A Trolley Runs Through It

Hartford and West Hartford Horse Railway
The earliest trolley, the Hartford and West Hartford Horse Railway, laid tracks along Farmington Avenue in 1894.

The section of Farmington Avenue west of the Center but east of Mountain Road doesn’t normally get much attention. It’s a relatively quiet residential area peppered with a variety of house styles that intersects at almost every block with a side street. Even at rush hour when there’s moderate traffic, it’s hard to imagine that at trolley once ran up and down this street.

In 1894, when the first plans for the Hartford & West Hartford Horse Railroad Company were approved, Farmington Avenue was sparsely populated with about 10 houses between today’s Pleasant Street and Mountain Road.  These were mainly farm houses with large swathes of land. Up until that time, the intersection of Farmington Avenue and Main Street was where the action was, with a variety of fine houses (including the home of William H. Hall) built in today’s West Hartford Center.

In the late 19th-century, West Hartford experienced a population boom. With an ever growing influx of immigrants in Hartford, more established residents began moving west into West Hartford. Increased transportation – like the trolley – allowed businessmen to work in the Capital City but to live in the rural splendor of West Hartford.

0217g Reservoir No. 1 and Farmington Ave
Trolley tracks laid on Farmington Ave. next to the Reservoir (looking east)

The earliest form of mass transportation was the “horse railroad” begun in 1863. Steel rails were laid on major Hartford streets and train cars sat on the tracks and were pulled by horses. The Hartford & West Hartford Horse Railroad Company began laying down tracks on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford in 1894. Service began shortly thereafter, but there were still kinks to work out. The local churches were bothered by excessive noise and trolley cars jumping the tracks at different switches. And with winter’s arrival, patrons began appealing for stoves, fur robes, and better closed compartments within the cars.

Still, the introduction of the trolley along Farmington Avenue was an attraction for most. A trolley car house on the north side of Farmington Avenue, just east of Pleasant Street, which had been recently created to provide access to the newly laid out Fairview Cemetery. By January 1, 1895, two “special” trolley cars showed up at the car house with finished rooves and luxuriously upholstered cross seats. Around the same time, wires and poles were installed to allow for all of the horse-drawn cars to be converted to electric cars.

Map of West Hartford, 1896
The trolley “car house” was located on Farmington Ave. just east of Pleasant St.

By June 1895, the trolley had helped spur a demand for building lots along Farmington Avenue. Real estate speculators purchased tracts of land and began to subdivide them into lots. Ironically, the lumber and other materials needed to build new homes on Farmington Avenue were often transported to the building sites by the trolleys. The growing attraction of the area is further demonstrated by the creation of the side streets Westland Avenue and LeMay Street. Laid out in 1905, Westland Avenue gained additional attention when Edward W. Morley, a nationally recognized chemist and professor, built a house at 26 Westland Avenue in 1906. George LeMay built a home “off Farmington Avenue at 1114” in 1905; by 1909, it was known as 9 LeMay Street.

Edward Morley

Competition between trolley companies produced more alternatives, like branch lines. In 1899, Hartford & West Hartford Railroad was bought by the Farmington Street Railway. According to a 1901 book called Trips by Trolley Around Hartford, one could take the Hartford Street Railway from City Hall in Hartford to West Hartford Center (a 25-minute trip) for 5¢. If you

Trolley time table 1901


wanted to continue on to Farmington, you had to switch to the Farmington Street Railway in the Center, which ran every half-hour in the summer. It cost 10¢ to make the 25-minute trip to Farmington or 15¢ to reach the street railway’s terminus in Unionville (a 40-minute trip).


0228 C west hartford trolley - Copy
Trolley service left from Hartford’s City Hall (the Old State House). This trolley’s “West Hartford” sign can be seen faintly.

The year 1914 is considered to be the height of the trolley industry in America. In that year, 14 billion people rode on trolleys throughout the United States. There were now over 200 miles of trolley track in Hartford County (the lines being consolidated into The Connecticut Company). It’s no surprise, then, that residential development on Farmington Avenue grew significantly around this time, as more people began to take advantage of the easy transportation the trolley provided and moved farther west. The majority of houses built on Farmington Avenue between Westland Avenue and Garfield Road date from 1915-1930.

1917 Map The Center and outer ring

Additional side streets were drawn out [by 1917: Sunset Terrace, Wardwell Street, and Ellsworth Street (later changed to Garfield Road)], even if no houses had been built on them yet.

As romantic as the trolley seems to us today, they did not come without problems. To make way for them, the landscape of Farmington Avenue was changed. The street was widened and trees were removed, to be replaced with poles and wires. The road was now not as passable for horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, and bicyclists. And once automobiles came into vogue, accidents involving the trolleys became common. The local residents – who might have moved to the area because of the promise of easy transportation – began to complain that the trolley did not stop frequently enough on Farmington Avenue. Passengers would wait at the designated area only to find a streetcar filled to capacity whizzing by with shouts of “Take the next car!” trailing behind.

The advent of the automobile correlated directly with the decline of the trolley. As more people drove to work, the use of the trolley diminished, eventually to be replaced by buses. The streetcar service from Hartford to Unionville ran until 1934, when trolley lines through Hartford County were reduced mainly within the City of Hartford.  By 1941, The Connecticut Company had retired its last car.

0228 B park rd trolley 1934.jpg
The last West Hartford trolley, Park Road, 1934.

But here in West Hartford, the trolley had done its work. The development of Farmington Avenue from a patchwork of individual farms to a seamless community was only possible with the advent of the trolley, which attached the neighboring tracts into accessible strands of homes. Individual real estate and land decisions were made by the older generation as they retired away from town and sold off the land to prospective buyers; however, the increase in improved transportation, including the automobile, helped provide Farmington Avenue with a support network of side streets that coincided with the housing boom. Real estate companies and like-minded developers capitalized on these waves to provide a supply of “modern” suburbia to Farmington Avenue, a perfect storm that pushed residents from farmland to sidewalk to side street within three decades.

Love and gingerbread

One of the earliest pieces of correspondence in the Butler Collection at the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society is this 1796 love letter from Erastus Wells to his sweetheart Abigail “Nabby” Benton back home in West Hartford – then still officially known as the West Division. Erastus was a sea captain, in port in Norfolk, Virginia on a voyage from New London. Click the links in the captions to open the images below at full size, or jump to the full transcript at the end of the post.

Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (1 of 2)
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (1 of 2). Click for full size image.
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (2 of 2)
Erastus Wells to Nabby Benton, 1796 September 8 (2 of 2). Click for full size image.

Erastus Wells was born in the West Division and baptized at the Congregational Church on October 13, 1771. He was the son of Ashbel Wells, who served in the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen in New York in the late 1760s and again at the 1775 capture of Fort Ticonderoga, as well as in the state militia during the Revolutionary war.

Abigail “Nabby” Benton was the daughter of Capt. Asa Benton, a naval officer and later a merchant on Front St. in Hartford.

In his letter, Erastus writes that “two days shall not pass before my promise” — to marry Nabby — “is fulfilled”. It took a little longer than that, but on September 13, 1798, Erastus Wells and Nabby Benton were married in the Second Church of Christ in Hartford. They had three sons: George Benton, in 1800; William Woodbridge, in 1801; and Erastus Henry, in 1805.

Connecticut Courant. July 9, 1806.

Further details of their lives are scant, but on July 9, 1806, the Connecticut Courant published a death notice for Captain Erastus Wells. He died on the fourth of July, at West Hartford, and is buried in the North Cemetery.

In a previous post, we met Jonathan Butler, 2nd, who inherited a cider mill and brandy still in the West Division from his father, Zacheus Butler. Jonathan’s daughter Maria married Erastus’ nephew George Wells, son of Ashbel Wells, Jr., in 1825, making Nabby Benton her aunt through marriage. Sometime after 1825, Maria recorded this recipe for “Aunt Nabby’s Gingerbread” in her recipe book.

Aunt Nabby's Gingerbread
Aunt Nabby’s Gingerbread. Teacup Molasses, 2/3 of Cream + Butter, 1 Egg, Table spoonful Ginger, tea spoon of Salaeratus, Tea cup of Sour Milk.

The recipe calls for “Saleratus”, an old term for baking soda, and omits all mention of flour – presumably any nineteenth century lady could figure that out on her own. It took me a few tries to get the proportions and process just right, but here is the recipe translated for the 21st century:

  • 3/4 cup of Molasses
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 1 large egg (or 2 smaller eggs)
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon powdered ginger
  • 1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Grease a loaf pan with butter. Preheat oven to 350 F.

Combine all ingredients except flour in a mixing bowl and whisk together.

Stir in flour with a wooden spoon until just combined.

Pour into loaf pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour.

Aunt Nabby's gingerbread
Aunt Nabby’s gingerbread

Full transcript of letter:

My Ever Eseemed Friend Norfolk Virginia. Sept 8th 1796.

Since I am safe arrived at this place I cannot help addressing the person whom my Soul Loves dear – First I will give you an acct of our passage. We left N. London on Sunday Morning at Nine oclock, and arrived here on Thursday Evening at 8 ofclock. We had a fine passage, and pleasant weather, but as for this place I cannot give any favorable account of it, surely I was never so much dissatisfied with any place that I ever was in. Although there are many people here which are very friendly + kind to me yet that place called W. Hartford is at present mostly in my thoughts, for which reason you may judge for yourself and I am sure you must very well know the cause.

O, My dear N- how the time does pass, one day appears as long as a week did formerly, and according to that how many weeks must pass away before I can once more behold, with Real Eyes, the person whom I so much adore. Do not think this to be vain thought or words of Flattery for upon the Honor of a Friend not a word is here written but what comes from the foundation of my Heart.

When I left home you will doubtless Recollect that I told you I expected to return in 8 or 9 months but I must now inform you to my sorrow that I shall not expect to be home before the latter part of June next – I do not expect to sail from here these six weeks. Yet do not be discouraged for as sure as we both live and you hold of the same mind that you appeared to be in when I left you, two days shall not pass before my promise is fulfilled.

How much do I lament my fate when I look around me in this Harbor + see the Numbers of Masters of Vessels here with their wives, The pastures of their joys with them to partake the bitter and sweet of life, but here I am alone to partake of the bitter itself, but let us hope all is for the best, & when once now we meet all will be well.

The line I wrote you from N London was wrote at a time when I was quite sick and scarce able to hold a pen, which I suppose Wm Bull told you if he delivered the letter according to his promise but my health soon returned after my getting to sea + I am now quite well.

Forget not I desire you to visit the place of my nativity which you will soon Recollect I enjoined upon you but I am fearful you will forget or on some bashful motive keep back and therefore not see the place and people who you know I prize in every respect next to yourself therefore on my account take every opportunity to fall on them as often as it is in your power, and I am sure you can spare one week in four. Your visiting there will not only oblige me but all our Family Especially – Polly & Hannah, who at all times will be ready to Receive you with the tenderness of an own Sister. You may tell them that I shall not write them by the Post, but will before I sail. Let them know the particulars of my intended voyage. As my paper is nearly filled I will conclude. And that you may have every blessing that you can wish to enjoy in my absence is the sincere wish of your Ever Constant, + Sincere Friend, Who will be Ever Ready to Serve, Love
& Adore you
Erastus Wells

PS. Give my best
Respects to Parents
Brothers + Sisters
and all that may and oblige. E Wells