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Natural Setting and Town Origins

Newtown Small Map
Click on the map for a larger view.

The verdant countryside of Newtown probably attracted the interest of explorers from coastal settlements during the mid-seventeenth century. The "Greate River", as the Housatonic was then called, was a natural route inland. Navigable by canoe to the Great Falls at New Milford, where a trading post was established in 1671, the river followed a winding course along the easterly boundary of the present day town for thirteen miles.

An extensive network of trails interlaced the Town's interior area and connected to the river at numerous points. Moreover the native inhabitants, Pootatuck Indians of the Mohican tribe, were generally friendly to the newcomers and agreeable to conducting trade with them.

The 66 square mile territory between the original bounds of Stratford, Fairfield, Danbury, New Milford and Woodbury was granted in 1708 by the General Court to (36) settlers from Stratford, and designated "Newtowne".

Newtown is characterized by a diversity of terrain. A gently contoured upland of modest ridges, fertile loamy soils, and small stream valleys extends throughout the southwestern, central and western sections of the Town. Rugged terrain, as ledges with thinner soils, is found in the northern section between Hawleyville and the Housatonic River, in the eastern section near Sandy Hook and in the southeast between Botsford and the Housatonic.

A number of high glacially created ridges are also prominent in the landscape, notably Eden Hill, Taunton Hill and Great Hill in the west, Mount Pleasant, the "Borough" and Walnut Tree Hill in the center, and Botsford Hill and Osborn Hill in the east. The total land and water area of Newtown is 37,805 acres today.

The glacial period, which ended 10,000 years ago, affected Newtown's terrain in several other ways: blocked drainage created numerous wetlands and ponds, stream courses were redirected to flow north and east, and extensive gravel deposits were left in the central Pootatuck valley (see glacial deposits map). (See also early research on glaciers and drainage development in Greater Danbury).

Among the larger wetlands created were Flat Swamp, Pine Swamp, the broad wetlands in Hawleyville and those along Deep Brook and the North Branch Pootatuck, Taunton Pond and several smaller ponds also owe their origins to the melting glacier of 10,000 years ago.

With such varied terrain there are numerous small streams in all sections. While most of the Town surface drains into streams directly reaching the Housatonic, a small area in the west central section drains to Limekiln Brook, a tributary of the northward-flowing Still River. The extreme southwestern section forms the headwaters area of the southward-flowing Aspetuck River, a water supply stream tributary to the Saugatuck River and one of several water supply resources in Newtown.

The highest elevation in Newtown is about 830 feet atop Taunton Hill
near the Bethel Line. T
hen the low point of about 100 feet on the
shore of Lake Zoar at the east end. See the full context for
Newtown's terrain on the regional topographic map.

Newtown's large territory, hilly topography, and extensive localities of productive farming land inevitably created a rural town of many local neighborhoods or districts. Each of these localities has a distinctive character, and many survive today as well defined neighborhoods; areas such as Hattertown, Dodgingtown, Taunton, Hawleyville, Hanover, Sandy Hook, Berkshire, Botsford, Palestine and Huntingtown.

While the land provided a solid base for agricultural prosperity, its rugged character and limited stretches of stream suitable for water power would preserve the Town's rural character for much of its early life.

Newtown Development:
Beginnings to 1950

At the granting of Newtown's charter of 1708, the General Court of the Colony appointed a committee to survey the new township tract and to"...determine where ye Town Platt shall be and lay out a suitable number of home lotts." The site chosen for the village was on the crest of a gently sloping ridge at the very center of the township.

In addition to a commanding elevation, the village site lays in the midst of a fertile upland, with several streams nearby, land well-suited for cultivation. It was also at an intersection of Indian trails. These trails became the routes of very early Town highways.

Town government was organized in 1711 and a treaty amicably concluded with the local Indians in 1712-13. The first official Town highway outside the center was laid out to the boundary of Stratford (now Monroe) in 1715, following the old Indian trail along what is now Main Street South. Other highways were laid out shortly after to connect to the several fords of the Housatonic, and to adjoining towns, most following original trails.

Mills were established by Town meeting vote and commissioned to various citizens at an early date. By 1715, saw mills were set up on Deep Brook, Halfway River and at the mouth of the Pootatuck Brook, and a fulling mill on Deep Brook.

Population grew steadily as settlement moved into outlying sections. Additional one room schoolhouses were built in the North Center, Taunton, Zoar, Lands End and Palestine Districts by 1750, and by the end of the eighteenth century there were nineteen school districts throughout the Town.

Travel, mostly by horseback or ox cart, was difficult over the primitive roads of the era which were little better than rutted paths. Nonetheless the public road network continuously expanded so that within fifty years Town "highways", often on very wide rights-of-way to allow fording of streams or getting around obstacles, reached every section of the Town.

In 1733, a ferry was authorized to operate on the Housatonic to connect to Woodbury (modern Southbury); this venture was replaced in 1781 by a "pole bridge" near the present-day Rochambeau (I-84) Bridge. Of interest will be the 1973 report Navigation of the Housatonic River in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The land was quickly settled. By the 1760's, or half a century after the Town's beginnings, most of the primeval forest cover had been reduced to scattered wood lots, and self sufficient small farms dotted the landscape. A checkerboard pattern of small fields, already stumped and being cleared of stones, extended throughout every section of the community.

While travel remained difficult, Newtown was on one of four east-west "Colonial Highways" established by Connecticut in the mid-eighteenth century to provide links with sister colonies. The route from Hartford to the Westchester-Hudson Valley area in New York entered Newtown via the ferry from Woodbury, passed through the village center and westward by the road to Danbury.

The Revolutionary period saw the passing through of the French General Rochambeau. There is much other colorful history in Newtown as documented by the Newtown Historical Society.

By 1790 the agricultural abundance of Newtown was beginning to create a demand for better roads to tidewater ports from which produce could be exported. In 1801, the Bridgeport and Newtown Turnpike was chartered by the General Assembly and established a route from Bridgeport to New Milford along what is now Main Street and Currituck Road. Toll gates were located on Tollgate Hill at the southern boundary of the Town and at the Brookfield line.

Shortly after, another turnpike, from Newtown to Norwalk, was chartered which followed Sugar Street and Poverty Hollow Road to Redding, Weston and Norwalk. A third turnpike, the Monroe and Newtown, followed still later and connected the village of Stepney to southern Brookfield via Hattertown Road.

The Town's population continued to increase, reaching 2,903 persons in 1800, despite the loss of about seven square miles of territory in 1788 ceded to form part of the new Town of Brookfield.

In 1824 the Borough of Newtown (second oldest in the state) was established. About 50 families resided in the village at the time. Numerous small industries arose during the early nineteenth century, the majority clustered along the lower Pootatuck River where good water power was available.

In 1839 Charles Goodyear discovered the process for vulcanizing rubber at a shop in the glen in Sandy Hook, which gave rise to the American rubber industry and lead to the establishment of a rubber factory in Rocky Glen. During this period prior to the Civil War the S. Curtis & Sons Company began manufacturing paperboard boxes at the mill pond in Berkshire, two miles upriver on the Pootatuck, and the New York Belting and Packing Company built large mills on the lower Pootatuck in Rocky Glen.

Many years later, the Fabric Fire Hose Company was established in the largest of these mills, a direct outgrowth of the earlier industries. Two of the handsome, multi-story brick mill buildings remain standing today.

The growth of manufacturing and agricultural exports brought renewed demands for better transportation to outside markets during the 1830's in Newtown and other Housatonic Valley towns. In 1836 the State chartered the Housatonic Railroad, Connecticut's first long railroad line. Enthusiastically backed by investors in Bridgeport, the line was planned to extend northward to Newtown and thence via the Still River and Housatonic valleys to a connection to Albany, then the eastern terminus of canal and trade routes to growing western markets.

Construction progress was rapid and the first train passed through Newtown in 1840, two years before completion of the entire line. Depots were established at Cold Spring (Botsford), Newtown (Borough), North Newtown, Hanover Springs and Hawleyville.

The Census of 1840 counted a total of 3,189 townspeople. Despite prosperity, he Town had grown slowly in the (40) years since 1800, adding less than 10% to its population in contrast with the preceding (26) years which saw an increase of over 30%. Now all of the suitable farmland was in use and all available waterpower had been tapped. Moreover, surplus population from Newtown and other rural towns was flowing out to the burgeoning new manufacturing centers in Bridgeport, Danbury, the Naugatuck Valley and elsewhere, and to the rich farmlands of the west.

As Connecticut shifted from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, more rail lines were built to link the growing centers, and several of these wound their way through the hills of Newtown during the next several decades. The Derby and New Haven Railroad completed a link through Stevenson and the Halfway River Valley to the Housatonic line. The New York and New England Railroad pushed a line eastward from Danbury to Hawleyville, paralleling the Housatonic line for several miles and thence running eastward to a depot at Sandy Hook and a high truss and pier bridge over the Housatonic, on its way to Waterbury.

The ill-fated Shepaug, Litchfield and Northern Railroad (never completed for its full route) reached Hawleyville from the center of Bethel and followed a tortuous course along Pond Brook to a bridge over the Housatonic and thence northward through the Shepaug Valley along an equally winding route to Litchfield.

The presence of good rail connections and the growth of manufacturing in Sandy Hook enabled Newtown to remain prosperous through the Civil War era and succeeding decades. Sheep raising declined but was replaced by profitable dairy farming. A modest growth in dwellings, industrial shops and commercial buildings occurred throughout the Sandy Hook-Rocky Glen area, at Berkshire and near the rail depot on Church Hill Road, while the balance of the town remained rural.

Although rural areas after 1850 began to lose population as families migrated west and to growing urban centers, Newtown's growth in commerce and manufacturing brought an offsetting increase in Town population, which increased by 26% from 3,189 persons in 1840 to 4,013 persons in 1880.

In the post-Civil War era, railroads played an additional role in Town growth. Visitors from the cities and growing towns soon discovered the bucolic charm of Newtown's countryside and became summer residents or boarding guests of farm families.

During the 1880's, two hotels on Main Street, Dick's Hotel (at the present library site, later the "Newtown Inn") and the Grand Central Hotel (near the crossroads, later the "Parker House") did a flourishing business in summer boarders. The "broad and neatly kept streets" of the village and town's "commanding views in all directions", as described by the railroad, did appeal to many who bought old farmhouses and built cottages as summer and retirement homes in the late 1880's, 1890's and early 1900's.

Records and maps of the late nineteenth century show that an extensive network of gravel roads extended throughout the entire Town and there were four rail passenger stations at Botsford, Newtown, Hawleyville and Sandy Hook. Two toll bridges crossed the Housatonic River, at the Bennett's Bridge and Zoar Bridge (Stevenson). Small villages existed at Sandy Hook, Berkshire, Hattertown and Dodgingtown as well as in the Borough. An estimated 90% of the town's area was in farmland, with about 800 families living on farms.

1880 however, was the peak of the town's nineteenth century development. While population and employment appear to have remained stable in the Sandy Hook industrial hamlet, in common with other rural towns of the area Newtown began to experience a long period of decline in year-round population. This phenomenon came about as farms were abandoned or sold to summer residents, and country people moved away to jobs in growing towns or other regions.

From a high of over 4,000 residents in 1880, the town's population dropped steadily for 50 years to a low point of 2,635 inhabitants in 1930. The landscape gradually changed over this period from mostly open agricultural land to about fifty percent woodland.

In 1920, the agricultural census counted 422 farms in Newtown, representing an aggregate farm ownership of 27,743 acres (72.7% of total Town area), although some of this acreage was unused or wooded land. With the exception of an occasional summer home or estate, such as "Castle Ronald" built on Castle Hill in 1888, very little new building took place in the four decades before 1920.

The automobile appeared on the unpaved roads of the Town in the early 1900's but did not achieve widespread use until after 1915. Telephone lines reached the community before World War I and electric service was gradually extended throughout rural areas during the 1920's and 1930's.

Shortly before 1920, the State of Connecticut, utilizing newly appropriated federal highway funds, began construction of a system of trunk line roads designed to reach every town center and provide farm to market access. Among the earliest of these trunk line roads were the east west Route 6 and Route 34 from Sandy Hook to New Haven, both constructed in the late teens and early twenties.

Route 25 from Newtown Center south to Bridgeport was completed shortly after, and by 1925 Newtown was no longer an isolated community. Roads which later became Route 302 to Bethel and Route 25 to Brookfield Center were improved within a decade. Most Town roads, however, remained gravel or dirt roads until after 1950.

Another development in the 1915-20 period was to have an impact on the Town. Completion of the Connecticut Light &  Power hydroelectric dam at Stevenson impounded the waters of the Housatonic to form Lake Zoar, a lake 500 to 1,500 feet wide which wound along Newtown's easterly border for over 9 miles. Several colonies of seasonal cottages were developed along the Newtown shore in the 1920's and '30's, including Shady Rest, Pootatuck Park, Riverside and Cedarhurst.

The sudden accessibility of the Town from the several new paved State roads brought a reversal of the population decline after 1930.  A table of census population by decade for Newtown in this period is available.

What did Newtown's neighborhoods look like in 1934? Check them out on this highly detailed aerial photograph. You will see a lot of farm land, for according to the U. Conn Dept. of Agriculture in 1935 there were 389 agricultural businesses in Newtown occupying 60% of the Town's total area.

Despite the effects of the Great Depression, new homes were built at widely scattered locations in the 1930's and early 1940's and many small roadside businesses began to operate along main roads, especially along Route 25 south of the center and Route 6.

Restaurants, gasoline stations, tourist cabins, craft and produce stands and antique shops were among these ventures. A number of new homes were built in the Borough, and a private golf course was built near Route 25. The 1930's were also an era of considerable civic progress and change. In 1932, the Fairfield State Hospital (more recently "Fairfield Hills"), an institution for mental patients, opened on an 800-acre campus at the edge of the Borough. Facilities included a large farm, a sewage treatment plant and a dozen major buildings as well as staff housing.

Borough zoning regulations were enacted in 1933 to protect the residential quality of Main Street and environs, made possible by a special act of the State Legislature. By 1940, the Town had regained the population lost since 1880, but about two-thirds of the decade's 52% population gain was attributable to the new state hospital.

Fortunately some of Newtown's scenic road character from this early era has been formally preserved for the future.

Town growth ceased during the war years of the 1940's, but resumed with a rush after 1945 as veterans returned to the area and many young families opted to live "in the country". Newtown's attractive countryside, huge reserve of vacant and available land, and easy commute to nearby centers initiated a boom in the construction of new dwellings.

Cottages in the lake Zoar communities were also being converted to year round occupancy, and the return of traffic to state roads brought renewed commercial growth along Route 25 south of the center including restaurants, service trades, offices and several small light industries.

In 1950, Newtown's population reached 7,448 persons, an increase of 182% over the 1930 low point twenty years earlier. Excluding the state hospital population, the Town population of 4,401 persons still represented a 67% gain in only 20 years.

The Town was still mostly rural, nonetheless. All the developed land totaled about 2,835 acres (7.4% of Town area) and there were still 175 farms in operation (utilizing 14,046 acres, or 36.8% of Town land area). In a hopeful sign for the future over 1,350 acres of land had already been set aside as open space, primarily Rocky Glen State Park and the southerly section of Paugusset State Forest. Most area outside the Borough and away from the frontages of the state roads was as rural, tranquil and undeveloped as it had been 100 years before.

Newtown Development:
1950 to 2000

At mid-century Newtown had one of the largest networks of "unimproved" local dirt roads in Connecticut. In 1950 the Town began an aggressive program of surfacing and reconstruction which would bring extensive areas of rural terrain into easy accessibility within the next two decades.

At the same time the State began planning a limited-access relocation of Route 6 (future Interstate 84) and constructed the first segment from Route 34 south of Sandy Hook eastward to a new bridge over the Housatonic River. Rail passenger service had ceased before World War II and heavy intertown traffic was becoming a problem in the Borough and in Sandy Hook. Waves of suburbanization pressure were coming from the coast.

Other significant developments were starting to change the face of the Town as it entered the 1950's. A large retail shopping center, the Town's first, was constructed on the west side of Queen Street. Several new small industries entered the Town; industrial products included pressure gauges and wire brushes as well as plastic molded products, fire hose, and paper boxes manufactured by older firms. A metal smelting and refining plant, a wire coating operation, makers of copper tubing, industrial machinery and other products soon joined the list.

As construction activity escalated, extensive mining of sand and gravel commenced in the Botsford section and at several other locations. A well-defined commercial and industrial corridor, with considerable nearby residential subdivision activity, was emerging along Route 25 from the Borough to the Monroe line.

For an overview of the extent of land development in Newtown, CT near 1950, a review of 1947-53 USGS Topographic Maps for Newtown will be of interest (sample above).

Facing an explosive growth rate, the Town undertook a major school building program. The Hawley School on Church Hill Road was doubled in size in 1949 to 20 classrooms. A new senior high school of 23 classrooms was constructed in 1953, on a newly acquired 35 acre site on Queen Street. Another elementary school, of 18 rooms, was constructed in 1956 near Riverside Road in Sandy Hook. In 1959, the new high school was enlarged by an addition of 27 rooms and converted to a combined junior-senior high school.

The future of the Town deeply concerned civic leaders. In 1953, a Town Development Committee explored the possible adoption of zoning and planning, and the Newtown Planning Commission was formally established in 1955. In July 1956, a consultant was engaged and planning studies commenced, assisted by citizen volunteers.

A Town referendum in June, 1957 approved the adoption of zoning powers, establishing the Planning and Zoning Commission. Draft zoning regulations for the Town outside the Borough were presented within a year, and after stormy public hearings focused heavily on the proposal to restrict commercial areas and uses, adopted in August, 1958. The completed Town Plan of Development was presented in October 1958 and adopted in April of 1959.

The Zoning Map, effective in June 1959, however remained controversial and only after two close votes in Town referenda did zoning finally survive. The Town Plan and Zoning Map provided for medium density residential use (1 acre to one acre per family) in the central, south-central, east-central and west-central sections of the community, for carefully delineated light industrial and commercial areas coordinated with transportation corridors, for neighborhood centers, and for low density residential use throughout the remainder of the Town. The Town Plan also recommended future school sites, a traffic circulations system and civic improvements.

Two other major developments occurred in the 1950's. Early in the decade the Connecticut Light & Power Company began construction of the Shepaug Dam, a new hydroelectric power project on the Housatonic just above the headwaters of Lake Zoar. The resultant Lake Lillinonah, created in 1955, left a new three mile long shore front along Newtown's northeasterly boundary, a major portion of which is now public land acquired by the State as part of the Paugussett State Forest.

Later in the decade (1958-61) the State constructed the new Interstate 84 expressway across the north central section of Newtown, with full interchanges at Route 25 in Hawleyville, at Church Hill Road in the Borough, and at Route 34 in Sandy Hook. Planning was underway also (later canceled) for a new Route 25 expressway southward.

The first Town recreational park, Dickenson Park, was established in the 1950's on Elm Drive. The Newtown Forest Association organized as a land trust, and various new civic groups formed. The Town adopted a charter to streamline Town government in 1961, later (1974) creating a Town Legislative Council in place of the traditional Board of Selectman and Town Meeting.

The first sewer study was completed in 1963 with several additional sewer studies thereafter. The Town's second Plan of Development, which reaffirmed many of the foundation land use policies of the first Plan, was adopted in 1969.

Development was rapid over the two decades of the 1960's and 1970's. Residential building permits were being issued at the rate of 100 to 160 per year as farms sold out and land was subdivided in every section of the community. Commercial development intensified, especially along Main Street South (Route 25) and along Church Hill Road.

A number of new small, light industrial plants were attracted to the several industrial "parks" along Route 25, Commerce Drive off Church Hill, and along I-84 north of Church Hill Road. Several new churches commenced construction during this era, and a completely new Newtown High School was built on a large site near Route 34 in Sandy Hook, opening in 1970. A third elementary school was built on Cold Spring Road in the south-central area, and the former high school converted to "middle school" grades.

It had always been intuitive to shape Newtown's development to natural features of the underlying landscape. These are "constraints on development" due to soil, slope and flood plain.

But as planning and zoning modernized, consideration of these limiting natural features became more formalized in local land use regulations, this trend due in part to newly available federal and state natural resource maps.

See the four basic categories above
displayed on a townwide map of Newtown.
Examine components of the four categories.

HVCEO as the regional planning agency for Newtown was formed in 1968, the word "Housatonic" in its title having its source in an old indian name.

After the arrival of Connecticut's1973 wetlands protection law, development potential in Newtown was significantly reduced as the approximately 12% of municipal land area defined as wetland was largely excluded from development.

By 1980, Newtown's population had reached 19,107 persons, a 68% increase in only two decades. The amount of developed land had also increased dramatically, to over 10,000 acres (26.3% of the Town's area).

Development proceeded at a more moderate pace in the 1980's, reflecting the regional economic slowdown and rapidly escalating land prices. Commercial growth continued, especially in the Borough and south central areas, notably the construction of the large Sand Hill Plaza shopping center on Route 25 between Botsford and the Peck Lane light industrial area. Many of the newer residential subdivisions were now in the two acre and three acre residential zones where luxury class homes were being constructed for an upscale market.

Changes were also occurring in the industrial sector. Old industries in the Glen, such as fire hose manufacture and plastic molding have ceased and been replaced with new research, office and technology types of use. The former metal smelting plant in Botsford has been replaced by a building supply service business. Corporate office uses and biomedical research instruments are among the newer uses present in the early 1990's.

With the continuing growth of the Town, the water company which had long supplied the central Borough from Taunton Pond finally abandoned that unprotected source and developed a new and purer wellfield in the Pootatuck Valley Aquifer. Water mains were extended southward along Route 25 and eastward from the Borough to serve new commercial areas. In the early 1990's, the Town undertook a long delayed installation of sanitary sewers and a sewage treatment plant to serve the central area.

The 1980's saw the construction of a fourth Town elementary school, on Boggs Hill Road, and the acquisition by the Town of a former commercial garage at the corner of Main and Sugar Streets for expanded Town offices. The Fairfield Hills State Hospital also closed at the end of the decade, shortly after construction by the State of a new state prison facility at the Route 34 side of the property over much local protest.

The future of the hospital facility itself and the former farm were unresolved at the end of the decade. Several new large site private institutions, including a retirement home off Botsford Hill Road and an alcoholic rehabilitation facility off Alberts Hill Road, were established during the period.

Town population in 1990 was 20,779 persons, a modest increase of 8.8% over the ten years since 1980.

By the early 1990's, agriculture had declined to the extent that only four or five farms remained, with less than 450 acres of land in active agricultural production, although some pasture land was being used for horses and equestrian activities. More than 30 small industrial firms could be counted, and retail and service businesses, and professional offices, were substantially concentrated in the Borough and south-central areas. Gravel mining was greatly reduced in scope.

See Newtown's zoning patterns on full regional map

Total developed land in Newtown had increased to nearly 12,000 acres, 31.4% of the Town area. The Town now had a decidedly residential flavor along most local roads, although over 22,000 acres of land remained underdeveloped and nearly 4,000 acres were permanently committed to green space.

In 2010 Newtown reached a population of 27,560. Despite many changes, Newtown remains a pleasant rural-suburban, civic-minded community, with a healthy concern for its future.

For a logical path for Newtown's future land use to follow, the HVCEO Regional Development Plan presents sound advice. In addition, Newtown's own Plan of Conservation and Development has much of interest for those exploring this attractive town.


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