West Haven is strategically located on the western shore of New Haven Harbor in south central Connecticut. From its pristine four mile shore one can see the contour of Long Island, a natural barrier, twenty miles to the south. The deep harbor and beaches are somewhat protected by the “Breakwaters”, a series of stone walls constructed in the 1880’s. Its location has been both a blessing and a bane throughout history.
Three Native American tribes, keepers of the oyster beds, summered in the area for hundreds of years. The abundance of wildlife in the densely forested region, fresh water from three tributaries and salt water fish and shellfish made it a natural habitat. Crops were easily raised on the fertile soil. Shells were used for wampum and fertilizer. Dutch explorers first noted the tall mounds of shells along the shoreline long before New Haven Colony was settled. Encampments were set up along the area of Old Creek near the sand bar, on the Green and as far from the ocean as Maltby Lakes. Arrow heads and other artifacts may be found In several areas of the city, often in one’s own backyard.
“West Farms”, with its first six settling families of gentlemen farmers (1648) was an extension of New Haven, a part of the Borough of Orange, independent Town of West Haven in 1921, and the incorporated City of West Haven, 1959. Oddly enough, through all the years of being identified as a part of another community, West Haven has always had its own unique economy, noted persons, industries, social structure, government and religious leaders and political impact.
The focus of the early settlers was on the center of the city, and they established the Congregational meeting house in the middle of town. All vital statistic, tax and town business records were kept there. A school and library were established. In a move which shook the colonies, ministers from that church united with Yale College leaders to establish an Anglican Church adjacent to the meeting house in the early 1700’s.
British troops marched through the town on the way to burn New Haven on July 5, 1779. The history of West Haven cannot be told without recalling the Williston incident and British Adjutant Campbell’s merciful deed. Over the early years there was a degree of strife as colonials distrusted the Loyalists in their town to the point where it is recorded that a gentleman from Oyster River shot his British sympathizer neighbor in the leg for his disloyalty to the townspeople. Other sympathizers provided beef and fresh produce for British ships landing on our shores during another landing. Our city seal bears the image of our Paul Revere, militiaman Thomas Painter, as he spotted invading ships enter the harbor.
Ship builders, seafarers, international traders, whalers, and privateers – their owners, captains and masters who resided here – brought great wealth to the community, and an ear of gracious homes and elegant living was the norm during the second century of our history. Dramatic change had taken place, and by the end of the 1800’s there were businesses and industry which once could only have been imagined. Sophisticated travelers enjoyed the summer hospitality of the new amusement park and shoreline homes and inns, while locals went to such places as the Philadelphia Exposition. Fraternal organizations flourished, and people were lured to the town because of its country atmosphere but with the convenience of the trolley. Patriotism was always in the forefront throughout the centuries and many veteran’s groups participated in parades and memorial services and businesses grew and changed to meet the needs of the ever growing population.
Contemporary West Haven is proud of its corporate neighbors and small businesses alike; the University of New Haven, the Veteran’s Hospital with its Blind Services Unit, the four mile shoreline where thousands of locals and visitors enjoy the beach walk or swimming and boating; especially of its ability to host many cultural and ethnic festivals, concerts on the Green or in the Savin Rock Grove; its sports venues and special events such as the Special Olympic World Summer Games
Our “Lone Sailor” Monument, Campbell’s Gravesite and the monuments of the Green, the Ward-Heitmann House Museum, Revolutionary era burial grounds, are among the attractions of our Historical Society’s “Tour of Historic West Haven.”
We are proud of our history, our hospitality and our recognition as a “Local Legacy” by the Library of Congress!”
The West Haven Historical Society
The Significance of West Haven and the West River Crossing
The city of West Haven was founded just prior to the middle of the 17th century by several leaders of the New Haven Colony who recognized the value of the extended shore line, unadulterated forests and potential farmland. The historic crossing into “West Farms” was by horse bridge over West River adjacent to the active New Haven Harbor, and is event that ss commemorated to this day both in ceremony and in a master mural in the main post office. Soon after, guilds constructed six large post-medieval houses within a short distance of the community’s central Green, a common grazing and meeting site. The earliest settlers shared the lands with three major Native American tribes which historically summered here, utilizing the resources of the forests, three tributaries and a shoreline abundant with both fresh and salt water life.
In an unusual stance, two major religions built their churches and worshipped side by-side throughout the colonial period. Christ Episcopal Church became the second oldest Anglican Church In the New Hemisphere; The Congregational Church Meeting House served as the focal point of all town records, events and management and housed the first Public Library In the State of Connecticut. More than a century after its founding, the citizens of West Haven were involved In the Revolutionary War as militia, mariners and privateers holding the west side of New Haven Harbor against multiple Invasions by the British and Hessian troops. One particular incident led to the demise of a British officer William Campbell, after whom the city’s main thoroughfare is named. (Campbell is believed to be the only foreign soldier buried on American soil with honors.)
West Haven was heavily Involved in all facets of the shipping industry for more than three centuries, evolving from early trade in necessities to eventually entering the commercial arena, sailing to the West Indies and South America for spices, silks, rum, sugar and the like in exchange for local timber. More than thirty-five West Haven ship owners, ship builders, masters and captains are Identified with that period of wealth and accomplishment. Over the years, local ship building which began with tall masted trade ships by skilled Scandinavian boat builders, changed to pontoon craft and the speedier, light weight Chris Craft used In World War II.
The industrial era came to West Haven with the West Haven and American Buckle Shops, where buckles, buttons and a large variety of prosthetic clips and braces were developed for use during the Civil War. Eventually industry expanded to piano and organ companies; railroad expansion led to the Victorian White City and the nationally known Savin Rock Amusement Park. While many manufacturing companies flourished, Armstrong Rubber Company, known for the manufacturing of tires and rafts for the military, was the focus of the community during World War II.
Today, West Haven Is alive In its history with several museums, National Register properties and beautiful shoreline which celebrate the key elements of the past while moving to the future.