The bright blue and white signs that welcome travelers to the New London County town of Colchester feature the slogan “Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow.” It is a good choice for this primarily rural and residential community, one of the earliest settlements in the state. With a history that reaches back to the 1600s, Colchester is now one of the fastest growing communities in Connecticut, with a population of about 17,000 residents. In terms of land area, it is one of the three largest towns in the state.
At the time of European settlement, the Colchester area was inhabited by members of the Mohegan tribe of Native Americans and was used as hunting grounds. That changed forever when the General Court of Connecticut in March of 1661 granted to Jeremiah Adams of Hartford title to 200 acres of upland and 40 acres of meadow near a stream known as the Twenty Mile River. Adams brought cattle to the land, which he had purchased from Uncas, the Sachem of the Mohegan tribe. In time more colonists came to the place called “Jeremie’s Farme” and by the 1690s Danial Mason, son of the Pequot War soldier Major John Mason, was permitted to establish a separate
In 1699 the Town of Colchester was chartered by the Colonial Court. It was named after Colchester in the region of Essex in England, home of numerous colonial settlers including Nathaniel Foote III. One of the many historic buildings that surround the Colchester Town Green today is the Nathaniel Foote House, which was constructed in 1702. At one time an incorporated borough, the town center of Colchester is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is home to several war memorials, including a special marker commemorating those who served in the Vietnam Era.
One of the most imposing buildings bordering the Town Green is the Bacon Academy, which for many years served as the High School for the Town of Colchester. Built in 1801, the Academy was a gift to the community from Pierpont Bacon, a prosperous local farmer. For most of his life, Bacon was viewed by his fellow townspeople as private, reclusive and rather of a miser. The entire
town populace was amazed when his will was read and the sum of $35,000 — a fortune at that time — was left to the citizens of Colchester for the building of a school for instruction in all branches of learning, free of charge, to all the children of the town.
Throughout its storied history, the Bacon Academy has been at the forefront of educational and social advancement, with the establishment of sports teams in the 1820s and the admission of female students in 1842. The original building served as the town’s secondary school from 1803 until 1993, when the High School moved to a new and modern location nearby. Another endowed building still serving the people of Colchester is the Craigin Memorial Library, financed by the eminent surgeon Dr. Edwin B. Craigin at the start of the 20th century.
For much of its history, the Town of Colchester stayed at about the same number of inhabitants. The 1756 census listed 2,300 people and the 1930 census listed 2,134 people. In that time the jobs of many residents changed from agricultural occupations to industrial
work. One of the first textile mills in America began in the Westchester section of the town in 1780. Other industries included potash works, brick kilns, iron works and clothier shops. Significant industrial prosperity came to town in 1847 when Nathaniel Hayward constructed his rubber goods factory for the manufacture of rubber boots and shoes. Footwear known as Colchester Spading Boots became well regarded across America.
In the late 1800s, moving locally manufactured products from the town to markets in large cities became a priority. In 1875 a rail link between Middletown and Willimantic was completed as part of a direct New York to Boston railroad line. Known as the Airline, it went diagonally across the State of Connecticut rather than following the shoreline or a river valley. In 1876 the town appropriated $25,000 to build a railroad spur from Colchester Center to connect with the Airline. The link served as a freight transportation link for nearly 80 years, when trucks eclipsed the railroad as a primary mode of transporting manufactured goods.
Today the Air Line State Park Trail follows the path of the railroad track bed all the way
from East Hampton on the Connecticut River to the town of Thompson on the Rhode Island state line. It is designated as “A Connecticut Greenway, State Linear Park and Multipurpose Trail for non-motorized users” under the oversight of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Because it was formerly a railroad line, the trail is flatter and much wider than most of the state’s walkways. It is accessible to wheelchairs and groups of walkers or hikers. The Airline traverses a number of State Parks, including Day Pond State Park in Colchester, once part of the Salmon River State Forest.
Named for the Day family, which had operated a family farm there in the Westchester District of Colchester, the land was purchased by the state in 1935. A centerpiece of the farm was a mill pond which the Day family had created with a simple stone dam. Restored by CCC workers, the dammed pond was turned into a swimming area, now is one of the most popular fresh water beach areas in the state park system. Blue-blazed trails located in the park lead to nearby sights, including the Comstock Covered Bridge over the Salmon River. Picnic tables positioned throughout the park take advantage of the forest setting.
A special era in the history of Colchester came early in the twentieth century when Jewish immigrants from Europe began to settle in the town. A number of area farming families
took in these immigrants as boarders to supplement their income and, with the arrival of summer visitors from New York and other cities, the area quickly became known as the “Catskills of Connecticut.” One of the legacies of the local Jewish settlers is Harry’s Place, a seasonal drive-in restaurant open from March to November that was begun by Ruby Cohen in 1925. Ruby and Elizabeth Cohen continue to be remembered in the community through the Ruby & Elizabeth Cohen Woodlands, a 206 acre wooded open space that features two ponds, hiking trails and interpretive gardens.
From its beginning as the eighth town chartered in Connecticut Colony until the present, Colchester has played a vital role in the history of Connecticut. Remembering its heritage, preserving its landscape and looking positively towards the future, it is a singular town for an Out and About visit.