Where Mill Brook plunges into the rapids of the Housatonic River sits the village of West Cornwall, below left, from the western bank. Known today for its covered bridge, an icon of rural New England, West Cornwall is also an emblem of the early industrial revolution in Connecticut’s rural hinterland.
The tiny riverbank settlement originally known as Hart’s Bridge received the name West Cornwall in 1841 when the Housatonic Railroad reached it. It rapidly became the business center of the town of Cornwall, acquiring a post office and a general store. These were followed by a feed store and mill; a drug store; a tin shop, a school, and a blacksmith shop; a millinery; a barbershop; and a hotel. To this day, West Cornwall’s architecture resembles more a 19th century mill village than a colonial town center.
West Cornwall boasted small industries typical of the early industrial era. An iron furnace operated through the middle years of the 19th century. The Gold Sanitary Heater Company was formed in 1875 and manufactured items with names like Gold’s Patent Steam Heating System and the Magic Heater stove.
The settlement’s largest employer was the Mallinson Shear Shop, established in West Cornwall in the 1850s. The company produced for both local and wider markets; its records show orders ranging from a single pair of shears to 400-gross pairs. Like many early Connecticut enterprises, the Shear Shop was linked with other activities, including a dam on the river, a foundry, and a gristmill. In 1860 its employees included many skilled English craft workers who circulated among the shear shops in different regions.
While these industries declined in the late 1800s, West Cornwall remained Cornwall’s commercial center. Bertie Cartwright, who arrived in West Cornwall as a young woman in 1908 to work for attorney and postmaster Leonard J. Nickerson, recalled many years later that businesses included the Mansion House hotel, with bar-room attached and livery stable in the rear, a barber shop, a grocery store, a plumbing and kitchen-utensils business, and a general store selling “meat, groceries, clothing, books, shoes, and almost anything one might then ask for.” To the young Bertie Cartwright, West Cornwall seemed a bit antiquated but nonetheless friendly. “Everybody around here was either related to or connected in some way with everybody else, the Smith and Cochrane families predominating.”