A mural of Saugatuck, incorporating historic and 20th Century elements, painted by Robert Lambdin.
William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge / featured image
A symbol of Saugatuck, the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge — a 139-year-old swing bridge — carries Bridge Street/Route 136 over the Saugatuck River.

By Mia Bomback

WESTPORT — A neighborhood with a storied past, poised on the cusp of a new chapter.

That’s the historic area of Westport known as Saugatuck, a name derived from the Native American term for “outlet of a river.”

Originally home to the Paugussett tribe, the area later became a hub of local commerce and industry for 17th Century settlers and then evolved into a tight-knit community of working-class immigrants beginning in the 19th Century — until torn apart by construction of the Connecticut Turnpike (now Interstate 95) in the 1950s.

Now, another wave of change may sweep through the neighborhood following approval late last year of zoning rules that could pave the way for a multi-faceted development known as the “Hamlet at Saugatuck.”

Participants on a recent “Stories of Saugatuck” walking tour, sponsored by the Westport Museum for History and Culture, visited sites that still embody the neighborhood’s centuries-old legacy.

After recognizing the Paugussett tribe as first settlers of lands that now comprise Westport, the tour began at the Westport Railroad Station. Leading the group down memory lane through what once was the historic town center was Westporter Melissa Carnahan, a volunteer guide for the museum for more than 20 years. 

Doug Robinson and his wife, Dana, moved to Westport six years ago from Long Island, though both are natives of Connecticut. 

“We decided to go on today’s tour because we wanted to learn more about the town’s history, and really enjoy whatever Westport has to offer,” he said. 

The original Westport Railroad Station was built by Irish and Italian laborers in 1848. / Photo by Mia Bomback

The first rail depot, known informally as the Saugatuck Train Station, was built by Irish and Italian laborers in 1848. Although the station was redesigned in 1997 by architect Anker West, it maintains relics of the original 19th Century blueprint. 

A short walk from the station is the home of the Saugatuck Manufacturing Factory established in 1837 by E.S. Wheeler. The factory specialized in cloth-covered buttons and lining tacks for the casket trade. One of the earliest industrial establishments in Westport, the factory is infamous for rampant use of child labor. 

Today, the Hamlet at Saugatuck project could threaten the building’s existence, although detailed plans have yet to be filed.

“I don’t know what this means for the [factory],” Carnahan said of the prospective development. “I think a hotel could bring in great revenue, but I hope it doesn’t disrupt this local landmark.”  

A highlight of the tour included a visit to the Saugatuck River. 

The river was used by the Paugussetts as a means to conduct trade, businesses later were developed on the riverbanks in the 1800s. 

Gault Energy and Home Solutions, Westport’s oldest family-owned business still in operation, was founded by Robert Gault in 1863. Gault, an Irish immigrant, built an empire on coal, hay, sand, gravel, lumber and later, oil. Today, the Gault business has thousands of customers around the region.

Other points of interest along the tour was the William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge, the oldest iron swing bridge in the state, and the original Saugatuck Fire Co., first chartered in 1832. 

Perhaps the most compelling feature of the tour were stories about the people who transformed the town into an economic and cultural powerhouse. 

At the start of the 19th Century, lured by opportunities for employment in the railway industry, Irish and Italian immigrants began arriving in Westport, settling land designated for railroad workers. 

The pockets of town where they settled became known as “Little Dublin” and later, as the Italian population outnumbered the Irish, “Little Italy.” Native tongues were proudly spoken and traditional customs observed, the most celebrated of which was the Feast of St. Anthony. 

The event, organized by the Italian community in 1923 in tribute to St. Anthony, patron saint of Padua, Italy, featured a parade down Franklin Street. Men, draped in Italian flags and traditional garb, carried sculptural representations of St. Anthony as women and children cheered and sang from the sidelines. The festivities concluded with fireworks over Luciano Park. The tradition died out in the mid-20th Century, but was later revived in the 1984 under a new name, Festival Italiano, attracting large crowds for 27 years until ending in 2011. 

A nod to the Italian neighborhood festivals of the past is embodied in the current-day “Slice of Saugatuck” event, which celebrates the area’s restaurants and businesses. This year’s event is set for Sept. 9.

For people of Italian heritage, Festival Italiano helped them feel connected to their roots, providing an opportunity to share songs, stories and recipes from ancestors. 

“I was really sad when they stopped putting on the festival,” Carnahan said. “It was always so beautiful and lively, and there was delicious food far as the eye can see.” For Carnahan’s husband, a man of Italian and Irish descent, Festival Italiano reminded him of his childhood in the predominantly Italian town of West Harrison, N.Y., she said. 

The tour concluded with a Prohibition Era legend about the “mythical” Reindeer Inn, regarded as such because the exact location is a mystery to historians. It functioned as a speakeasy bar in the early 1920s when the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol was banned nationally.

For more information about other “Destination Westport” tours, visit the Westport Museum for History and Culture website or call 203-222-1424.

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Mia Bomback is a Westport Journal intern.