Remembering the Narrows – As Recalled and Narrated by the Late Arthur Wheeler

Arthur Ellis Wheeler was born May 9, 1887 in Easton. He worked for Burritt Lumber in Bridgeport in its various corporate forms for his entire career, beginning as an estimator in 1905, then rising to their corporate secretary in 1936 – a position he held until his retirement in 1973. Mister Wheeler also held the distinction of being Easton’s longest standing town treasurer, a position he first won as a Republican in 1933 and was then endorsed by both parties and reelected every two years for the next 41 years – his tenure only ending with his death in September of 1974.

Arthur Ellis Wheeler 1887-1974 Easton Town Treasurer

His recollection of the Narrows section of Easton that today largely lies under the waters of the Easton Reservoir was written shortly before his death. A good deal of what you will read below is in his own words, with a minimal amount of editing and paraphrasing by this writer in an effort to hopefully make what follows just a bit easier to read and comprehend for today’s readers. This writer’s comments are in regular font, while Mister Wheeler’s are in italic:

In the early 1880’s, and for many years before that, there was a quiet, peaceful valley located in the eastern section of Easton that extended in a general north-south direction from where the Mill River entered from the Monroe Town line at the north to the Fairfield Town Line at the south.

Overlooking the valley on the west was a road that began at the bottom of the hill where Flat Rock Road joins today’s South Park Avenue. That road ran only in a northly direction all the way to the Newtown Town Line, to the south it ended only a few yards beyond the base of Flat Rock Road. On the 1867 Beers Map it was referred to as the Line Highway, but as I remember it, from its intersection with the cross highway that is today’s Old Oak Road, it was referred to as Steep Hill Road. (Roads in those days had no officially assigned names, that came about during the Great Depression in a campaign by the Grange to aid volunteer fire departments more easily locate buildings that had been reported being ablaze).

The Narrows area was located along the Mill River. “228” is Old Oak Road. “106” is the crossroad that joined the Line Road (86) and the original City Road (223). The Wheeler wagon shop and sawmill were located on the southern mill pond in this 1867 map of Easton by Frederick Beers.

On the eastern side of the valley, closer to the river’s edge was another road. It was referred to as the City Road, possibly because it was the main thoroughfare from the eastern section of Easton beginning at Everett Road, south into the City of Bridgeport. The Line Highway and City Road were connected via what is today’s Old Oak Road via a bridge over the river.

To some, this valley was known as the Mill River Valley. The river itself was referred to in many of the old deeds as the Fairfield Mill River.

In the area where the bridge crossed the Mill River, due to the contour of the land, the valley became quite narrow and there were large rock outcroppings at the side of the river. That portion of the valley became known as “The Narrows.” During the later half of the 19th century, that area was one of the busiest sections of Easton. Just south of the crossroad, on the western side of the river was a wagon shop, blacksmith shop and paint shop, all owned by my grandfather, Joseph Wheeler. A mill pond and a dam provided the waterpower necessary to operate the machinery.

On January 22, 1885, my grandfather sold the land on the western side of the river – recorded in the deed as 10 rods, more or less – including the wagon, blacksmith and paint shops along with the waterpower rights, etc. to three of his sons: Eugene, Horace, and my father, Ellis. After that, the business was operated under the name of the Wheeler Brothers. My grandfather retained another business – a sawmill – on the opposite side of the river.

There was a grist mill and another smaller mill pond that lay a short distance to the north of the Wheeler Brothers, also on the western side of the river. That business was known as Marsh’s Grist Mill. It was then operated by Christopher Marsh, son of the original owner, Thomas Marsh who began the operation in 1847 shortly after his arrival from England. (On a personal note, Thomas Marsh (1779-1859) was this writer’s three-times great-grandfather).

In 1886, the year after the Wheeler brothers had taken over their father’s business, the Citizen’s Water Company of Bridgeport began to purchase land in Easton preparatory to building a reservoir and what would become the first of three eventual dams, each holding back the water of increasingly larger reservoirs as Bridgeport’s need for water continued to increase. The dam known as Number 1, or what remains of it, can still be seen on South park Avenue near its intersection with Buck Hill Road. It is in an excellent state of preservation considering the number of years it has been standing.

On April 30, 1886, my grandparents, Joseph and Emily Wheeler, sold all of their land – and I quote directly from the recorded deed, “situated in the Valley of the Fairfield Mill River south of or below the dam of Wheeler Brothers on said river necessary to be taken in the construction of the reservoir, the flowage line of said reservoir being to the top of said dam of Wheeler Brothers as now existing…” Some of the other deeds recorded on the same day mention the water line as being 4-feet above the level of Wheelers Pond. (as this would turn out to be the true water level after Dam Number One was constructed, it would mean that Wheeler’s sons would need to move their operations further north in the valley within only two years of taking the business over from their father).

Other properties acquired for that first reservoir by the Citizens Water Company in 1886 were purchased from William B. Turney, Cyrus and Charity Turney, Almon H. and Louisa L. French, and John Schlump as well as others from the Trumbull side.

On May 11, 1886, and agreement was signed by the Town of Easton and Citizens Water Company calling for the discontinuance of the City Road on the eastern side of the Mill River, for which the Town of Easton received the sum of $1,300. The road was discontinued on May 21, 1886.

With the construction of the first reservoir in the Narrows, the old bridge that crossed the river and connected the southern end of the Line Highway to the City Road was abandoned. That meant that Easton residents could only gain access to Bridgeport via the Jackson Highway (today’s Sport Hill Road). For some that added several miles to the journey in an era where a horse and wagon were the only means of transport. Some residents were unhappy and took the town to court.

When the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company merged with the Citizens Water Company later in 1886, the Easton reservoir came under their control. The BHC immediately began looking towards the future and started planning to build a larger, taller dam (Number Two that would be completed in 1893) in the Narrows that would greatly increase the size of its reservoir in Easton.  It was the BHC that decided it needed additional lands above the dam that had been recently constructed, and in early 1888, it began the process of acquiring them.

According to the Easton Land Records, on March 7, 1888, Joseph and Emily Wheeler sold to the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company “that certain piece or parcel of land situated in Easton at The Narrows” – north of Wheelers Mill Pond, including the sawmill, and on the same date that the Wheeler Brothers sold the Hydraulic Company “the land, buildings, and water privileges known as Wheelers’ Mills at the Narrows.”

A court order dated December 21, 1888 required the Town of Easton to construct a new “City Road” along the western side of the new reservoir that would connect to the southern end of the old Line Highway. The new road was 5,618 feet in length and extended from the Fairfield Town Line to a point on the crossroad near Marsh’s Grist Mill. The court ordered the new road to be constructed within ten months.

After the first reservoir was built, the bridge over the river removed and before the new “City Road” (South Park Avenue) was built in 1889

Since the new road would benefit a new group of landowners, those land holders were ordered to pay the Town of Easton a total of $718 towards the construction of the new road. According to Mister Wheeler’s hand-written notes that accompanied his essay, those landowners whose properties were taken by the town under the provisions of eminent domain, received a total of $1,021.50 in compensation. The new road is today’s South Park Avenue, although even a portion of that new thoroughfare would need to be relocated slightly to the west in 1926 when the last of the three dams that have been built in the Narrows was constructed.

1925 BHC construction crews blast the rock outcroppings in the Narrows to ready the land to accept the base of Dam Number 3.

After selling their original buildings and land to the BHC in 1888, the Wheeler Brothers moved about three quarters of a mile upstream: “The original shops and mills owned and operated by the Wheeler Brothers were demolished and new buildings were built upstream when a new dam created another mill pond to provide the Wheelers with the necessary water to power their machinery. On the 1867 map the road shown north of the crossroad was flooded when the new reservoir was filled with water. A new road was then built on the western shore. This road was known as the “Dugway” and was so named because the new roadway was carved out of the side of the hill between the old Wheeler’s Pond and the new one. The newer shops and mills operated until 1899 when all of the land and buildings were sold to the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company in anticipation of their constructing an even larger reservoir. After that, my father built a smaller wagon and paint shop on the place which we now own (Highland Place at 422 Sport Hill Road that was constructed by Wheeler’s grandfather in 1896, the year after he sold his house in the Narrows to the BHC).

Highland Place. The Wheeler estate built in 1896 by Arthur’s father Ellis Wheeler. It is located at 422 Sport Hill Road at the corner with Old Oak.

In addition to the above information about Narrows, Mister Wheeler interjected a few personal recollections about his childhood years spent there:

The No. 3 District School, which I attended, was called the Narrows School (it has also been referred to as the Dugway School and it operated until 1899 when it was replaced by the larger two-room Sport Hill School on Flat Rock Road). The Narrows Schoolhouse was located on the corner of Steep Hill Road (the Line Highway) and the crossroad (Old Oak). About five years after I moved into Easton, my mother decided that it was about time for me to step out into the world and get an education. And so, the day after I turned five years old, she started for the school which was about a quarter mile from our house. Of course, I wasn’t all that keen about going since I had been loafing around for five years doing nothing except to play with my toys. But since I had always been taught to mind my parents, I trudged along reluctantly.

District Number 3. The Narrows School was also known as the Dugway Schoolhouse. It operated until 1899 when it was replaced with the Sport Hill School on Flat Rock Road.

We went to the door of the schoolhouse, my mother knocked on the door, and the teacher, whose name was Charles Powell, came to the door and opened it. He had a long, gray beard and when I first saw him, I thought he was Santa Claus. He peered down at me over the top of his glasses, just like a cat watching a mouse, so I turned and ran as fast as I could and stopped at the corner just a short distance away. They could not persuade ne to go back, so we went home. Bertha’s mother (Wheeler doesn’t elaborate here as to who Bertha might have been) then decided that Bertha should attend school, and my mother bought us each a lunch pail and we went to school together. So, after that, everything was satisfactory. I well remember my second teacher, Emily Roberts, who afterwards married William Disbrow. Mrs. Disbrow was Lucy Dodge’s grandmother and Howard Shaff’s mother-in-law (Shaff was Easton’s Town Counsel and the personal attorney of just about everybody who lived in Easton at the time). Without a doubt, she was the best teacher I ever had. Later Mary (his wife, the former Mary Ferris from Newtown whom Wheeler married in 1913) and I worked with her I our church (Jesse Lee where Mary ran the choir and played the piano) and we can truthfully say that she was a most wonderful woman.

Mary Ferris Wheeler. Many current Easton residents who grew up in town during the 1950’s, through the 1970’s will remember Mrs. Wheeler as their piano teacher. Prior to her marriage to Arthur Wheeler, she was a teacher at the Sport Hill School.

I also recall the fun we had in the winter sliding down Cat Hill as it was called at the time – now Flat Rock Road. We would start at the top of the hill, near Carl Switzgable’s, with a double ripper, which was two sleds with a long plank attached and a steering mechanism – some of the older boys would steer it and from 6 to 8 could be seated on the ripper. Would go around the sharp corner at the foot of Cat Hill, down three or four short hills, around another sharp corner at the crossroad, and with the momentum we could coast all the way down into the Narrows – a distance of at least ¾ of a mile. Then we would have to drag the double ripper all the way up the hill, which wasn’t as much fun.

This double ripper sled photo was taken in 1927 on Sport Hill, but looks exactly like the sled Arthur Wheeler described as being used on Cat Hill.

There were also numerous skating parties on No. 2 Reservoir (1893-1925) to which people came from Easton, Trumbull, and Monroe. There was also fishing through the ice during the winter. I went fishing many times with Mister French in both the Number One and Number two reservoirs, as he was the caretaker of both reservoirs at the time, and it was back during the days when it was possible to get fishing permits from the BHC.

Thank you, Mister Wheeler. A most interesting narrative of an area of Easton that can no longer be recalled by any but one or two who might still be alive today. Easton Lake was built between the years of 1925 and 1927 and the remaining lands in the Narrows have been immersed in water ever since, only offering brief glimpses of old stone walls and foundations during periods of extreme drought, when area residents can look at the uncovered rocks and wonder what life may have been like a hundred or more years ago.

A special thank you goes to Diane Rowland who has graciously shared some of Mister Wheeler’s personal papers, notes & photographs with the Historical Society of Easton.

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