Eminent domain. Merrium-Webster defines it as: a right of a government to take private property for public use by virtue of the superior dominion of the sovereign power over all lands within its jurisdiction.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s, the mere mention of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company in any conversation in Easton, Redding, or Weston was likely to ignite controversy. There were those still residing in the area that despised the company and blamed its management for “taking” their family homesteads. As a young child, I had to wonder if BHC employees simply showed up one day armed with shotguns, standing in front of waiting bulldozers, and ordered families to vacate their farms.
Words such as “condemned, confiscated, expropriated,” and even “stole,” all implied improper actions on the part of the company. My grandfather worked for the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company and our family lived in one of their houses in Weston. Had we been part of some evil conspiracy to evict people from the homes they owned and loved?
I might have been six or seven when I first heard the words eminent domain used to describe the legality behind forcing people to sell their property so that the BHC could build their reservoirs. It would take many more years before I fully understood both the concept and the consequences.
Bridgeport’s first water system was established in 1818 when hollowed-out logs were joined together to run water from the Reverend Elijah Waterman’s property atop Golden Hill to the docks on the waterfront to provide fresh water to the sailing ships that ported there. While the system delivered an adequate supply of drinking water, in 1845, a massive fire destroyed much of the town’s business district. The need for water for suppressing fires would require a larger delivery system and a much larger supply.
In 1853, the Bridgeport Water Company was formed. The company was granted the exclusive right to lay pipes under the city’s streets for the purpose of supplying a “full supply” of water for the city’s needs. A masonry tank reservoir was constructed at Factory Pond and the Pequonnock River was dammed to create the Lower Bunnell’s Reservoir. Unfortunately, the company defaulted on their loans and went into receivership by 1855.
Created by a special act during the 1857 Connecticut Legislative session, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company took over the operations of the then defunct Bridgeport Water Company. Included in that legislation was the granting of the unique privilege for the company to exercise the right of eminent domain in the acquisition of properties needed to establish a larger system of reservoirs and storage facilities.
By 1876, the new company had tripled the size of its reservoir capacity with the completion of the Island Brook Supply System. But the city was growing and still required a greater supply of water, and more importantly, the ability to maintain the constant pressure needed to fight fires.
Trumbull Pond and Horse Tavern Reservoir were added in the late 1870’s after P.T. Barnum took the reigns of the BHC. In addition to leading the Hydraulic company’s efforts to increase capacity in or near the city, Barnum was also a stockholder in the recently incorporated Citizens Water Company. Citizens owned the exclusive rights to dam the Mill River at Easton. When Easton Lake Number One was completed in 1887, the new reservoir had a capacity of 350 million gallons. Citizens would then need to lay several miles of large pipe in order to serve the city.
There was only one small problem. The 1853 agreement with the city that had created the Bridgeport Water Company had also given the company the exclusive rights to lay water pipes throughout the city of Bridgeport, and when the BHC took over the former Bridgeport Water Company’s operations, that company then inherited those rights. An injunction was quickly issued on behalf of the BHC against Citizens and after wrangling in court for a few months, the Supreme Court in the State of Connecticut found in favor of the BHC in March of 1887. Shortly thereafter, BHC and Citizens merged. Easton Lake then became part of the BHC reservoir system.
According to Barnum in his 1888 autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum: “By acquiring the rights of Mill River, a stream of great volume and purity, and bringing it through very large pipes some eight miles into the city, Bridgeport has now a water-power whose natural force throws a stream over the tops of its highest buildings, and thus renders the use of fire engines unnecessary. This great blessing will largely enhance the growth and prosperity of our beautiful and thrifty city.” It should be noted that the term “fire engine” used by Barnum referred to horse drawn steam pumpers that drew water from city hydrants and increased the pressure to a sufficient level to propel a steady stream of water capable of extinguishing a blaze. These pumpers required several minutes to build a head of steam, thereby lengthening the time required before water could be shot onto the flames. Easton Lake not only provided the city with more water for fighting fires, but the increased water pressure from the lake’s higher elevation allowed firefighters to attack flames faster than ever before.
Bridgeport continued to grow throughout the remainder of the 19th century, and with that growth, the constant need for more water increased. By the early 1900’s the company had hired a young engineer by the name of Samuel P. Senior who would oversee future development and growth of their reservoir capacity.
Easton Lake Number Two had already been built prior to 1900. The larger dam created a reservoir that was double the size of Number One. The new stone dam sat a bit farther north of the original – about in the same location as Number Three that spans the Narrows today. But even Number Two wasn’t large enough to keep up with Bridgeport’s growing thirst for more water.
Easton and Weston offered the largest potential for supplying additional nearby water. The Mill, Aspetuck, and Saugatuck Rivers all had sufficient year-round flows to fill reservoirs while still maintaining enough water flow-through to keep each stream viable below the dams required to create the new storage basins. It was as early as 1905 that the BHC began its quest to acquire the necessary lands to build its new reservoirs in Easton.
A 1910 map of the proposed water supply system showed the soon to be created Hemlocks and Aspetuck Reservoirs, along with future plans for a double dammed pair of water storage basins that would hold back the Saugatuck River and Hawleys Brook, creating a connected pair of basins containing several billion gallons of additional water.
It is extremely important to understand that the present Trout Brook Valley Preserve was not created from extra land (as so many people have claimed over the years) the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company acquired simply because it had the power to do so. That land was originally intended to be a watershed basin with a dam that would create a reservoir tentatively named Valley Forge East. In the final analysis, it was decided a dike should be built just to the northeast of the Samuel P. Senior Dam on the Saugatuck and the plans for the Hawleys Brook dam abandoned in the favor of a much higher dam on the Saugatuck River. That decision resulted in a reservoir with a capacity of over 12 billion gallons of fresh water, more than double the capacity of the original plan.
In the early 1900’s, the BHC saw limited resistance when it came to acquiring much of the land it was going to require. Farms in Easton were failing. People were leaving. Many homes were empty. The population had reached its lowest level since the town had been incorporated. Land was cheap and many landowners were eager and happy to sell.
That didn’t mean that everyone was thrilled to sell. There were families who had farmed some of the lands for over a hundred years that BHC would then need. It wasn’t about the money. For them, it was about tradition. But in the end, the BHC had the power of eminent domain at its disposal and everyone knew it.
But the fact was, the power of eminent domain was very seldom exercised during the years leading up to World War One. While the threat of using the power of eminent domain surely convinced most holdouts that their resistance would be futile, it appears that most landowners came to an amicable agreement and sold their property to the BHC without asking the courts for relief.
In researching this article, I only found a few instances where the BHC had to take landowners to court, and when they did, a three-panel party of disinterested people was assigned by the court to determine if the company’s offer was equitable. From what I could find during those early years, it appears that the panel of arbitrators almost always sided with the company. While there were often rumors of collusion between the arbitrators and the company, that would seem doubtful, as in each case a different panel of men would have been chosen to consider the arguments of both parties.
By 1916, the BHC had acquired almost all the property they would need in Easton. Easton Lake Number Three wouldn’t begin construction until 1925, but the war had put that project on hold, not the lack of need for additional water nor the company’s inability to carry off the project.
The real controversy about how much the BHC was paying for the lands they needed didn’t come until the middle 1930’s when the company was completing their acquisition of properties in Weston and Redding for the upcoming expanded Saugatuck Reservoir.
Suddenly, there were claims by local newspapers that the Hydraulic Company was paying far less than the state of Connecticut was offering landowners for properties within the right-of-way for the new Merritt Parkway. Residents in Weston were outraged and mounted an all-out effort to either derail the Saugatuck project or force the BHC to pay rates comparable to what the state was paying for land needed to build the parkway.
A December 24, 1937 article in the Westporter-Herald stated about the Merritt Parkway land deals: “These sales have been under consummation for a long time, and undoubtedly the State of Connecticut must have been making these purchases with their eyes wide open.” Assertations such as this simply added fuel to the fire that the BHC was bilking property owners out of thousands of extra dollars on every piece of property it was then buying in Weston and Redding. But those wide open eyes on the part of state officials charged with over-seeing the purchasing of land for the right-of-way for the new parkway had long been looking in the other direction while state right-of-way agent Leroy Kemp conspired with local real estate agents to buy land at inflated prices and then receive a kick-back on the commissions collected by those agents.
In December of 1937, the New York Times reported that State Representative Stanley Mead had been paid $100,000 for 28 acres of land assessed at $14,050. In January of 1938, Fairfield County prosecutors called on the Connecticut Superior Court to convene a grand jury to bring indictments in the Merritt Parkway land cases. According to the New York Times article on January 28, 1938, that was only the second time in recent memory that “a grand jury had been convened by a county prosecutor for anything other than a capital offense.”
Leroy Kemp was eventually convicted and ordered to pay restitution of the $76,000 the state could prove he received in illegal kickbacks, but the inflated land prices paid by the state remained. The Bridgeport Hydraulic Company’s property purchases were forever tainted by the obscenely high prices the state had tendered for land that was in some cases only five or six miles away.
Exacerbating the issue was a well-publicized court case heard in Bridgeport Superior Court in November of 1937. Weston landowners James Griffin and Edgar Perry argued that the BHC tendered offer for their lands was ridiculously low. In an almost laughable effort to increase the price, the men argued that their lands, basically inaccessible a year prior, were then road-front properties and therefore worth much more money. This was indeed true. However the new road their properties then fronted had been built by the town of Weston in 1936 to replace the old Forge Road that ran alongside the river in the Saugatuck Valley – the very valley that the BHC would be flooding once the new dam was completed. The new Valley Forge Road would have never been constructed except for the old one below being discontinued. Not only had the BHC compensated the town of Weston for the new road, but the property owners were then in court demanding more money because that very road made their land more desirable. Not surprisingly, the three-man board of appraisers appointed by the court found in favor of the BHC.
Looking back, there is no doubt that the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company paid as little as possible for the lands it required to build its water supply system. That is consistent with good business practices of any privately owned company. But from what this researcher has been able to ascertain after looking at a multitude of court records and newspaper articles that cover the first 40 years of the 20th century, there is no clear evidence that the company violated its state issued charter, nor abused the power of eminent domain granted to it. Prices tendered appear to be consistent with the type of land and the dates of acquisition. Much of the land in question was difficult to access, and some of the terrain made it virtually unusable. Actual eminent domain proceedings were far and few between until the unfounded comparisons between the Merritt Parkway acquisitions and the BHC Saugatuck Valley purchases arose in the mid-1930’s.
In the end, the BHC created an amazing interconnection of reservoirs in the tri-town area that have provided towns along the lower Connecticut coast with enough clean water to flourish. In exchange, towns like Easton, Redding & Weston have been provided with thousands of acres of land that will never be developed. Open space for wildlife and hiking abound and our quality of life has been forever enhanced because of it. Here is the link to Aquarion’s trail guides for the tri-town trails. Carrying a copy of the guide acts as your access permit. https://www.aquarionwater.com/docs/default-source/environment/saugatuckaspetuck-trail-guide.pdf?sfvrsn=956ad293_3
While we can all understand and empathize with the frustration and disappointment felt by the families who had to sell their homesteads all those years ago, it should also be noted that many of those old homes were spared the proverbial wrecking ball. The BHC retained a multitude of older homes that still stand today, including a good number that currently line Black Rock Turnpike between Redding Road and the base of Jump Hill. They weren’t required to do that, but they did. And for that at least, we should all be thankful.