By Dan Shine
Four Centuries of West Haven Green
With thanks to Historian Peter J Malia for contributing to this series.
Above is an image of the first Christ Church Episcopal in West Haven. This photo shows the mission, later repurposed as St. Martin of the Fields.
The West Haven Green has always been a gathering place for worship, protest, celebration, mourning, schooling… and for making history. It was home to the First Congregational Church built in 1717, which doubled as the village meetinghouse.
The first in a succession of schoolhouses opened just northeast of the meetinghouse in 1729. A new schoolhouse was built in its place in 1805 and served West Haven children until 1857.
Part of the Green was also consecrated as a graveyard that remained active until 1878. The graveyard now borders Campbell Avenue on both sides of Church Street. It was originally one contiguous piece of property. In the 19th century, the graveyard was divided between the two churches with some graves being moved to either side to accommodate the creation of Church Street and an expanding Episcopal presence in town.
That presence was not always welcomed, nor peaceful. When Christ Church was built in the very shadows of the Congregational meetinghouse in 1739, the humble little mission stood among the first Anglican (Episcopal) churches in Connecticut. At the time, however, its very existence was a source of trouble in West Haven. Known for its more conservative and Loyalist congregation, Christ Church and its communicants were increasingly suspected of being enemies of American independence.
At one point, the Sons of Liberty led by West Havener Lamberton Smith even demanded that two “treasonous” individuals, both members of Christ Church, be banished from the village. Once the Revolution began, the Congregationalist minister, Rev. Noah Williston, used the meetinghouse as a recruiting station for the rebel militia, which often drilled on the Green.
Fearing violence, the Rev. Bella Hubbard eventually shuttered Christ Church for a good part of the war. Still, the taunting and persecutions continued as the war dragged on. By the end of the Revolution in 1783, some five percent of Christ Church communicants had fled to Canada.
During the Revolution, one incident stands above all others in the history of West Haven’s Green.
On July 5, 1779, an invasion force of some 1,500 British and Hession soldiers marched up what is now Savin Avenue to the Green. While some soldiers busied themselves looting surrounding homes, others were prompted by local Tories to seize the Rev. Williston as a traitor. Seeing their approach, Williston tried to escape, breaking his leg in the process. Dragging him back to the Green, the soldiers made such a ruckus, they attracted the attention of Adjutant William Campbell, a Scottish Highlander and member of His Majesty’s Third Guards. Campbell quickly disbursed the troopers and had Williston carried back to the parsonage, where he then ordered the regimental surgeon to set the minister’s leg, then posted a guard so he would be left in peace.
Less than two hours later, Campbell would be killed atop Milford Hill in Allingtown. Today, a large boulder sits on the southwest portion of the Green across from the West Haven Historical Society to commemorate Adj. Campbell’s act of mercy. A larger monument is in Allingtown inscribed with Campbell’s name and the Biblical beatitude: “Blessed are the Merciful.” (To be continued.)
Peter J. Malia is a native of West Haven and author of Visible Saints: West Haven, 1648 – 1798, available through www.connecticutpress.com; Barnes and Noble in Orange; Amazon, and eBay.