Essex is a town in Middlesex County, Connecticut, United States. The population was 6,683 at the 2010 census. It is made up of three villages: Essex Village, Centerbrook, and Ivoryton.
The Great Attack
Essex is one of the few American towns to ever be attacked by a foreign power; this occurred on April 8, 1814, and the economic losses were among the largest sustained by the United States during the War of 1812. 28 vessels, with a total value estimated to be close to $200,000 (at a time when a very large two story home in Essex, then known as Potapoug Point, would have been worth no more than $1,000), were destroyed by the British. One historian has called it the “Pearl Harbor” of that war.
On that date, approximately 136 British marines and sailors under the command of Richard Coote (or Coot) rowed 6 boats from four British warships (the Hogue, Endymion, Maidstone and Borer) anchored in Long Island Sound, 6 miles up the Connecticut River, past the unmanned fort in Old Saybrook, arriving at the boat launch at the foot of Main Street in Essex close to 4 A.M. The boats were armed with swivel guns loaded with grapeshot, the officers armed with swords and pistols, the marines with “Brown Bess” muskets, and the sailors with torches and axes; they responded to the single cannon fired by the town’s surprised defenders with a massive volley, neither side incurring any casualties. They quickly commandeered the town, eliciting a promise of no resistance from the Essex militia in return for promising not to harm the townspeople or burn their homes, while a messenger rode to Fort Trumbull in New London for help. A dubious local myth states that Coote did not burn the town as a favor to a local merchant who greeted him with a secret Masonic handshake.
The British marched to the Bushnell Tavern (now the Griswold Inn), then seized the town’s stores of rope (each ship of that time requiring 8 miles of rope) and, according to the April 19, 1814 Hartford Courant, “$100,000 or upwards” worth of rum (acquired from the East Indies in trade for beef and wood from Connecticut).
Their main targets, however, were the newly constructed privateers in the harbor, ready or nearly ready for sail, which they burned. Within 6 hours, their mission was accomplished, and The British went downstream with two captured ships in tow, including the Black Prince, a vessel that may well have primarily inspired the raid. Stranded in the river by low tide, they were forced to wait at the extreme range of the shots of the volunteers from the nearby town of Killingworth who lined the riverbanks; 2 marines were killed and the captured ships had to be destroyed, but the rest of the men escaped safely when the tide turned.
At the time of the raid, Essex (then known as Potopaug) had been a major center of shipping and shipbuilding, but was suffering under a blockade by The British; as a result, the privateers were being constructed. Captain Richard Hayden, a prominent shipbuilder, had advertised his Black Prince in a New York City newspaper as “a 315 ton sharp schooner that would make an ideal privateer.” This may have caught the attention of The British, who then investigated Essex and launched the successful raid. Perhaps as a consequence of the practical, but somewhat less than heroic, response of the town to the raid, shortly afterwards, the name of the town was changed to Essex.
On the second Saturday of each May since 1964, the “Sailing Masters of 1812” of Essex commemorate the “Burning of the Ships” with an ancient fife and drum corps parade down Main Street and ceremony at the steamboat dock, wearing the United States naval uniform of that period; by tradition, this event is unpublicized. The Connecticut River Museum, situated at the site where Coot landed, now hosts an exhibit portraying the raid, featuring a large diorama by Russell Joseph Buckingham, a musket ball believed to have been fired then and a plank from the ship Osage, burned by The British. Plans are to expand the celebration of “the town’s worst day in history” in future years, according to the museum’s executive director, Jerry Roberts.
Centerbrook, a fertile and productive agricultural area, was the “center” of town until the Revolutionary War. Many farmhouses remain from this era. The Selah Griswold House and Clark Nott House on Bokum Road are fine examples of two-story center chimney homes that were characteristic of the time. The Benjamin Bushnell Homestead on Ingham Hill Road falls into the same category. Also characteristic of Centerbrook were smaller Cape Cod type homes. The Snow House on Main Street, the Nott House on Westbrook Road, the Taylor Bushnell House on Ingham Hill Road, and the Silent Rose House near the train station are fine examples. The dominant building in Centerbrook, from a historical standpoint, is the Congregational Church. This structure is the second to stand here, and the oldest existing church building in Middlesex County.
There were a few homes built in Essex Village (known as Potapoug Point until 1854) during the first half of the 18th century. One of the more notable is the Pratt House on West Avenue, an “organic” structure built according to the immediate needs of the Pratt family. Shipbuilding dominated between the Revolution and the Civil War. As a result, the village came to be the focal point of the area. Many homes were erected between 1790 and 1820. By that time, Main Street had much the same make-up as today. The homes were primarily Federal, with one extended family dominating lower Main Street. The first eight structures (including the Griswold Inn) on the south side of this highway (starting at the waterfront) were either built or lived in by members of the Hayden family. Of these eight structures, only the one on the west side of Novelty Lane and the one on the east corner of Parker Lane were not built by this family. The fact that the well known Hayden Shipyard was directly south of these buildings was the primary reason for this situation. All these homes are different architecturally. The Ebenezer Hayden House (third from the river) was the initial hip-roof house in the lower valley, and the current Episcopal Church Rectory (the Richard Hayden Dwelling) was the first brick house in the lower valley. Pratt Street runs parallel to Main Street, and many houses on that thoroughfare not only were built in the Federal style, but have their roof lines perpendicular to the street, which allows for more homes to be erected on a given highway. In addition, there are two homes on Pratt Street that have Palladian windows in the garret area. Also of note is the 1846 Baptist Church on Prospect Street, one of three Egyptian Revival style churches in the United States.
As the construction of wooden sailing ships faded, the growth of the ivory and piano parts industry in the village of Ivoryton changed the focal point of Essex again. The growth of Comstock, Cheney & Co., one of the two largest producers of ivory products in the United States, made Ivoryton literally the center of Essex (and the lower Connecticut River Valley). The houses built here after the Civil war reflect the influence and affluence of that village. East Main Street, entering Ivoryton from Centerbrook is ” Victorian Row.” All the houses along this way were owned by executives or stockholders of Comstock, Cheney & Co. Contrast this with Essex Village, where there are relatively few Gothic or Victorian style dwellings, two examples of which are the 1855 “Gingerbread House” at the corner of Riverview Street and Maple Avenue, and the Parker House on North Main Street.
Perhaps the most culturally significant homes in town were built in Ivoryton during the 1890 to 1920 era. The factory was in desperate need of low-cost labor, and as a result, many immigrants from Italy and Poland came to work for Comstock, Cheney & Co. around the turn of the 20th century. The firm constructed many factory homesteads for these people. The great majority of these homes remain today, although most have been substantially altered. A journey through Blake, Oak, Walnut, and Chestnut Streets as well as Comstock Avenue is most revealing, as these factory homes give a glimpse into the past.
Essex, like the other two towns in the “tri-town area” (Deep River and Chester), is a member of Regional School District #4. Essex Elementary School is located in Centerbrook and serves students in grades Pre K-6 (around 350 students). John Winthrop Junior High School, located on Warsaw St. in Deep River, serves grades 7 and 8, and Valley Regional High School, located on Kelsey Hill Rd. in Deep River, serving grades 9-12, are the secondary schools for Regional School District #4.
As of the census of 2000, there were 6,505 people, 2,811 households, and 1,776 families residing in the town. The population density was 627.6 people per square mile (242.4/km2). There were 2,977 housing units at an average density of 287.2 per square mile (110.9/km2).
There were 2,811 households, out of which 27.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 55.6% were married couples living together, 5.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.8% were non-families. 31.8% of all households were made up of individuals, and 16.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.27 and the average family size was 2.87.
In the town, the population was spread out, with 21.9% under the age of 18, 3.6% from 18 to 24, 27.4% from 25 to 44, 27.7% from 45 to 64, and 19.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 43 years. For every 100 females, there were 89.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 86.9 males.
The median income for a household in the town was $66,746, and the median income for a family was $88,888. Males had a median income of $54,053 versus $38,276 for females. The per capita income for the town was $42,806. About 0.5% of families and 2.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 1.0% of those under age 18 and 3.5% of those age 65 or over.