Willimantic is a census-designated place located in the town of Windham in Windham County, Connecticut, United States. It is a former city and borough. Known as “Thread City” for the American Thread Company’s mills along the Willimantic River, it was a center of the textile industry in the 19th century. Originally incorporated as a city in 1893, it entered a period of decline after the Second World War, culminating in the mill’s closure and the city’s reabsorption into the town of Windham in the 1980s. Heroin use, present since the 1960s, became a major public health problem in the early 2000s, declining somewhat by the 2010s. Though the city was a major rail hub, an Interstate Highway has never passed within ten miles, despite early plans to connect it.
Willimantic was populated by a series of ethnic groups migrating to the city to find work at the mills, originally Western European and French Canadian immigrants, later Eastern Europeans and Puerto Ricans. Architecturally, it is known for its collection of Victorian-era houses and other buildings in the hill section, the Romanesque Revival town hall and two crossings of the Willimantic River: a footbridge and the “Frog Bridge”. It is home to Eastern Connecticut State University and the Windham Textile and History Museum. As of 2010, Willimantic had a population of 17,737 people.
Willimantic is named for the Willimantic River which passes through it. The word was first attested in English writing as Waramanticut in 1684, and later as Wallamanticuk, Wewemantic and Weammantuck before being standardized as Willimantic. The word is of Algonquian origin, either Mohegan-Pequot or Narragansett. It is commonly translated as “land of the swift running water”, but the word more likely means “place near the evergreen swamp”.
The surrounding town of Windham was founded in 1693 on land bequeathed by the Mohegan people. The first settler in what is now Willimantic was Samuel Ashley, who bought property there in 1717. Until it was industrialized, the area was called “Willimantic Falls”. The first mill to be established was a picking and carding facility for wool, in 1806. Other mills followed, most notably a series of thread mills starting in 1822. As the city grew, it was incorporated as a borough in 1833. Willimantic became known as “Thread City” for the proliferation of textile mills, primarily thread, along the river.
Willimantic became a city when its charter was revised in 1893. Up to the outbreak of World War II, it continued to be a center for the production of silk and cotton thread. Various groups of immigrants arrived over the years to work in the mills. The city was a major rail hub; in the early twentieth century, as many as a hundred trains ran through Willimantic daily. Ornate Victorian homes were built in the town’s Prospect Hill section, and the town prospered, growing from a population of less than 5,000 in 1860 to more than 12,100 by 1910.
But hard times followed; American Thread moved to North Carolina in 1985 and without it, the town’s economy floundered. The city consolidated back into the town in 1983. The poverty rate, at 25.9%, was more than double the state average in 2010.
In 2002, The Hartford Courant ran an investigative series called “Heroin Town” describing rampant heroin use in Willimantic, disproportionate to the town’s small size, which was followed by a 60 Minutes segment in 2003. The coverage upset local residents, and the state appointed a task force to study the issue. The Hotel Hooker, long known for drug use and prostitution, was renamed to the Seth Chauncey Hotel and put under new management in 2004, then renamed Windham House in 2005. Drug and prostitution arrests peaked in the late 2000s with increased enforcement, and began to fall by 2010.
Willimantic is served by Windham Public Schools, which administers public schools in Willimantic as well as in the rest of Windham. Willimantic itself has a public preschool, the Windham Early Childhood Center, as well as Sweeney Elementary and the Natchaug School for primary education, Windham Middle School for middle-school education, and Windham High School for high-school students. Middle-school students can also apply for admission by lottery to the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy in Windham.
Additionally, Willimantic contains the Arts at the Capitol Theater Performing Arts High School, administered by EASTCONN, and Windham Technical High School, part of the Connecticut Technical High School System. There is also a private Christian school, St. Mary-St. Joseph School, serving pre-K through eighth grade.
Eastern Connecticut State University, a four-year liberal arts college, is located in Willimantic, as is a satellite campus of Quinebaug Valley Community College.
Immigrants of many national origins populated the city. First, Europeans arrived to work in the mills—Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans and French Canadians. Later, Estonian, Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Puerto Rican immigrants moved to the town in search of mill jobs. As a mark of how strongly newcomers identified with their places of origin, Willimantic has many churches, even several from the same denomination: for example, one Catholic church for French Canadians, another for Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants.
As of the 2010 US Census, there were 17,737 people, 5,812 households, and 3,324 families residing in the CDP. The population density was 4,031 inhabitants per square mile (1,556/km2). There were 6,282 housing units at an average density of 1,428 per square mile (551/km2).
The racial makeup of the CDP was 66.0% White, 7.5% African American, 0.6% Native American, 1.9% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 20.2% from other races, and 3.8% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 39.8% of the population, mostly (26.4%) Puerto Ricans.
Of the 5,812 households, out of which 34.2% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 30.6% were married couples living together, 20.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 42.8% were non-families. 31.0% of all households were made up of individuals, and 10.9% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.58 and the average family size was 3.21.
In the CDP the population was spread out, with 21.5% under the age of 18, 31.0% from 18 to 24, 24.8% from 25 to 44, 19.0% from 45 to 64, and 8.6% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 26.5 years. For every 100 females, there were 97.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 95.8 males.
The median income for a household in the CDP was $37,469, and the median income for a family was $45,254. Males had a median income of $37,111 versus $33,862 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $18,441. About 23.7% of families and 25.9% of the population were below the poverty line, including 38.4% of those under age 18 and 9.3% of those age 65 or over.
The urban cluster is an area surrounding the CDP, which has a population of 29,669 as of the 2010 census.