By Timothy R.E. Keeney and Nicholas Caruso, AICP
On June 2nd, 2012, the Somersville Manufacturing Company in the village of Somersville, Connecticut burned when three teenagers decided to walk through the abandoned complex while smoking.
With one simple event, over 130 years of modern industrial development and 43 years of struggle to repurpose the complex came to an end. The mill’s demise not only was a crippling blow to Somersville, but also showcased Connecticut’s reluctance to utilize its growing list of abandoned historic structures and their inherit sustainable properties.
The state’s greatest industrial facilities, many of which powered by hydroelectricity, continue to be replaced with faceless suburban sprawl and unsustainable energy networks at a far greater rate than any other region in the Northeast. Somersville could have become a strong counterpoint to Connecticut’s suburban design and planning tendencies. However the destroyed mill, even after its demise, can still showcase the value of reusing existing industrial infrastructure while also creating a new cultural center for the village of Somersville.
By the mid 1800’s, the emerging cluster of mill facilities along Somersville’s Scantic River started to rise as industrial production advanced in the United States. By 1879, the entire complex alongside a series of nearby homes were purchased by Rockwell Keeney and his sons George and Lafayette. The collection of industries were unified under the Somersville Manufacturing Company title and the village became a working hub of industrial and residential activity.
For decades, the company built up the site into a massive multi-story brick juggernaut over the Scantic River, including a prominent tower that anchored the complex along the river’s south bank. By the late 19th century, textiles became the dominating industry at the Somersville complex, with spikes during World War I and II when the mill generated wool components for American soldiers. During times of peace, the factory produced well known cashmere, camel hair, and woolens while attracting various Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Czech, and French Canadian immigrants to the town; many of whom took up residence in homes near the facility.
Production would continue for decades until new impending federal environmental mandates alongside growing business poaching from North Carolina and other southern states pushed the Somersville Manufacturing Company owners to sell the business to the Wyadotte Corporation, which ultimately led to the mill’s closure in 1969. Since then, a collection of developers would come and go with the intent of repurposing the complex. However, a series of local floodplain issues alongside Connecticut’s weak history of adaptive reuse and mixed-use development curtailed every initiative and allowed the facility to sit until its untimely destruction.
In short, the Somersville Mill complex had a series of major pros and cons during its traditional industrial era of textile production and post-1969 period of transient programming and eventual abandonment. The mill generated important well-known products for decades through the use of efficient hydroelectric power afforded by the natural drop in the Scantic River for both machine traction and early electrical lighting. It was also a stately complex of rich industrial architecture compared to other hodge podge manufacturing centers of its era.
However the complex was also within the 100 year floodplain and immediately above the Scantic River, limiting the complex to mixed-use programming; the reuse of upper floors for residential and the lower floors for non-residential use. Such a mixed-use combination has become commonplace in other New England states, but is still a tough sell in Connecticut; which adheres to an Euclidean zoning of exclusively residential, commercial, and industrial uses. Plus, due to the mill’s location 13 miles away from Springfield and 25 miles from Hartford, developing an all commercial facility would be a stretch and widely unprofitable in the small town.
Somersville could have easily filled in the upper floors with residential units and the lower floors with local social clubs, service stores, and even a hydroelectric utility station to take full advantage of the mill water. However, mixed use development within industrial facilities has remained a very weak process in Connecticut, as seen with Somersville in the 80’s, Baltic in the 90’s and Georgetown in the 2000’s.
Today, the remnants of the complex both touched and untouched by the fire can be utilized in different ways to explain the story of the complex while unifying the existing fabric of Somersville. Various remnants left in the wake of the fire can be preserved to show the size, extent, and value of the complex while highlighting the remaining industrial landscape and its direct ties with the past mill.
Areas within the 100 year floodplain can form a new public riverfront park while sections outside the floodplain can be reused for new live-work infill structures. Such construction will provide space for small businesses and young professionals in a village currently comprised of a large mill pond, churches, a schoolhouse, a post office, and various single family homes.
Precedents for Somersville both large and small can be found across the Northeast, two of which recently opened within the New York City Tri-State area. The first is Milton Burns Park in Riverhead, New York. The small Long Island town lost a series of industrial buildings along the Peconic River to fire and originally replaced them with a private park and active industry before developing a new public park with artifacts from the site’s industrial era. When the river mills were lost to fire in the 1870’s, instead of rebuilding, the site was reorganized into a series of open spaces, a collection of new hydroelectric systems, and a grist mill tower.
As the town faded during the mid-20th century, the mill tower and other working properties of the site were dismantled. However in 2011 after years of new growth in the small town, a series of major renovations were completed in the park; creating new modern amenities that showcased the site’s long industrial heritage while adding new programming features such as a community garden and boat ramps to the river. The new public park has once again unified the town and has also led to new mixed-use infill projects along its edges.
In addition to Riverhead’s Burns Park is Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in Paterson, New Jersey; which recently became the latest US national historical park in the Northeast. The new park features the community’s once prominent industrial heritage along the Passaic River. Over time, the National Park Service will refurbish a series of mill artifacts in the city as part of the park, including the burned out remains of Paterson’s Colt gun mill and various former Allied Textile Printing mills along the Passaic. The new national historic park will also allow for mixed-use infill to sprout around the collection of open spaces and industrial artifacts.
Just like Riverhead and Paterson, Somersville is taking the first needed steps to make sure the industrial heritage of the community is remembered by future generations. As a result of the fire, Timothy R.E.Keeney, son of Robert “Bob” Keeney, the last president of the Somersville Manufacturing Company, has given an extensive collection of mill records to the State of Connecticut. These documents include time sheets, pay records, mill financial accounts, management materials, production records, mill fabric samples, sample books, wartime production records, and military contract orders for various materials. They will reside at the Dodd Research Center on the main campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Through these accounts of the facility’s development and usage since the 1800’s, it will allow various participants, genealogists, and future historians to better understand the mill’s historical relevance both to the industry and local communities. It will also help to outline and utilize what still exists on the site for the greater good of the Somersville community. Although the original industrial operations are gone and can never be duplicated, the site can accommodate a series of new recreational, industrial, commercial, and residential enterprises.
Somersville can make the most of its unfortunate situation and create a cultural park along the same lines as Riverhead and Paterson that strengthens the village while adding new programming and infill structures currently lacking across the town. The land touched by the fire can be reviewed for future inclusion as either park artifacts or even shells for new infill outside the flood plain. Whatever isn’t salvageable can become a new landscape of natural fields and former hydropower system infrastructure. The process will blend old and new within Somersville, showcase the industrial center’s past value, and exhibit the future importance of transforming Connecticut’s historic abandoned structures into new centers of activity.
Timothy R.E. Keeney is the Judge of Probate for the Connecticut district of Somers, Enfield, Stafford, and Union. He is a former Commissioner of the CT DEP. Tim, his family, and brothers Robert Keeney and Todd Keeney still reside in houses adjacent to the mill site and pond which were built by their forefathers and the original owners of the Somersville Manufacturing Company.Nicholas Caruso, AICP is an urban designer and planner in Boston and a native of Connecticut. His writing and design work has been featured in various news outlets and publications; including the Boston Society of Architects, New York Times, Hartford Courant, and Metropolis Magazine