Berlin Historical Society

History of Berlin

Berlin, Connecticut has been the crossroads of Connecticut from time immemorial

In pre-European times, native American trails crisscrossed the area, with the Quinnipiac-Sukiog path leading toward Hartford, and the Mattabesett path going to Middletown. A map showing the location of tribal boundaries, villages and major trails, drawn in 1625 (available through UConn's Magic Map site) indicates that The Tunxis, Quinnipiacs, Wangunks, and Mattabesetts considered various parts of Berlin their territory. While there were no permanent Native settlements known, there was an abundance of fish and game throughout the area and they all hunted and fished here. They called it Pagonischaumischaug, or the White Oak Place.

The modern story of Berlin, Connecticut starts with the ‘Great Migration' from England in 1630. At that time English puritans began leaving in droves, seeking a place where they could practice their religion without being persecuted. Puritans considered themselves part of the Church of England, but disagreed with the hierarchy about the format of worship, among other things. They wished to ‘purify' the church from within, rather than form a new denomination. Thousands left for New England. In 1633 Rev. Thomas Hooker left the county of Essex in the ship ‘Griffin', bound for Boston, with some members of his congregation. In 1636 that group moved to the banks of the Connecticut River and founded the city of Hartford. Hartford joined with Windsor and Wethersfield to become the Colony of Connecticut in 1639. The colony prospered, and some founders moved outward to establish new settlements in Farmington and Middletown. Meanwhile, a separate colony at New Haven was also doing well and expanding. Communications between the settlements became more regular, and a path, probably utilizing an Indian trail was named the Hartford-New Haven Path.

Travelers on the way would have noted a broad basin filled with meadows and streams, between Lamentation Mountain and Ragged Mountain. Its picturesque beauty and central location would be appreciated as an ideal place to stop and rest along the two-day journey. However, it had received the ignominious name of Great Swamp, because of all the water courses nearby. Jonathan Gilbert, a Hartford trader and innkeeper, saw the advantages of the area and, with grants and purchases, had acquired over 1000 acres by 1672. His land stretched from what is now southern New Britain south to Meriden. He continued to live in Hartford until his death in 1682, but his son, Ebenezer, inherited 300 acres around Christian Lane and later moved there.

Richard Beckley is considered to be the first settler of European descent in what is now Berlin. He came from New Haven in 1668 and bought land in western Wethersfield from Terramuggus, a local chief. In 1670 he built a house and barn on Wethersfield Road. Soon after, he built a mill on the Mattabesett River. Since that time, this section of town has been called Beckley.

Andrew Belcher was born in Boston in 1647. He became a successful merchant and his business frequently brought him to Hartford, where he stayed at Jonathan Gilbert's tavern. It was there that he met Sarah Gilbert, Jonathan's daughter, whom he married in 1670. When Jonathan Gilbert died in 1682, he bought a large section of the property that Gilbert had accumulated, and began to lay out roads and promote settlement. Belcher was granted a license for a tavern on his farm and a fort at Meriden near Silver Lake. He surrounded this property with a stone wall four feet high and four feet wide. He never occupied the site himself, but hired a tenant to run the inn. The land was broken up and sold in the 1730s-40s.

In 1686, Richard Seymour led a group of fourteen or fifteen families to a site near a branch of the Mattabesett River now known as Willow Brook, but then called Gilbird's River. They erected a fort using poles 16 feet high, and built cabins inside, to protect them from the Indians and the wild animals. It is probable that they were encouraged in this enterprise by Captain Belcher, who would have benefited from the increased trade. They called this first street Christian Lane. Farms spread out from the fort, going westward to what is now Porter's Pass, out to West Lane, where a mill was built by Samuel Brownson in the early 1700s at the current site of Paper Goods Pond.

By 1705 the group grew tired of travelling the eight miles to Farmington on Sundays to worship, and they petitioned the Assembly to form their own ecclesiastical society. This was granted, and in 1712, the Great Swamp Society was born. The first meeting house was built at Christian Lane and Deming Road. That site is now marked by a granite monument on the northeast corner of the intersection.

Meanwhile, Middletown was growing by leaps and bounds. Middletown's western boundary was approximately Lower Lane, and as large families begat large families, many were attracted to what is now East Berlin and the ‘Golden Ridge'.

The added bonus of a worship community at Christian Lane meant less travel.This was also true for the Beckley family, and in 1718 the little corner of Beckley and part of Middletown ‘Upper houses' became part of the Great Swamp Ecclesiastical Society. In 1722 the society took on the name of Kensington. This presented a unique situation, for Beckley was still part of Wethersfield, and East Berlin to the ridge was still part of the town of Middletown. Things would remain this way until 1785. The rapid growth over a large area led to a controversy which lasted for over forty years. The meeting house became too small for the congregation, and the parish had expanded in all directions. A small majority voted to build a new house of worship on Main Street Kensington just west of Peck Street. Others wanted it moved closer to the ridge. “Poor Kensington” struggled so with the decision that finally the General Assembly was called upon, and chose a compromise spot on the northeast corner of Porter's Pass and Farmington Avenue. A new church was built, and Kensington was billed for the enterprise. This was not the end of the matter, however, because neither side was happy with the location. In 1754 New Britain formed its own parish, and in 1774 the remaining society was again divided with the western part, retaining the name Kensington and the eastern part taking the name Worthington, after Col. John Worthington, the chairman of the arbitration committee, who was very helpful in determining a satisfactory outcome.

Early Industry

The Yankee Peddler was born in Berlin, with the coming of the Pattison brothers, William and Edward, from Ireland in 1740. They were tinners by trade, having learned in England. According to David Camp's History of New Britain, they imported sheets of tin, which they made into plates, cups, and other tableware. Their first shop was on “West Street in Kensington” ( p. 266). This street led west from Christian Lane via Burnham St., crossed the Mattabesett around Kensington Rd., connected with Main St., then to Hart St., then to West Lane. The shop later moved to Lower Lane in Worthington Parish. Other shops were soon established around town and in New Britain. The business became so lucrative that young men would often start peddling with a hand cart, then as they became more successful would graduate to a more substantial horse-drawn wagon. Soon it was very common for a man to set out for distant markets, all along the east coast and as far west as the Mississippi in search of the American dream. Emma Hart Willard, in her poem, Bride Stealing, mentions the gleaming dinnerware on the table of Mistress Tabitha Norton's parents. Tinware production was halted during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, because the sheets of metal could not be imported from England. Once peace was re-established, production and trade resumed, with 10,000 boxes of plate turned into marketable goods at its height.

The building of the railroad in the 1830s and 1840s helped stimulate Berlin's economy. Clay had always been plentiful, with homeowners digging and making their own brick for chimneys, but when much was discovered during excavations for the rail beds, a new industry was born. Brickmaking began in Berlin in the 1840s and continued until the 1960s. Countless immigrants poured into central Connecticut, beginning with the Irish working on the railways. Even more came with the famines of the late 1840s. They were joined in the 1880s by Poles, Italians, Germans, Scandinavians, and the freed slaves from the south.