The Development of the Hill District 1860 – 1900
Up until the Civil War, the borough of Willimantic straddled Main Street between the Jillson mills at the eastern end known as Sodom, to the Bridge Street cotton mills to the west. High Street headed north to Mansfield at the western end of the borough, and Church Street was laid out with the building of the Methodist Church in the 1850s. Bank Street was laid out in 1869 with the opening of the Willimantic Savings Institute’s new bank building. The old turnpike from Mansfield and the north was connected to the eastern end of Main Street via a new road to enable milk deliveries to the cotton mills, hence Milk Street. The Windham section of the turnpike was named for farmer Lyman Jackson. After the Civil War, Allen Lincoln (1817-1900), a North Windham-born farmer, trader and entrepreneur, profitably predicted the expansion of Willimantic and laid out Valley Street to High Street, and connected it to Main Street with Temple, Center and Broad Streets, to open up new building lots and expand the borough.
Thanks to his excessive profits from this early Willimantic land speculation, Lincoln purchased a vast tract of land on Chestnut Hill, also known as Prospect Hill, in 1869 and laid out Prospect Street, setting out housing lots. It was here, and on Maple and Belle Vue Streets, where Willimantic’s first Victorian mansions were built. Between 1870 and 1890, the township of Windham’s population almost doubled from 5,412 to 10,032. These dramatic demographics were caused by the rapid development of Willimantic’s cotton and silk industries. During the 1880s Lincoln’s Prospect Hill, just north of Willimantic, became a much sought after address for the borough’s growing middle class. When farmer Eli Hewitt purchased a 30 acre tract on the eastern slopes of Prospect Hill in the 1840s, he had no idea what a goldmine this remote, hilly area would become.
In 1886, Eli Hewitt’s son, George Hewitt of Norwich, laid out two wide avenues, initially named New Side Hill Street (Summit Street) and Hill Street (Lewiston Avenue), westward from Jackson Street connecting with Church Street. Oak Street was surveyed and graded between Prospect and Lewiston during the summer of 1887. Hewitt Street, named for the landowners, was laid out east of Oak Street, connecting Prospect and Summit Streets. Lewiston Avenue was probably named for Joseph A. Lewis (1829-1900), a nurseryman and market gardener who had plantations on the Hewitt land. His house and gardens still stand at 315 Jackson Street. At an outlay of $3,000, George Hewitt opened up 50 highly desirable building lots.
Hewitt sold 13 of the lots in 1887. Three successful local businessmen, John J. Hickey, John F. Hennessy, and Paul F. Moriarty, were among the first purchasers. Hickey, a drug store owner and grocer on Union Street, famous for his Hickey’s cough balsam, built number 154 Jackson Street on a hill overlooking the Natchaug School. Hennessy was the proprietor of a successful grocery store at 187 Main Street. He built an attractive Victorian house north of Jackson Street’s junction with Prospect Street (190 Jackson Street). Paul Moriarty, of plumbers and suppliers Moriarty & Rafferty, had worked on many of Willimantic’s post civil war houses. He built number 204 Jackson Street. All three fine houses were completed and occupied by the Fall of 1888. Hickey, Hennessy, and Moriarty were first and second generation Irishmen. This suburban growth on lower Jackson Street signaled the arrival and establishment of Willimantic’s expanding Irish middle class.
In the spring of 1888, Frank Larabee, another Willimantic grocer, built a stylish residence on the eastern corner of the junction of Prospect Street and the newly laid Oak Street (55 Prospect Street). In 1892, an overseer at the Willimantic Linen Company, Irish-born John McAvoy, built a fine house at 3 BelleVue Street. In 1892, Willimantic’s future Irish-American mayor, Danny Dunn, built a house on Summit Street, and Irish-American tobacconist, stationer and local politician William Sweeney invested in building new houses on Jackson Street, and built number 233 for himself opposite Jackson Street’s junction with the recently laid Summit Street, moving there in 1893. The southwestern junction of Oak and Summit Streets proved to be irresistible for the town’s growing Swedish population. They raised their Lutheran church there in 1892.
During the Spring of 1889, the Chronicle reported that, “every building lot save two on the south side of Lewiston Avenue, the uppermost street on the hill, has been disposed of to parties who intend to build this season. It will soon be desirable to open streets towards the north for northward the star of empire seems to wend its way in Willimantic.” Lewiston Avenue was subsequently graded westward from Church Street to High Street, and in July, 1892 the Willimantic Journal reported that, “new houses are springing up like mushrooms on Lewiston Avenue on the Hewitt estate.” When the new normal School was built in 1892, Windham Street was laid out northward from Main Street, and proved to be a favorite spot for Willimantic’s wealthiest citizens.