By Dan Shine
Four Centuries of West Haven Green
We wish to thank Peter J. Malia for contributing parts 1-6 of this series-
Following the American Revolution, life on the West Haven Green was forever changed. Despite their severe losses in the war, West Haveners felt confident enough in their community’s future as part of a new nation to petition New Haven to become their own town in 1785. The center of that proposed new town would of course be the Green.
The petition fell upon deaf ears. Two years later, West Haveners again petitioned New Haven for town status. This time Milford joined in the protest against the idea in fear that it was spark a boundary dispute and possible violence. Those fears were not unfounded.
A half century earlier, Milford and West Haven farmers came close to a shooting war over disputed land. It was not until 1822 that West Haven made yet another–and this time successful–bid for independence. The difference was it was done in concert with North Milford to create the new Town of Orange. Initially Orange had more residents, so the seat of government was located on what is now Orange Center Road. By the 1860s, however, West Haven’s ship building industry along Front Street and its burgeoning downtown area facing the Green required Orange to create the semi-autonomous Borough of West Haven in 1873. Full town status would not come until 1921.
Despite setbacks in establishing itself an an independent town, what could not be stopped in West Haven was progress. By the year 1800, James Blakeslee bought the Lamberton Painter House on the corner of what is now Main Street and Campbell Avenue and opened up a tavern.
Directly across from the Green, Blakeslee’s tavern became an immediate favorite among the villagers as a drinking and meeting place. It became so popular, in fact, that some West Haveners eventually complained about the increasing number of “country” people lounging about the Green singing and frolicking like “gypsies,” one local diarist complained. It seems the so-called “Campbell Crawl” has a history behind it.
Other citizens were interested in the Green’s beautification. As the borough’s population and budget increased, paved walkways crisscrossed the Green. By 1860, fencing was also added, but it was eventually removed after the two churches could not agree as to what was common open space. One thing that did unite the two churches, an incited a week of rioting, was a grave robbery in 1824.
Some Yale medical students allegedly exhumed the body of 19-year-old Bethsheba Smith, from the West Haven graveyard in the middle of a winter’s night. Discovering the empty grave on Monday morning, hundreds of West Haveners converged on the Green and marched on the Yale Medical School, then located on Grove Street in New Haven.
The West Haven sheriff discovered the girl’s dissected body hidden in the basement, and the angry crowd wanted justice. After several days of rioting, the West Haven protesters simply ran out of steam, especially once the Governor’s Footguard appeared on the scene.
In 1855, a new Congregational Church was built and the old meetinghouse was re-purposed as a public meeting hall and general store. Sadly, the new church burnt to the ground in 1859, only to be rebuilt again at the princely cost of $10,000. Much of that Federal/Greek Revival structure still stands.
Meanwhile, Christ Church underwent its share of face lifts beginning in the late 1830s. By the end of the 19th century, church membership grew to the point where another rehabilitation of the old church was started with the addition of electricity, heating, a loft new organ, and a new adjacent rectory. It was not until 1909 that the present Christ Church was consecrated. Designed by Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson, the trap rock Episcopal Church that now stands on Church Street today is considered one of the finest Gothic-style churches in Connecticut.
By the 1860s horse railways ran from the Green into downtown New Haven. Trolleys soon followed with service to Savin Rock, which had now developed into a major seaside resort area. Championed by Harry Ives Thompson, the town’s newspaper editor, postmaster, historian and accomplished artist, Fourth Avenue was renamed Campbell Avenue in honor of Adj. William Campbell, the slain British officer who only hours before his own death had saved the life of West Haven’s minister during the British invasion in 1779.
By the 1870s, the Green and its downtown surroundings were booming, thanks to the trolleys and train depot that helped fuel local industries, including the West Haven Buckle Company and shipbuilding businesses at the end of Main Street, now a property in limbo as the city awaits the development of The Havens.
Along Campbell Avenue were a variety of mixed-use commercial buildings across the street from the Green as well as a portion of the ancient burial grounds on the side of the church dating back to 1723. Once Church Street was developed, the other half of the old graveyard was located on the corner of Church Street and Campbell Avenue surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence. Next came Christ Church itself and a few other buildings associated with the Episcopal Church, all located on this short cut-through. Bordering the Green to its North and West were Main Street and Savin Avenue, respectively. Savin Avenue had a mix of buildings facing the Green, including a girls’ finishing school and the Congregational Church Parsonage on Savin Avenue. Main Street was dominated by the iconic town hall, built in 1892 on the site of the present City Hall.
Also in the 1870s, ownership of the Green changed hands from the Congregational Church to the West Haven Borough in 1876. The only caveat was the church retaining a right to build and expand its presence in the future, That turned out to be a wise decision as the venerable West Haven Green approached the 20th century. (To be continued.)
Peter J. Malia is the author of Visible Saints, West Haven, Connecticut, 1648 – 1798, available at connecticutpress.com , Barnes and Noble in Orange, eBay, and Amazon..