Opinion: A mighty New Haven industrial corridor is reduced to weeds

The H. B. Bigelow Co. boiler works at 198 River St., New Haven, was a national leader in the manufacture of steam boilers.

The H. B. Bigelow Co. boiler works at 198 River St., New Haven, was a national leader in the manufacture of steam boilers.

Contributed photo

Since its founding in 1638, New Haven has been shaped by over 380 years of history along its streets, river fronts, and harbor. This heritage is reflected in historic districts that are documented and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of these, the River Street National Historic District, is the site of industries that made New Haven a thriving manufacturing center between the Civil War and World War I. River Street is one of the last industrial historic districts in New Haven and represents an era when city workers sent their products worldwide.

The largest complex in the district, the H. B. Bigelow Co. boiler works at 198 River St., was a national leader in the manufacture of steam boilers. Its founder, Hobart B. Bigelow, made River Street a hub of the metal-fabricating industry. His factory buildings had distinctive architectural characteristics, such as arched windows to draw in natural light and huge openings in the facade to allow heavy steam boilers to be swung out and loaded directly onto freight cars that connected to the national rail network.

It was here that the New Haven Railroad experimented with electric-powered engines, which ultimately led to the electrification of the New York to New Haven main line, the first major railroad electrification in our country.

The Bigelow Boiler site has been owned by the city of New Haven since 2006. The program under which the site was acquired, a Chapter 132 Municipal Development Plan, does not readily lend itself to historic rehabilitation for economic development. In addition, the city has no viable stewardship program for National Register structures it acquires. These factors together create a self-fulfilling prophecy: failure to maintain historic buildings leads to condemning them when they deteriorate.

Although many cities purchase 19th century factory buildings and restore them into vibrant marketplaces and artists’ studios, that has not happened here. Over the past decade, the city has demolished almost all of the structures that put River Street on the National Register of Historic Places.

Much of the Bigelow Boiler complex was demolished in September 2021, reportedly by order of the New Haven building inspector, although the demolition order has never been made public. Today, one red brick remnant of the factory stands alone as an echo of the busy rail-based industrial streetscape.

The city intends to take down the last building this fall, to avoid liability and to sell or rent the land. The State Historic Preservation Office agreed to this demolition in an exchange of letters with city staff. In a departure from the usual procedure, neither the New Haven Preservation Trust nor Preservation Connecticut was advised of the agreement.

With so many of its manufacturing buildings gone, it is likely that the River Street District will lose its national historic designation. Remaining businesses will lose out on valuable federal and state tax credits, and future generations will see no evidence of the city’s once-great industrial sector. The Preservation Trust stands firm as an advocate for the city’s rich heritage and deeply regrets this troubling loss of an entire district.

Susan Godshall is a member of the board of directors and chair of the preservation committee at New Haven Preservation Trust; Sarah Tisdale is director of historic preservation at New Haven Preservation Trust.