The Copper Smelter (1894-1895)
Welcome back, Monroe history lovers. Today’s Monroe history takes us to the Walker’s Farm District on Hammertown Road, directly opposite the entry to the Fairfield County Fish & Game Protective Association. It is in these near-forgotten woods beside the Copper Mill Brook that Monroe’s greatest 19th century industrial endeavor once stood, albeit for a relatively short period of time.
The story begins in the 1880s, in Ansonia of all places, in a factory on the eastern shore of the Naugatuck River named The Electrolytic Copper Company. One of its principal officers was Edward Leland Smith. Smith was a mining engineer, a graduate of Yale University School of Engineering in 1888. He was also an early pioneer in the industrial application of electricity.
Copper ore was delivered to Smith’s Ansonia factory by train from as far west as Montana, and once unloaded it was purified through the process of electrolysis, which uses electricity to separate the copper from any impurities. Only then could the copper safely be used for electrical applications. This is all very cutting-edge stuff for the 1880s. There was no power grid to tie into back then. All the required electricity for the factory’s needs was generated on-site by steam engines turning dynamos. The entire factory was illuminated by incandescent lights. That’s amazing!
The purified copper business was absolutely booming, but Smith’s factory was hedged in on all sides by other ancient industries, many of which still depended on the flow of the river to power their industrial machinery. The new railroad extension connecting Botsford and Derby had officially opened in 1888 and this new artery would provide Smith access to vast undeveloped lands beside the railroad line in northern Monroe. Just a few short miles from Ansonia, Smith’s business had the potential to grow by leaps and bounds.
Hundreds or acres were soon purchased, and Smith built his fine home and clubhouse on a western hilltop, which still stands today at 16 Percheron Drive. Lavish parties were held with enough imported female entertainment and libations to pry open even the tightest venture capitalists’ wallets. The factory was soon built and operational, but the economic timing couldn’t have been worse. The entire nation found itself in the grip of the financial “Panic of 1893”, an economic depression, which despite Smith’s best laid plans, bankrupted the entire operation in less than a year.
The factory building was dismantled, and the 90 tons of state-of-the-art factory equipment was sold, loaded onto four railroad cars, and transported to Seattle, Washington via the Great Northern Railroad Company. From there it was shipped on barges to the Van Anda Copper and Gold Company on Texada Island in British Columbia, where no doubt portions of it still lay rusting today. Despite rumors that Smith was a swindler from the start, there is overwhelming evidence that he was legitimate in his business endeavors.
I hope you enjoy this week’s spotlight on Monroe’s short-lived copper smelting operation. Presenting this story at this time was unfortunately inspired by a recent article in Monroe, CT Patch that these lands are now for sale for development into a subdivision of upscale homes. Here we go again. Perhaps they’ll include the ruins in their plans. Highly unlikely. I’ve included images of the factory’s foundation remains as well as the stone pillars that mark the original entrance on Hammertown Road to Smith’s hilltop retreat. Thank you for your continued support and interest in Monroe history. Enjoy it before it’s gone forever. Until next time.
Historian, Monroe Historical Society
Our Past is Always Present