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East Meets West (Mid-1800s)

Welcome back, Monroe history lovers. This week’s history takes us to the Stepney, Elm Street, Birdsey’s Plain, and Walkers Farm Districts. Why so many districts, you ask? Well, they’re all related to our history of milling and its many challenges. The mills at Stepney Depot were run for decades by Captain Andrew Leavenworth, who partnered in 1840 with Barnum Curtiss. When Captain Leavenworth passed in 1846, Curtiss made numerous improvements to the milling enterprise, upgrading the mills’ mechanicals with new stones and improving the millponds and head races that delivered water to the millwheels. His intention was to get the entire operation in top shape and then sell it off but was unsuccessful in finding a buyer.

In the days before steam engines and electric motors, mills were powered almost exclusively by water, and the saw, grist, plaster and bone mills at Stepney Depot were no exception. They were each powered by water collected in two separate millponds built on the Western Branch of the Pequonnock River, which flows north to south through Upper and Lower Stepney. The river’s flow was sufficient to keep the millponds full - that is, until the dog days of summer. It was then that the mills had to adjust their schedules to meet the limited availability of water, and on occasion had to temporarily close until the water levels were replenished.

For those of you more familiar with our brooks, streams, and rivers, you’re aware that there’s also an Eastern Branch of the Pequonnock River that flows from the Walkers Farm District into Steiner’s Pond and into Great Hollow Lake further south. It then flows beneath Purdy Hill Rd. and meets the Western Branch of the Pequonnock River just south of the former mills, their confluence then flowing into Trumbull and eventually into Long Island Sound. One has to wonder why the mills weren’t originally built just below the confluence of the two branches to take advantage of the river’s full capacity.

If there was only a way to take advantage of both the river’s branches. Barnum Curtiss was well known for his problem-solving skills, and he devised a rather clever plan to address the challenge of the summertime water shortage. He hired a surveyor to verify his plan’s viability, and once proven, hired a team of laborers to turn his plan into reality. Together they embarked on Monroe’s largest 19th century hydraulic project, to dig a canal north of Stepney Depot to connect the eastern and western branches of the Pequonnock River.

The canal was hand-dug from the eastern branch of the river, through the Elm Street District, beneath the Housatonic Railroad, Cutler’s Farm Rd., and Pepper St. to connect up to the western branch. The result was an appreciable increase in flow to the western branch, creating a healthier water supply to the mills during the hottest days of summer. I’ve provided three highlighted images for your convenience. Want to see the canal today? Just park your car on the Rails to Trails dirt sideroad near the intersection of Cutlers Farm Rd. and Pepper St. and you’re practically standing on top of it!

I hope you enjoy this week’s historic spotlight on the canal that connects both branches of the Pequonnock River upstream of the mills. It was a bold solution for its time and is all but forgotten today. Now, if someone ever tells you the two branches meet just north of the Trumbull border, you can impress them with your historic hydraulic knowledge of the canal. Please share this post with your family and friends, and as always, thank you for your continued support and interest in Monroe’s rich history. Until next time. Let’s get digging!


Kevin Daly
Historian, Monroe Historical Society
Our Past is Always Present

1 - 1934 Aerial.JPG
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