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Eli Whitney

The Inventor     
    Inventing Change     
    The Site     
    The Cotton Gin     
    The Factory     
    The Arms     
    The Family     
    Time Machine 1798     
  The Site

The Eli Whitney Gun Factory by William Giles Munson, oil on canvas, 1826-8.
Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection.

1. Mill River
2. The Eli Whitney Armory
3. The Town Bridge
4. Whitneyville 1825

Mill River: Water Power and Water Supply
The Mill River, which flows through the Whitney Armory site is on its way to Long Island Sound, has played a crucial role in its history. Eli Whitney, Sr. came to the site in 1798 specifically in order to use the water's power for running machinery; sixty-two years later his son turned the river into the first public water supply for the city of New Haven. For some decades thereafter, the river continued to provide power not only for the Armory's machinery, but also for pumping its own water into the network of pipes reaching New Haven's buildings and hydrants. Eventually it gave way, as a power source, to steam engines and electric motors, but it continues to this day to supply water for the city.

The low dam and waterwheels that Eli Whitney, Sr. installed made possible the Whitney Armory with its adjacent small settlement, Whitneyville. Like many another New England water-privilege site, but unlike the larger planned waterpower complexes such as Lowell or Holyoke in Massachusetts, the community remained of modest size. Constrained in large part by the natural limits on its water power, Whitneyville did not grow into an industrial city, but led him first in the 1840s to replace the waterwheels with hydraulic turbines, the latest advance in waterpower technology, and then to make the dam five times higher in 1860. The other purpose of this move - to form Lake Whitney as the as the first reservoir for the New Haven Water Company - was what paid for the construction of the dam we see at the site today. The creation of Lake Whitney in turn prevented further industrial development at waterpower sites upstream - by flooding them - thus leaving the Armory as southern Hamden's only industrial site until a later era.

Whitney's Improved Fire-Arms Advertisement, c. 1862
New Haven Colony Historical Society
From the book, Windows on the Works: Industry on the Eli Whitney Site 1798-1979

The Eli Whitney Armory: The Social Matrix

When Eli Whitney made his plans to supply the government with muskets, water power and machines were two of his immediate concerns. The third, but no less important component of his scheme for a gun manufactory on the Mill River was a workforce. And Whitney had given considerable thought to what characteristics he wanted his workers to have:

My intention is to employ steady sober people and learn them the business. I shall make it a point to employ persons who have families, connections, and perhaps some little property to fix them to the place - who consequently cannot be easily removed to any considerable distance.

How well Eli Whitney succeeded in recruiting "steady, sober people" is not clear. Research that can tell the story of the Whitney workers, their relationship to Whitney and each other, their feelings about their jobs, and the changes that occurred in both their domestic and vocational choices is only now beginning.

Boarding House, now the
Connecticut Trust for Historical Preservation

Preliminary appraisals suggest that the social microcosm that Whitney created at Mill Rock fits no easy model. We know that the buildings on the west side of Whitney Avenue had a primarily social rather than a manufacturing function. Despite some ambiguity concerning its date and construction, the boarding house for unmarried workers, located at the corner of Whitney Avenue and Armory Street, was probably one of the first structures that Whitney built after completing those structures essential to the gunmaking operation. The series of buildings on Armory Street that Whitney built for his married workers no doubt followed close behind. Benjamin Silliman wrote that they were "beautifully constructed and arranged upon one plan. And William P. Blake, a son of Whitney's nephew, Eli Blake wrote that there were,

Whitneyville in 1832, engraving by J.W. Barber
From the book, Windows on the Works: Industry on the Eli Whitney Site 1798-1979

ten or more dwellings besides the boarding house, erected for the convenience and comfort of the operatives. The village, built by the elder Whitney (the first 'Whitneyville) consisted of six houses of stone, covered with stucco... Some of these buildings were removed when the construction of the high dam rendered a change in the direction of the road necessary.

Waterfall built by Eli Whitney, Jr. in 1860

The remaining houses were torn down in 1912. Finally, the Barn, built in 1816, was the centerpiece of the Whitney farm. It was the focus of agricultural activities which supplied the boarding house kitchen and provided shelter for the draft animals used at the Armory. Whitney's friend Silliman considered it "a model of convenience and even taste and beauty," and further described the unique features of its design:

It is perfectly characteristic of Mr. Whitney that his attention was directed to the mangers for his cattle, and to their fastenings. The latter are so contrived, by means of a small weight at the end of the halter, that an animal could always move his head with perfect facility, but could not draw out the rope so as to become entangled in it, nor could he easily waste his hay. The fastenings of the doors, as well as all the other appendages and accommodations are equally ingenious.

That Whitney took an active role in the design and construction of the non-Armory buildings on his site is thus well established. The need for housing to accommodate his workforce was obvious given the distance of the Armory from any other suitable lodgings. The farm was necessary to provide food for the unmarried workers and probably supplemented the gardens of the married workers living on Armory Street.

The Town Bridge

In 1820, the architect Ithiel Town wrote to Eli Whitney requesting a written opinion of the model of a wooden bridge on which Town that year had filed a patent. Whitney's reply, "its simplicity, lightness, strength, cheapness & durability, are in my opinion such as to render it highly worthy of attention," recognized the admirable qualities of Town's bridge, which was in fact a major design innovation.

Town's Patent Drawing of the Lattice Truss, 1820
Ithiel Town Papers, Yale University Library

A current view of the bridge

The lattice truss was an uninterrupted series of closely spaced diagonal timbers. The resulting web of overlapping triangles affected the distribution of stress to all members, so that the independent action of any one triangle was impossible. Ordinary pine or spruce planks were used for the diagonals and wooden connecting pins or tree-nails fastened the members at their points of intersection. This "garden trellis fence" concealed a truss design of considerable strength.

Not only was Town's design strong and made of economical standard-dimension lumber, it was also easy to build: it did not require fancy mortises and tendons and could thus be erected by a common carpenter's gang; it did not have to be custom-fitted to piers or abutments as arch bridges did. And the lightness of its timbers reduced the amount of labor that had formerly been needed to erect the pioneer bridges of Town's predecessors, Timothy Palmer and Theodore Burr. Thus the lattice-truss bridge combined the features of strength and economy, which had great appeal, especially to those engaged in the expansion of the nation's transportation network of highways and later, railroads.

Whitneyville 1825

In 1827, William Giles Munson drafted a now famous portrait of Whitneyville, the manufacturing village that Eli Whitney had developed for 25 years. Whitney died in 1825. Munson's painting records buildings Whitney had built or had planned. Painters, journalists and presidents visited Whitneyville. It was an accessible and popular sampler of change that was sprouting next to rivers all over New England.

Munson's Whitneyville is thoughtfully organized, peaceful, and in easy harmony with the river and hills that surround it. By the time the Industrial Revolution had reached full force, few factory towns kept Whitneyville's idyllic balance. Munson's painting is an image that finds its way into text books that describe the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in part because it recalls a beginning of friendly human scale and dignity not yet darkened by smoke.

Factories are places of change. At least 18 buildings have come and gone since Whitney Sr's time. We are still digging into that history. With the painting and map, however, you can still find artifacts of Whitney's era and mind.

Drawing of the barn, from Eli Whitney's Gun Factory

Drawing of the fuel shed, from Eli Whitney's Gun Factory

Drawing of the men's boarding house, from Eli Whitney's Gun Factory

Eli Whitney Museum
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