Abandoned America: Where We Worked: Waterbury Products: images by Stephen Berner

Founded in 1812, Waterbury Companies, Inc., is one  of the oldest operating companies in American business. Privately owned, it is a diversified manufacturer and global marketer of innovative consumer and commercial products. With corporate headquarters in Waterbury, Connecticut, the company also operates a plant in Independence, Louisiana.

The tract of land on which the Watertown/Waterbury area stands was officially purchased from the Tunxis tribe in 1677 for 38 dollars. This Native American tribe called the area Matetcoke or land without trees; a name shortened to Mattatuck.

The town remained Mattatuck until 1686 when it was renamed Waterbury in recognition of the abundant rivers and ponds in the area. Growth was slow during Waterbury’s first century. The lack of arable land discouraged new settlers and the residents suffered through the great flood of 1691 and the great sickness of 1712. After a century, Waterbury’s population numbered just 5,000 people living in little more than 300 buildings. Waterbury hit its stride as an industrial city in the early 1800s when it began to make brass, using a technology taken from the British.

Not content with exploiting the know-how, these Yankee entrepreneurs lured talented craftsmen from across the sea to set up shop in Waterbury. As the "Brass Capital of the World," the city gained a reputation for the quality and durability of its goods. Waterbury supplied brass and copper used in Boulder Dam in Colorado and safety pins made from brass wire. Water-bury’s brass gears, buttons, buckles, bells, and bullets found their way into stores and homes throughout the nation.

Waterbury brass also went into South American coins and minting disks for U.S. nickels. Another famous Waterbury product of the mid-1800s was Robert H. Ingersoll’s one-dollar pocket watch, five million of which were sold. Other items included clocks, pewter goods, and chemicals. The captains of industry who guided Waterbury’s brass growth built their Victorian-era mansions on the Hillside close to their downtown headquarters. Not content to adorn their homes, these men of vision created beautiful office structures, including the Chase Brass headquarters and those of Anaconda American Brass. These industrialists financed the building of many of the gracious structures, which gained Waterbury its reputation for fine and varied architecture.

While the brass business boomed, thousands of immigrants poured into the city seeking factory jobs, including the Irish, Italians, and Slavs. Diversification Revives Economy At its peak during World War II, 10,000 people worked at Scoville Brass, later renamed Century Brass. The brass manufacturing mills in the city’s east end occupied more than 2 million square feet and more than 90 buildings.

In 1955, 60 hours of precipitation resulted in 19 inches of rain and caused 50-mile-per-hour flood waters. As a result of the flood, 19 Waterbury citizens died and 50 million dollars in property damage occurred. With the closing of the last brass shop in the 1970s, this huge complex stood empty and Waterbury faced a grim future.

With investment and planning, by 1983 Waterbury had successfully diversified its economy, attracting new manufacturing, research, and service firms. Waterbury is within driving distance of both New York City and Boston, and offers workers affordable housing.

In addition, Waterbury is working to revamp many of the city’s unused freight yards and warehouses, and turn them into prime office space. New luxury hotels have been built, the city’s south end is now home to the biggest mall in New England, and industrial parks in remodeled metal works factories are proving profitable. The city is known today for its advanced technology, historic architecture, and diverse neighborhoods.

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