Photo: Homes in the Hamburg Bridge Historic District, Old Lyme, CT. The Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Photographed by User:Magicpiano (own work), 2016, [cc-by-3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed April, 2016.
The Hamburg Bridge Historic District [‡] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The Hamburg Bridge Historic District is a group of approximately 18 parcels of land, on which there are ten houses, located on the east and west sides of the Eight Mile River at the Hamburg Bridge in the Town of Lyme, Connecticut. The Eight Mile River is so named because it flows into the Connecticut River from the northeast, eight miles above Long Island Sound. The Bridge at Hamburg is the first bridge across the Eight Mile River, about two miles above the point where it joins the Connecticut River.
Joshuatown Road on the west side of the river and Old Hamburg Road on the east side come together at the bridge. Most of the houses face the river from across one road or the other. On both sides of the river the land in front of the houses between the river and the roads once was given over to wharfs. The stone bulkheads of the wharfs are still in place.
The Hamburg Bridge Historic District consists of the wharfs and the houses immediately adjoining them, the bridge, and that section of the river below the bridge that is lined by the wharfs. All properties are considered to contribute to the historic character of the district.
The village within the Town of Lyme known as Hamburg has its center, with church and store, about two-thirds of a mile below the bridge. During the 19th century a channel was dredged in the Eight Mile River to the center where commercial shipping was continued well into the 20th century.
The site for the bridge was chosen, in 1759, because it was the first point where the Eight Mile River became narrow enough to make a bridge practical. It was also the highest point on the river to which navigation was possible. The width and depth of the water explain the presence of the bridge and the wharfs, the junction of the roads, and the existence of the Hamburg Bridge community.
The water at the bridge is only three to four feet deep, suitable only for small boats or scows. Consequently, after a channel was dredged to the docks at the center in 1824 use of the wharfs at the bridge declined. The community has experienced virtually no development since that time. The main road, Route 156, formerly known as the Salem Turnpike, bypasses the bridge to the east. The houses and wharfs near the bridge have not been disturbed by development or intrusions and continue to maintain their historic relationship to one another and to the river and the bridge.
The size of the lots in the Hamburg Bridge Historic District has always been small, and the houses have always been close together. This was never a farm community. The largest parcel in the Hamburg Bridge Historic District reached its present size through increases by purchase in the 20th century. The activity associated with the wharfs was the focus of community life.
The wharfs that once were busy with boats and with cargo such as lumber are now quiet, but the houses that went along with them are still in place and have been continuously occupied. Three of the houses have the five-bay, central-chimney, central-doorway arrangement of 18th-century architecture, but their dates of construction have not been established by other than visual estimate. All have experienced changes and additions. The integrity of one has been damaged by the introduction of picture windows, and another has acquired a late-19th century, two-story porch. These Old Hamburg Road houses probably do not pre-date the year the road was laid out, c.1800.
None of the houses is a pure example of any architectural style. One is thought by the owner to be of 18th-century origin, but whatever early features it may have had are now camouflaged behind its Colonial Revival false wings and its vernacular two-story front projection, which themselves are of considerable interest. Built into the side of the hill, this house has its front door what normally would be the basement level but in this house is the first floor. There is no cellar. There are three floors of living space and an attic. This accommodation of architecture to the terrain is paralleled in two houses on the other side of the river.
One house, c.1879, being one of the newer houses, has been altered less than others but its two gable end elevations have different fenestration, suggesting that it has seen at least some alteration.
The house of greatest architectural interest has a gambrel roof, quoins, entablature and dormers with dentil courses, and doorway surround are in the Georgian mode, and it is handsomely sited behind a stone wall with picket fence. But its detailing is not completely consistent. For example, there are no quoins on the rear corners of the house, although the raking cornice of the rear lower slope of the gambrel returns with dentil course paralleling the arrangement at the front corners where there are quoins. And the sides of the dormers on the front are covered by clapboards while on the rear they are covered by fish-scale shingles.
The interior of this house has three exceptional features, the coved passage through the split chimney on the first floor, the doorway surround at the back of this passage," and a large coved ceiling room on the second floor.
The sharp upward slope of the land on both sides of the river is an important feature of the district. It has been coped with by construction of a number of stone retaining walls that have been in place, according to the land records, since at least as far back as the first decade of the 19th century and perhaps earlier.
On the east side of the river, along Old Hamburg Road, it is surprising to find two houses with two-story front porches. One porch appears to be a late-19th century addition, and the other was extensively altered, c.1867, when there was a change of ownership. The new owner increased the size of the house by 50% by constructing an addition on the north. He added the intricate exterior trim and on the interior built a central hall with a stairway whose railing climbs continuously around a narrow stair well from the first to third floors. It has its entrance at grade but this floor is used for living rooms and there is no cellar. The wall at the back of the ground floor is a retaining wall against the hill.
A third house utilizes the terrain in effect to achieve an added floor, forgoing a basement. A door at the rear of its second floor opens onto an attractive area where the well is located, while a short bridge from higher up the bank leads to the bedroom floor. Again, it is a 3-1/2-story house with entrance from grade at three levels.
This house has a typical arrangement for a Colonial style house of two fireplaces, one on either side of the central chimney, at the ground floor, and a typical, although somewhat small and cramped, stairway with winders in front of the chimney leading to the second floor. On the second floor there are two more fireplaces on either side of the chimney and a large kitchen fireplace (with former bake oven now removed) at the back. This layout with kitchen fireplace on the second floor suggests that the second floor was intended as the principal living floor at the time the house was built, with the ground floor perhaps serving as a shop in connection with the wharfs. A further item of interest is an area of several square feet on the wall of the attic stairway where wallpaper is pasted onto the vertical boards. The pattern is a small stylized grouping of squares and abstract motifs in black, grey and red.
The cohesiveness of the group of houses in the Hamburg Bridge Historic District is a function of their relationship to the wharfs. While the wharfs have long ago ceased to have utility, they have survived and with the houses that went along with them form a district that is faithful to its early-19th century heritage.
In the early 19th century, the houses and wharfs of the Hamburg Bridge Historic District were at the head of navigation on the Eight Mile River, where goods were transferred from water to land. As the community has survived without significant change, it gives an excellent picture of what this transfer point between water and land transportation was like. The houses in the Hamburg Bridge Historic District, built in the 18th and 19th centuries, are good examples of the Colonial, Georgian, Greek Revival, Eastlake and vernacular styles and survive in their original relationship to one another and to the river. So far as is known, no archeological examinations have been made in the area, but the wharfs may possess historic archeological significance for investigation of maritime-related information.
The known history of the Hamburg Bridge Historic District dates from approximately the year 1800. Prior to that date about the only confirmed fact is that the first bridge was built in 1759. A local newspaper article published in 1978 excited considerable local interest by referring to the area as Reed's Landing and stating that significant shipbuilding had been carried out on the wharfs there in the 18th century. While no factual basis thus far has been found for the statements in the article, the name Reed's Landing has crept into local usage, and the article did serve the useful purpose of stirring an interest in the history of their community on the part of the residents.
Efforts to research the history of the district prior to 1800 proved to be unproductive. Search through the land records, unfortunately, reaches a dead end at about the year 1800 for all the properties, while the census and tax records prior to 1800 do not convey any information about properties. Early maps do not show any detail for the district.
While the 18th-century history has not been determined, it is clear from repeated references to the wharfs in the land records that they existed early in the 19th century. The exact date for their construction cannot be determined. On the one hand, there is a disturbing lack of reference to existing wharfs in 1811 and 1813 deeds, disturbing because the presence of wharfs usually is recognized in the language. On the other hand, an 1803 deed mentions a store at the western end of the bridge, and the presence of a store implies the presence of a wharf. Moreover, the use of the term "landing" in the 18th century implies some improvement of the land, such as a wharf. None of this analysis throws any light on the question of whether ships were built at Reed's Landing.
A fine painting of Reed's Landing as it appeared in the 19th century hangs in the Lyme Town Hall. Conjecture arises as to whether the scene depicted is a faithful representation of what the artist saw at the time he did the painting, or whether it is his impression of how the scene may have appeared some years earlier. Several elements in the painting conform to expectations. The store at the western end of the bridge is color red, as noted in the land records of 1829. The picket fence with its post is in place in front of an 1803 Georgian house on Joshuatown Road, although the quoins and dentils are missing from the house. The commodity on the wharf is lumber, and the boat in which the lumber is transported is a scow. On the other hand, the painting shows a sail boat, on the right, in the river above the bridge, an unlikely place because of the shallow water.
The painting is useful for showing the store at the end of Old Hamburg Road. The structure to the right of the gambrel-roofed house on the west probably is the workshop referred to in the deeds. This structure also once served as a private school. Most important, at the far left the painting shows a vessel in stocks, in the course of being built. Three proposals have been put forward on how such a vessel might have been taken downstream. First, it might have been of centerboard design and, being small, with the centerboard up might have drawn less than three feet. Second, it could have been floated downstream on pontoons. Third, it could have been held for the next semi-annual extra high tide. In any event, the presence in the painting of the vessel in stocks keeps alive the possibility that shipbuilding was indeed carried on at Reed's Landing.
The Houses and People
The houses at Hamburg Bridge are of great interest and value because of the integrity of their setting, grouped around the water in their original relationship to one another. A clear sense of the early-19th century community is portrayed by the district. Individually, with the exception of the Georgian house, the houses are not of museum quality, but rather contribute to the historic character of the Hamburg Bridge Historic District through their role as typical, late 18th century and 19th century structures that have been enlarged and adapted to changing tastes over the decades.
The 1803 Georgian house on Joshuatown Road is the most significant architecturally. J. Frederick Kelly, the leading authority on Connecticut houses of that era, cites only one other example in the state of chimney vaulting of this type, and that one has been demolished. Kelly dates this house, built by Captain William Johnson, from 1790. When Captain Johnson died in 1818 he left his widow, Mitty, with four minor children, suggesting that his family, marriage and perhaps his house dated from the first decade of the 19th century. Moreover, his name does not appear in the Lyme Land Records indexes of the 18th century. While he may have purchased the house, it seems more likely that the land he bought in 1803 is the site of the house and he built it soon thereafter, rather than in 1790. Johnson was a Mason. The second-floor room with the coved ceiling was a Masonic Hall.
The Widow Mitty Johnson sold the house soon after the Captain's untimely death, but in 1848 returned to Hamburg Bridge and purchased a house on Joshuatown Road, later the home of the Bigelow family. The large barn on this property was the scene of Saturday night dances.
It is to be noted that Captain Johnson was in partnership with Evenezer Hayden of Essex. Another non-local man was March E. Anderson of Flushing, Queens, New York, who owned a wharf from 1823 to 1836. These relationships indicate that Hamburg Bridge, via the coastal trade, was in touch with the outside world.
The 5-bay, central-chimney, central-doorway houses on Joshuatown Road and a house on Old Hamburg Road look older than the Johnson House, and probably are, and by their presence add weight to the possibility that the wharfs are older, but documentary evidence is lacking.
The land records are helpful with respect to a house on Joshuatown Road by referring, in 1821, to a "dwelling house partly built thereon," thereby establishing the date of the house. This date is consistent with the transitional Federal/Greek Revival style of the house.
The old families of Lyme, Ely, Daniels, Lord, Brockway and Bill, all owned property in the district. Harry B. Sisson (b.1834) was one of Lyme's prominent residents in the latter part of the 19th century. He was a merchant, the town's treasurer for 21 years, and he held other positions of trust. He paid only $300 for the house and lot when he purchased the property in 1867. Perhaps the house he bought is portrayed in the painting, at the far right, already with its gambrel roof and 2-story porch, but smaller than the present structure and without the Eastlake trim that he added.
Because the Eight Mile River is a small river and because the water at Hamburg Bridge is so shallow, the Hamburg Bridge community was of minor importance compared with other coastal and river maritime centers in Connecticut. For example, Hartford, at the head of navigation on the Connecticut River was of a far different order of importance as a transfer point between land and water shipping. Similarly, nearby Essex enjoyed a larger scale as both a coastal shipping port and a river port, and had several busy shipyards. The Hamburg Bridge wharfs, shops and homes made economic sense for the brief period from about 1800 to 1824 when the channel was dredged to the Hamburg center docks.
The Hamburg Bridge Historic District was a point of transfer between land and water shipping in the early 19th century in Lyme. Houses, shops and wharfs were built in support of the commercial activity. While the economic function of the community was short lived, its history still can be clearly read in the houses and wharfs that continue in place, free of intrusions. The density and setting of the houses, all oriented toward the water, reflect with integrity a containment within a brief time frame established by considerations of trade and transportation.
The architecture of the houses was in the standard styles of the era, modified by the requirements imposed by the terrain to face the water and to cope with the rising elevation on either side of the river. The Hamburg Bridge Historic District as it exists today makes a valuable contribution to the architectural and commercial history of Lyme.
Joan Chandler Burr, comp. & ed., Lyme Records, 1667-1730, Stonington: Pequot Press, 1968.
H.W. French, Art and Artists in Connecticut, New York: Kennedy Graphics, 1970 (reprint of 1879 first edition).
James E. Harding, Lyme As It Was and Is, Lyme Bicentennial Commission, 1975.
James E. Harding, Lyme Yesterday, Stonington: Pequot Press, 1967.
May Hall James, The Educational History of Old Lyme, Connecticut, 1635-1935, New Haven: Yale University of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1939.
J. Frederick Kelly, Early Domestic Architecture of Connecticut, New York: Dover Publications, 1963 (reprint of 1924 first edition).
James Moran, The Gazette (Old Lyme), October 26, 1978, 2:1.
Bertha Chadwick Trowbridge, ed., Old Houses of Connecticut, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923.
Water and Water Rights, A Treatise on the Law of Water and Allied Problems, Indianapolis, Allen Smith Co., 1973.
‡ Adapted From: David F. Ransom, Architectural Historian and John Herzan, Connecticut Historical Commission, Hamburg Bridge Historic District, Lyme, CT, nomination document, 1981, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Joshuatown Road • Old Hamburg Road