Haddam Historical Society

Haddam, which is located in the lower Connecticut River Valley in Middlesex County, is a vibrant community with a rich heritage, historic architecture and distinct villages including Haddam, Higganum, Haddam Neck and Tylerville.

The town has the unique distinction of being the only town in the state of Connecticut that is bisected by the Connecticut River with residents on both sides. The river has long played a significant role in the development of Haddam as a source of income, transportation and recreation. Today the town is primarily a bedroom residential community with an excellent school system, acres of recreational open space and residents who care about the past, present and future of their “hometown.”

The earliest residents of Haddam were members of Wangunk tribe of Native Americans who hunted, fished and grew corn, beans and tobacco. The Wangunks had numerous settlements in the Haddam area and had relatively peaceful relationships with neighboring tribes.

In 1662 representatives for the Connecticut Colony purchased from the Wangunks the land the English called “Plantation at Thirty Mile Island.” The purchase included 104 square miles and extended six miles inland on both the east and west sides of the Connecticut River and encompassed all of what is now Haddam and East Haddam.  The English paid 30 coats (worth approximately $100) for the land and reserved Thirty Mile Island for themselves and the right to fish and hunt where they pleased. The name Thirty Mile Island came from the English who thought the island was 30 miles north of the mouth of the Connecticut River. In reality it is only about 17 miles from the Long Island Sound.

In 1668 the town was formally established and named Haddam after the English village of Much Hadham where the family of Connecticut’s first Governor, John Haynes, had an estate. The original settlement was on the west bank of the river in the area of Haddam village and Shailerville today. The early residents were farmers growing rye, corn and grass and raised cattle. The river played an essential part of the town’s existence for the first 200 years providing transportation and income. Shipyards were built along both sides of the river, and many of the small brooks and streams leading into the river provided waterpower for small mills and factories.

In 1685 a group of residents settled East Haddam, which became a separate town in 1734. Haddam Neck, which is also on the east side of the river, was settled around 1712 but remained a part of Haddam. Higganum was settled between 1685 and 1700 and was given the name “Hegamumpus,” which means “at axe rock.” Higganum Landing became a successful river port and shipbuilding center. Shailerville and Tylerville villages, which became home to shipbuilders, mariners, merchants and ferrymen, were settled in the late 17th century. Later areas to be settled included Ponsett, Candlewood Hill, Little City, Burr and Turkey Hill.

During the Revolutionary War Haddam was a provision town and suppled troops with fish, beef, and pork and housed Washington’s dragoons horses in the winter of 1778. Haddam men served in the local militia and participated in privateering, the state sanctioned practice of capturing enemy ships.

After the war many Haddam residents emigrated west to places such as New York and Ohio because of the depletion of farmland. Trade and industry, including shipbuilding, fishing and quarrying, expanded in  early 19th century Haddam. Two large granite quarries employed many residents and sent curb and building stone to large U.S. cities such as New York, Boston and New Orleans. Schooners, sloops and brigs built at local yards sailed the world and participated in coastal and West Indies trade.

In 1785 Middlesex County was formed from portions of Hartford and New London Counties, and Haddam and Middletown were both designated county seats. The municipalities were required to build a court house and jail and shared court responsibilities for over 100 years. The court system moved entirely to Middletown in the 1880s, but the jail in Haddam remained active until the early 1970s. In 1802 the Middlesex Turnpike opened through town and served as the main overland route between Hartford and the shoreline. This turnpike provided easier communication and commercial growth for the town. The Connecticut Valley Railroad was built in 1871, and Haddam boasted five stations from Goodspeed’s to Higganum.

Large scale industry came to Higganum in the early 19th century and originally used water power to run the factories. Higganum Manufacturing (later Clark Cutaway Harrow) built the Higganum Reservoir to power its factory which produced farming implements and became one of the largest employers in town. Starting in 1844 D. & H. Scovil Hoe Company used the water power of Candlewood Hill Brook to manufacture planters hoe and employed many area residents well into the 20th century. Russell Manufacturing was located on the Higganum River and produced elastic webbing, belting and suspenders. These industries brought many immigrants to the community including Swedish, Irish, Italians to name a few. By the mid-20th century, most industry had moved or had been scaled back, and Haddam became a primarily suburban residential community. One exception was the construction of the Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Plant which was built in Haddam Neck in 1968 and produced more than 110 billion kilowatt hours before closing in 1996.

The 20th century brought many changes to Haddam including the automobile, two World Wars, a Depression and tremendous population growth. By the 1950s most residents were working and shopping outside of Haddam in Middletown, Hartford or New Haven, yet Higganum and Tylerville villages remain today viable commercial centers for a small town. Haddam has responded to the needs of its residents with the building of new schools for the regionalized school system, a Fire House, a Town Office Building, a Transfer Station, and the adaptive reuse and renovation of older buildings to provide a host of services and programs for the population. The community also has seven houses of worship, many having a long history in Haddam.

Haddam has many notable residents over the last 350 years, but one that merits mention is Venture Smith who lived in Haddam Neck in the later years of his life between 1775 and 1805.

Venture Smith was born Broteer Furro in 1729 and was the eldest son of a West African Prince. He spent his early years in what would be present-day Guinea, but at age six, Broteer was captured by an enemy tribe and sold into slavery and sent to New England. Upon arrival, Broteer's first owner changed his name to Venture. For over thirty years, Venture worked under three different masters before purchasing his freedom for 71 pounds and 2 shillings - an enormous sum for the time, enough money to purchase hundreds of acres of land. Once free, Venture adopted the last name Smith, in honor of his final owner, and began his new life as a successful business man in Haddam Neck, CT. He was able to purchase the freedom of his wife and children and became a successful fisherman, farmer and landowner in Haddam. Venture Smith’s tale of hard work, tenacity and ingenuity makes him a role model for Haddam and its citizens.

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