Middletown is a city located in Middlesex County, Connecticut, along the Connecticut River, in the central part of the state, 16 miles (26 km) south of Hartford. In 1650, it was incorporated as a town under its original Indian name, Mattabeseck. It received its present name in 1653. In 1784, the central settlement was incorporated as a city distinct from the town. In 1923, the City of Middletown was consolidated with the Town, making the city limits of the city quite extensive. Originally a busy sailing port and then an industrial center, it is now largely residential with its downtown serving as a college town for Wesleyan University. Middletown was the county seat of Middlesex County from its creation in 1785 until the elimination of county government in 1960. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 47,481. Middletown, Connecticut is considered the southernmost city in the Hartford-Springfield Knowledge Corridor Metropolitan Region, which features a population of 1.9 million, the second largest metropolitan area in New England.
The land on the western bank of the Connecticut River where Middletown now lies was home to the Mattabesett Native Americans (also spelled Mattabesec, Mattabeseck, and Mattabesek); the area they inhabited—now Middletown and the surrounding area—was named after them. At the time the first European settlers arrived in the region, the Mattabesetts were a part of the group of tribes in the Connecticut Valley, under a single chief named Sowheag.
Plans for the colonial settlement of "Mattabesett" were drawn up by the General Court in 1646; the first Europeans arrived from nearby Connecticut colonies in 1650. Life was not easy among these early colonial Puritans; clearing the land and building homes, and tending farms in the rocky soil of New England was a labor-intensive ordeal. Law, too, was often harsh among the Puritans; offenses legally punishable by death in the Connecticut colonies included, "witchcraft, blasphemy, cursing or smiting of parents, and incorrigible stubbornness of children."
Pequot Mohegans, at that time traditional allies of the English colonists and enemies of the Mattabesett and other local tribes, arrived in the Middletown area in the latter half of the 17th century; conflict between them and local Native American tribes ensued. The Mattabesett and other tribes referred to the Mohegan as "destroyers of men." Sowheag hoped that the colonists would intervene. They did not. Smallpox, too, afflicted the Mattabesett, significantly lessening their ability to resist and their cohesion as a tribe. Records show that, over time, Sowheag was forced to sell off most of the Mattabesett property to the local colonists; by 1676 the Puritans owned all but of the former Mattabesett territory. Similar milieus of tragic interaction between Native Americans and colonists were common in 17th century New England.
During the 18th century, Middletown became the largest and most prosperous settlement in Connecticut. By the time of the American Revolution, Middletown was a thriving port, comparable to Boston or New York in importance, with one-third of its citizens involved in merchant and maritime activities. Slavery was part of the early economy of Middletown; African slaves were brought to the town in 1661 from Barbados; by 1756 Middletown had the third largest African slave population in the state of Connecticut—218 slaves to 5,446 whites.
Middletown merchant traders pushed for the clearance of the Saybrook Bar at the mouth of the Connecticut River, and later sought the creation of Middlesex County in 1785. The name 'Middlesex' was chosen because the intention was to make Middletown the head of a long river port, much as London was at the head of its long river port in Middlesex County, England. The same persons also established the Middlesex Turnpike (now Route 154) to link all the settlements on the western side of the Connecticut, again with the intent of creating one long port.
The port's decline began in the early 19th century with strained American-British relations and resulting trade restrictions, which led to the War of 1812. The port never recovered; however, the city distinguished itself in the war effort, as Middletown's Commodore Thomas Macdonough led American forces to the victory on Lake Champlain in 1814 which ended British hopes for an invasion of New York.
During this period, Middletown became a major center for firearms manufacturing. Numerous gun manufacturers in the area supplied the majority of pistols to the United States government during the War of 1812. After that war, however, the center of this business passed to Springfield, Massachusetts, Hartford, Connecticut, and New Haven, Connecticut. (See also History of Connecticut industry)
1831 saw the establishment of Wesleyan University, which was to become one of the United States' leading liberal arts institutions. The institution, replaced an earlier institution on the same site, Partridge's American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy, which had moved to Norwich, Vermont and later became Norwich University. The two main buildings of the original campus were built by the people of Middletown with the intent of attracting an academic institution to the city. In 1841, Middletown established the state's first public high school, which at first enrolled all students from age nine through age sixteen who had previous attended district schools.
The mid-19th century also saw manufacturing replace trade as Middletown's economic mainstay; however, industrial growth was limited by railroad operators' decision to bypass Middletown when tracks were laid between Hartford and New Haven. There had been an ambitious plan to build a railroad suspension bridge in the White Rock, Middletown to Bodkin Rock, Portland vicinity, which was seen as an unpractical solution.
Regardless, Middletonians played a role in the Civil War. For example, General Joseph K. Mansfield of Middletown was a Union General at Antietam, where he died in action in 1862. Ironically, another casualty at Antietam was Brig. Gen. George Taylor, who had been educated at a private military academy in Middletown. Also, the popular Civil War marching song "Marching Through Georgia" was written by Henry Clay Work, a Middletown resident. The city was also active in the abolitionism movement, and was a hub along the underground railway.
In the latter half of the 19th century, manufacturing was the mainstay of the city's economy, especially finely made metal parts, such as marine hardware (Wilcox, Crittendon & Co.) and typewriters (Royal Typewriters). There were also several machine tool & die manufacturers in the city. Middletown was also the site of a major unit of Goodyear. In addition, there was the pioneer automobile manufacturer Eisenhuth Horseless Vehicle Company.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the once predominantly Anglo-Saxon city underwent a demographic transformation. First the Irish, and then large numbers of Italian immigrants arrived to work in Middletown's factories and farms, many coming from the town of Melilli, Sicily. Polish and German arrivals followed, and by 1910 the population had swelled to nearly 21,000. Meanwhile, the number of African-Americans dwindled to a mere 53 persons, as employers chose to hire white immigrants. Later in the century, more African-Americans migrated to the area, followed by a more recent influx of Hispanic residents. The efforts of two Wesleyan professors also brought a small group of Cambodian refugees to Middletown in the early 1980s, who became the basis of a thriving Cambodian community, and a similar story is true for Middletown's small Tibetan community. Middletown is also the home of the first Hindu temple in Connecticut, and has attracted a Hindu population as well.
This mix of people has also become evident in the range of restaurants which Middletown now has, and which is quickly becoming one of the most well-known aspects of the city.
Both natural events and a continuing influx of people and businesses impacted the city in the first half of the 20th century. Middletown was hit by floods in 1927 and 1936, and by The Great New England Hurricane in 1938. Despite these occurrences, the Arrigoni Bridge was completed over the Connecticut River in 1938, which connects Middletown to Portland and points east, replacing an earlier bridge.
During the 1950s, as the popularity of the automobile increased, government officials approved the construction of a highway that effectively separated Middletown from the Connecticut River, its initial, natural raison d'être. Highway construction demolished historic neighborhoods, including many buildings from the 18th century, and led people to commute to newer housing outside older neighborhoods. The loss of industry and jobs contributed to a decline in Middletown, like many other northeastern U.S. cities at the time, went into a decline that did not reverse until the 1990s.
During this time, many handsome (albeit decrepit) buildings were torn down in the name of 'urban renewal', and later turned into parking lots, or left empty. Crime increased. During the 1960s, Pratt and Whitney Aircraft opened a large plant in the Maromas section of Middletown. Concurrently, developers bought much of the city's remaining farms, including most of Oak Grove Dairy, to create suburban developments for local workers and commuters to surrounding cities.
During the 1970s, Oddfellows Playhouse was established. The theater attracts hundreds of young people every year from around the state to perform in plays and other performances. The playhouse is one of the few youth theaters in the state of Connecticut. It is located on 128 Washington Street, right around the corner from Middletown's famous Main Street.
During the 1990s, a partnership between the city, the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, and Wesleyan University invested heavily in Middletown's Main Street. Their actions helped the revival of downtown Middletown. Crime decreased, and new restaurants and shops opened.
The Samuel Wadsworth Russell House on High Street, built in 1827, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2001. The Alsop House, also located on High Street, and built in 1840, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009. Both buildings are part of the Wesleyan campus.