Huntington Bridge

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Huntington Bridge - connecting Birmingham (now Derby) and Huntington (now Shelton). Notice the toll house on the extreme left.

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Well, begrudgingly we have to give credit to the following people who correctly identified the old Huntington Bridge across the Housatonic River between present day Derby and Shelton:

Now that we've given credit, we must say that no one gave a full account of the bridge. For example, no one had the real name of the bridge, and no one identified it as a toll bridge! Thanks to Robert Novak of the Derby Historical Society, we have the following history written several years ago for the Huntington Herald.

Shelton boasts many links to its pre-industrial period. the green, the church edifices and the cemetery at Huntington Center are all reminders of our Colonial past.

There are large saltbox and Federal-style houses that once sat upon acres of farmland, and gray stone walls mark the boundaries of fields that have long since been subdivided. there also are still a few old barns that used to house livestock or store hay.

All this sounds so typically New England that the only thing missing is a covered bridge/

Covered bridges - there used to be so many of them in Connecticut - now only three are left, and none are near us. Yet, there were covered bridges here. In fact, one of the longest covered bridges in the state spanned the Housatonic River where the Derby-Shelton Bridge stands today. It was built after an earlier one washed out in a flood in 1857, and lasted until 1891.

It was called the Huntington Bridge, reflecting the name of the town back then. When first built, it was a toll bridge. For a fee, Huntington farmers could sell their produce in the rapidly expanding borough of Birmingham (the part of Derby that lies between the two rivers) and Derby merchants could peddle their wares in Huntington.

Because of its length, the central part of the bridge "never saw daylight" as Ralph H. Clark wrote in "Derby Vintage - East and West." The traveler would enter the pitch blackness, heading toward the welcome beacon of sunshine at the other end.

Clark also pointed out that humans were not the only ones that crossed the bridge. Horses, oxen, cattle and other animals would be herded across.

Cleaning the bridge obviously was not an enviable job. After a few months of animals crossing the bridge without it being cleaned, an aroma would result that Clark said "....defied duplication. Perhaps inhalation of it into one's lungs has helped to keep ever fresh a recollection of the covered bridge."

After the Ousatonic Dam was completed in 1870, the pastoral scene on the Huntington side quickly changed, as capitalists from Birmingham began to take advantage of cheap water power across the river. Traffic increased dramatically as Birmingham's prosperity stretched across the Housatonic. The Derby Transcript reported "monstrous" loads of coal, building materials, wagons, carriages and pedestrians crossing the bridge.

The owners of the bridge undoubtedly made a killing. As the new manufacturing village of Shelton developed, tensions between the Birmingham and Huntington governments and the bridge's owners arose. One could speculate that the towns were concerned that the building boom in Shelton was being hindered by the fact that a toll was required by the fact that a toll was required every time someone wanted to cross the bridge.

To be fair, the owners did try to accommodate the new boom, building a pedestrian walkway along the outside of the south side of the bridge in 1871. That probably helped alleviate the pedestrians' exposure to the smell, and allowed them to see the panoramic views of the river. However, Huntington and Birmingham threatened to build a new free bridge right next to the toll bridge if the owners didn't sell. The owners saw the writing on the wall, and sold the covered bridge to the towns in 1872, throwing open the tolls forever.

Now the citizens could complain to their governments instead of grumbling about the owners, and they did. The Transcript in 1883 described the bridge as "...filthy, gloomy and narrow." The paper also frequently complained of holes in the planks, and that it was hard to pass through the bridge when another team was passing the other way. The walkway wasn't much easier to pass, with people stopping to look at the scenery.

Bad lighting on both sides made it a dangerous place at night and the Transcript cautioned ladies to avoid the place after dark. Finally, in 1885, a bright electric light was installed on the Shelton side.

Its red paint faded and worn out from overuse and exposure to the elements, the graceful old bridge was tumbled into the river to make room for a new iron bridge in 1891. Although the iron bridge allowed trolley tracks to cross into Shelton from the soon-to-be-renamed City of Derby, many complained about the quality of that bridge too. It lasted only about half as long as its predecessor.

The last covered bridge had the distinction of being the only covered span between the two towns to be destroyed by man, not the elements. It undoubtedly left a lasting imprint on the memories of those who lived alongside it in the 19th century. It probably was the most beautiful span to link Shelton and Derby, and it left a lasting mark on Shelton as well - one of the oldest downtown street names is "Bridge Street."

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