Willimantic is a village and census-designated place located in the town of Windham in Windham County, Connecticut, United States. The population was at 17,737 at the 2010 census. It is home to Eastern Connecticut State University, as well as the Windham Textile and History Museum. Willimantic was incorporated as a city in 1893; the city was superseded in 1983 by the Willimantic Special Services District. It is also the birthplace of former U.S Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.
Willimantic is an Algonquian term for “land of the swift running water”. Prior to 1821, the village was known as Willimantic Falls, home to about twenty families and a single school district. In 1822, Charles Lee erected a factory on Main Street made of stone quarried from the Willimantic River. Although small shops and manufacturers had been built on the banks of the Willimantic before, this was the beginning of industrialized Willimantic. In 1825, the three Jillson brothers built a factory along the Willimantic, and in 1827, they built a second building. By 1828, there were six cotton factories in Willimantic, all built within a seven year span. Willimantic became known as “Thread City" because American Thread Company had a mill on the banks of the Willimantic River, and was at one time the largest employer in the state as well as one of the largest producers of thread in the world. Its factory was the first in the world to use electric lighting. In 1833, Willimantic was a borough of Windham; in 1893, it would become a city.
Railroads added to the growth of Willimantic; the town was one of only a handful of stops between Boston and New York on the high-speed "White Train" of the 1890s. In the early 20th century, between 50 and 100 trains ran through Willimantic daily. More than 800 ornate Victorian homes multiplied in the town's Prospect Hill section, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town prospered, growing from a population of less than 5,000 in 1860 to more than 12,100 by 1910.
But hard times followed; American Thread moved to North Carolina in 1985 and without it, the town's economy floundered. In 1983, the city and the town consolidated and became one town again. The unemployment rate in Windham, the town that contains Willimantic, stands at 10.2% as of July 2009. This is 2% above the state average, more than 3% above most towns in the immediate area, and eclipsed only by cities in the state like Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. In 2002, The Hartford Courant ran a controversial investigative series called "Heroin Town" describing rampant heroin use in Willimantic, disproportionate to the town's small size. The articles roiled local residents, but a task force was appointed by the state to study the issue. In addition, The Hotel Hooker, once known for drug use and prostitution, has been repurposed as a transitional living facility called the Seth Chauncy Hotel. The Hotel was later renamed Windham house, and now has been closed.
Today, several projects aiming to revitalize the town are under way. The Willimantic Whitewater Partnership plans to reclaim the town's riverfront by developing a whitewater park and research facility. Some of the town's distressed factory buildings have been turned into residential space for artists by Artspace. Efforts to attract high-tech businesses to the area have turned other former factory buildings into space for small technology startups.