The Cut

November 6, 2020

In downtown New Haven, a wide cut of railroad tracks runs parallel to State St. This cut is a physical barrier that separates Wooster Square from downtown. Prior to the construction of Interstate 91 in the 1960s, the railroad cut was the largest manmade alteration of land in the immediate area. The cut expansion of the early 1900s decimated historic neighborhoods arguably creating a precedent for the cataclysmic period of urban renewal in New Haven in the 1950s to the 1970s. In short here’s a brief story about why the Union St. where Abraham Lincoln stumped for the presidency bears no resemblance today to that past.

In the first decade of the 20th century the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad went through its most dramatic period of consolidation and growth. J.P. Morgan owned controlling interests in the railroad and his plan was to not only consolidate all of the New England railroads under one banner, but to consolidate ALL public transportation in New England as part of the New Haven-based line. This meant trolleys, maritime shipping, and railroads would be under one roof as a massive monopoly. The physical evidence today of Morgan’s pursuit in New Haven is not just the wide railroad cut downtown (that lies on the original path of the Farmington Canal) but the city’s overall disconnection to the waterfront and the widespread decimation of any real trace of New Haven’s colonial maritime history.

Today Union St. is home to a Firestone tire shop, and the Wooster Square dog park. Both of these are markers of the mid-century Redevelopment era. New construction is underway, set to transform the block into a residential and expanded business district. All of this is on the grounds of what was once a thriving multi-cultural neighborhood, filled with homes, theaters, taverns and hotels that served as the gateway to the Elm City by rail and sea dating back to the 1600s. Abraham Lincoln delivered a campaign speech here on March 6, 1860 just weeks after his famous speech at Cooper Union in New York City, where he broke through and became a national celebrity leading to his election as president in the fall of that year.

Over 40 years later, after the closing of the original railroad depot, the neighborhood had shifted to a more “red light”-type district. Slightly run-down and densely populated, the block sat on the edge of the downtown dry-goods and trade district and a growing industrial immigrant neighborhood that was still peppered with old colonial hotels and taverns that accommodated sailors and merchants who worked in the nearby wharves.

 

The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad under the presidency of railway czar Charles Mellon pursued J.P. Morgan’s vision throughout the 1900s. Despite significant blowback from the citizens of New Haven the railroad bought up all of the property along the eastside of the cut including Union St. Abandoning an alternative plan that would have moved the rail lines outside of downtown and run them along the Mill River from the harbor to Cedar Hill, the railroad eventually won approval for the complete demolition of the old street and the expansion of the cut.

A silver lining was that the city did not have to pay for the construction of the expanded cut, which the railroad company had been attempting to do. The associated costs of massively expanding their footprint in New Haven and throughout New England contributed years later to the eventual collapse of the railroad altogether.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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