Trowbridge and the Underground Railroad

July 24, 2020

Elm St. dates back to the founding of the New Haven Colony in 1638. The block between Temple and Church Streets sits right on the edge of the New Haven Green, and is home to the New Haven Free Public Library and the New Haven County Courthouse. Prior to their construction this block was known as Quality Row, named for the grand mansions and properties of a number of New Haven’s most prominent citizens.  One home in particular was central to the Elm City’s involvement in the Civil War, the home of Thomas R. Trowbridge.

Thomas R. Trowbridge lived from 1810 to 1887. His family was one of the original founding families of the New Haven Colony, and they had made a good fortune in the West Indies trade, which at the time was New Haven’s most significant maritime venture. In 1851, Trowbridge purchased the home of the recently deceased Judge David Daggett. During his lifetime, Judge Daggett was a founder of the Yale School of Law, a two-term mayor of New Haven, and Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. He was also instrumental in blocking a proposed Black college in New Haven in the 1830s, and was known as a colonizationist and being strongly anti-abolition.

After acquiring Daggett’s house, Trowbridge had it cut in half and the parcels moved to Columbus Ave. in the Hill. The home that Trowbridge built on the same spot became known throughout the city and the Northeast as a whole as a pillar of abolitionism and open support for the Republican party, especially that of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1856, Trowbridge was heavily swayed by the presidential campaign of John C. Fremont. Fremont was a celebrity of his time, famous for his accounts of exploring and mapping the western American frontiers, and he was the first Republican candidate for president of the United States. Fremont and the Republicans were openly anti-slavery, breaking from the tradition of courting southern states for Electoral College votes. Due to growing immigration, the North’s population was booming in the mid-1800s, changing the composition and number of voters. Fremont did not win but his campaign paved the way for the ascension of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency.

Trowbridge hosted the future president to New Haven and his home, three times leading up to Lincoln’s election in 1860. Throughout this time Trowbridge’s Elm St. property also became an integral station on the Underground Railroad, harboring fugitive slaves from the South as they made their way north to Canada and their freedom.

After the election of Lincoln to the presidency the southern states seceded and the country was plunged into a civil war. During the war Trowbridge’s house on Quality Row overlooking the Green, was a symbol to the mustering troops before their departure to the war fronts. They often paraded past Trowbridge’s home and he personally would speak out in support and rally them.

Some 50 years later, and 25 years after Trowbridge’s passing, the house was torn down. It was the final homestead left on Quality Row. New Haven was entering the 20th century, and with it a new era of urban planning and civic engagement. The City Beautiful movement brought about the public palaces that were the new library and courthouse, but along the way the achievements, glory and progress of preceding generations were quickly forgotten by the public and paved over.

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

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