DOWN IN THE VALLEY – NAUGATUCK RIVER, CONNECTICUT
The lower Naugatuck River Valley, also known simply as “The Valley,” was once the state’s most prosperous region. In the 19th and 20th centuries industry ran swiftly through The Valley, just like the river that made it possible. These quintessential mill towns led the way in the manufacturing of brass and rubber as well as shipbuilding. The borough of Naugatuck gave us the modern wonder of artificial leather known as Naugahyde. These communities were key in helping change the perception of “Made in the USA” from one of inferior workmanship to the world standard of high quality that it is today.
As towns grew and industry increased in The Valley so did the amount of sewage and pollution that poured into the river. After enduring centuries of abuse the river could take no more — and in came The Great Depression as punishment. It brought economic downturn, a shrinking population and urban decay. The Valley was Connecticut’s localized version of the nation’s larger Rustbelt — with its empty storefronts and abandoned buildings.
In 1955 Hurricane Diane came calling to finish the job, washing away any fortune still remaining and decimating entire neighborhoods. These are now commuter towns for some, with pockets of luxury homes serving as a bedroom community to New York City and lower Fairfield County. However, no one would mistake this area for anything other than the working-class towns they have always been.
You can travel quickly through this region on Route 8 as it snakes north and south like The Valley’s namesake river. The highway offers distant glimpses of some towns while it slices straight through others. To get off the highway and onto the local streets is a reminder that these are river towns as there is a constant slope to navigate as you make your way either down to the Naugatuck River or up and away from it.
Away from the town centers, the old neighborhoods and brick buildings start to thin as they give way to farmland. Barns and farmhouses dot the countryside and where the road rises you can catch sight of the indigo hue of the Litchfield Hills in winter. Out here you can forget about hydropower and all that talk about industry and manufacturing and remember there was once a simpler life along the river that didn’t belch smoke and dust. It belonged to the Algonquian peoples who originally spoke the word “Naugatuck” to mean “lone tree by the fishing place”. The river is cleaner now, and the fish have returned, but more than one way of life is gone forever in The Valley.
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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.