Willimantic is known for its manufacturing beginnings.

The fast running waters intersecting with other rivers and streams created the perfect place for different mills, which got the town started. Before there were textile mills, which Willimantic has become famous for, the Willimantic River had been harnessed to power gristmills, sawmills, a powder mill that supplied the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, a paper mill, and an iron works.

Perez Richmond, a man from Rhode Island, settled in Windham near where the Natchaug River meets the Willimantic river. There, he built his cotton mill in 1822 that eventually supported most of the area’s economy in the 1800’s. While Richmond was developing his mill and business, Charles Lee purchased a mill as well. This mill was east of present-day Bridge street and made of stone. These were later known as the Smithville mills.

According to past-inc.org, “Matthew Watson, Nathan Tingley, and Arunah Tingley of Providence, R.I., purchased water rights and land just upstream on the west side of Bridge Street. Where earlier there had been a sawmill and gristmill, Watson and the Tingleys built a large stone mill to manufacture cotton cloth, along with houses for themselves and their workers.”

The Windham historical society, located at 627 Main Street, is housed in the Jillson house, where a prominent family that aided in the development of the area had lived. Visitors are able to tour the old 1824 house April through December by appointment.

The Jillson family was prominent in the late 1800’s for their development of individual spools of cotton thread to be used on sewing machines. This was a large development, as originally colored thread could only be bought in bulk. The mill that the Jillson family ran allowed people to purchase secular colors in smaller quantities to use on their personal home sewing machines that were also manufactured in Connecticut.

Siblings William, Asa, and Seth Jillson built their cotton mill by current-day Jackson street bridge. This mill became the spool-making shop our town is famous for, which is why the frogs on the bridge sit on spools.

By the late 1800’s, the Crimean War had stalled flax production, so the Willimantic Linen Company put heavy focus on the cotton thread manufacturing, causing them to become the leaders of the industry at the time. This increased demand for spools of colored thread lead to the companies purchase land for three more mills. The last mill built became the largest cotton mill in the world.

This 168-foot-wide by 840-feet-long brick factory was ahead of its time, featuring electric lamps, and belts with shafting built under the floor instead of in the work space, not just for aesthetic, but safety.

One of the biggest historical developments for Windham was the railroad system built in 1849. According to the Windham Town Hall, “The first three railroads to go through Willimantic were the New London Northern Railroad, the Willimantic Railroad, and the Palmer Railroad.”

The tracks ran from New London to Willimantic, all the way to New Haven, and along Long Island Sound, becoming the largest rail center in Connecticut by connecting the two largest cities in the state. Along the tracks businesses for coal, lumber, feed, and more sprung up, which all relied on the Willimantic railroad facilities to bring in merchandise.
With the boom of population and economy, the need for better transportation was needed, so a trolley was put in place on Main Street in 1890. Trolleys regularly ran from Willimantic to Coventry, where they continued into Hartford.

In 1889, Willimantic opened “Willimantic Normal School,” one of two teaching colleges in the state for women to learn how to become teachers. Dick Curland, a writer for The Bulletin stated “In 1889, 13 female students attended classes on the third floor of the Willimantic Savings Institute in that city.”

The larger location that was completed in 1895 on the corner of Windham and Valley Streets would become “Eastern Connecticut State College.” As of 1967, the college became the liberal arts university all of us know today, Eastern Connecticut State University.

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