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The Schoolhouse Explosion of 1766

          When news of the repeal of Britain’s Stamp Act arrived in Hartford in April of 1766, Connecticut Colony’s leaders were overjoyed.  They ordered a day of celebrations to be held on 23 May that would include fireworks, the ringing of bells, and blasts from the town's cannons.  The organizers secured the second floor of the town’s brick schoolhouse, close to the site where the General Assembly met in Hartford (where the 1792 Old State House sits today), as the location for the fireworks preparations.  

          On the day of the celebration, local militia men used the main floor of the schoolhouse, the site of the magazine, to distribute powder for the festivities that would follow.  Many of their boys played in front of the building as they waited for their fathers inside.  In the confusion that followed, no one could remember exactly what happened.  But the entire city was shaken by the sound of an explosion that reduced the building to rubble and left bodies strewn about the grounds.

           To learn more about what took place and how Hartford responded to this tragedy, explore the pages to the right. 

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1854: Boiling Over

In the early afternoon of Thursday, March 2, 1854, a Mr. Ashe, the head painter of the Fales & Gray Car Factory, was standing on the bank of the Little River, south of the factory located on Potter Street. Gazing back on the factory, Ashe attempted to commit to canvas a landscape that could be replicated on the railway cars produced by his employer. What he saw next defied any attempt at illustration.   

Just as he started to sketch, he later remembered, a "shock came, and the building trembled before him, then fell with an awful crash."  Terrified, Ashe never completed the sketch.  Although he was a talented artist, he could "hardly impress upon canvas the vivid imagery or terrible reality rather, that burst out before him in that shock of destruction and death.”

What Mr. Ashe saw was the explosion of the Fales & Gray factory, which killed nineteen of the company's three -hundred workers instantly and severely wounded twenty-three others. Every building on the property was “shivered to atoms” and pieces of the factory’s steam boiler were found as far afield as two-hundred feet away.

Indeed, Mr. Ashe, or any artist for that matter, might have felt unequipped to represent the scene. Instead, the city’s worst disaster in almost 100 years was etched into memory using photography. The resulting photographs, believed to be some of the first photographs ever taken of Hartford, show the remains of the factory and focus on the devastation of Potter Street.

Terrible as the physical devastation was, public remarks spawned by the explosion printed in newspapers and preached from pulpits quickly moved beyond the physical destruction of the factory site.

Who was at fault for the explosion? How should the city respond? Most importantly for some, what might all of this suffering mean? These were the questions that haunted Hartford in the days following the blast. 

Check out the following pages to explore the many different ways that people answered these questions and the ways in which people coped with the disaster.



Public Playgrounds and Social Order

Between 1900 and 1920, Hartford’s population jumped from just under 80,000 residents to over 138,000. A significant portion of these residents were children – a fact that did not escape George Parker, who supervised the parks and recreation systems in Hartford. Recognizing children as a distinct, and growing population in American urban centers, Parker and others throughout the nation attempted to create specialized places for children’s play. This episode will argue that building carefully cultivated spaces for play in Hartford at the turn of the century was an integral part of creating order in the city. Parker and other reformers were often ambitious: they thought that new systems for play and leisure for people across the life span were essential to creating good citizens, and stronger people and they often sought out ways to dedicate huge plots of land to this purpose. These reformers have had a huge impact – even to the present – on how we think about dividing city spaces for different age groups. We often take for granted the idea that young people should have special sites for play and that older people should have special halls for socialization – but these ideas have a history, and we can see how this manifested in Hartford through the visual records.

As you explore the documents in this episode, consider the different perceptions of people occupying these places. What did children think of these endeavors? Historians have told us that these are the places where they learned ideas about social order and in the cases of many immigrants, how to “be” an American. Keep this in mind as you look at the photographs, but try to imagine what the subjects in them might have been thinking. These shots capture moments—some staged, and some spontaneous—in which children can be seen hanging from the monkey bars, laughing on the carousel, or running across the field in a race. For many, the parks and playgrounds of Hartford were thought of as safer alternatives to street play – but this is probably more of an adult perspective on the usefulness of organized spaces for play. Let’s turn our attention to the people – young and old—who helped to make these spaces meaningful.

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