National Register Historic District
River Street Historic District is located just east of Mill River and immediately north of New Haven Harbor. It includes three multi-building industrial complexes and three individual factory buildings, ranging in age from the 1870s through the period of World War I. Of the 26 buildings in the district, there are 23 buildings, which contribute to the significance of the district and three which are non-contributing. The River Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.
River Street Historic District is significant in the industrial history of New Haven as the location of several metalworking enterprises that characterized the city's transformation into a manufacturing center between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. One of the complexes in the district, the H. B. Bigelow Company boiler works, was a national leader in its field of steam boilers. Hobart B. Bigelow himself participated in the formation of related enterprises, including the National Pipe Bending Company, which is also represented in the district. Bigelow helped make the River Street area a center of metal-fabricating industry.
The district is also significant because its buildings embody the distinctive characteristics of general factory construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the specialized, 1-story variation that was developed to house forges, foundries, and large assembly operations. The district as a whole is the distinctive product of the years between the 1870s and World War I, when railroads were an important determinant in factory location. The tracks along the streets of the district, the tightly packed distribution of the buildings along the valuable railroad frontage, and the beveled corners on several buildings that allowed freight cars to enter the factory yards all recall the importance of rail access in this period. Such railroad-dependent industrial streetscapes were once common in New Haven; today, this nominated area at the west end of River Street is New Haven's most nearly intact example of this pattern of development.
The city's industrialization began during the Civil War. New Haven's advantage as the place where three railroads met brought many manufacturers into the city. They remained after the war and were joined by many others, such as Winchester and Marlin firearms. The immediate post-Civil War period marked the start of New Haven's major industrial era. In the area east of downtown New Haven, close to the harbor and Long Wharf as well as to the railroad freight yards, grew the densest concentration of factories, mostly devoted to hardware, carriage parts, and machinery. This belt of intense industrial use soon extended east along the shoreline railroad. In 1869 Hobart Bigelow pushed this expansion east of the Mill River, when he moved his steam engine and boiler works from Whitney Avenue to River Street.
Over the next 15 years the Bigelow plant grew in size but remained isolated from other factories. The firm dropped engine production to concentrate on steam boilers, especially large units for industrial plants, and captured a significant share of the national market for these specialized products. In 1883, Bigelow set up another firm, National Pipe Bending, to fabricate the tubes that comprised the largest portion of his boilers' internal components. In just seven years National Pipe Bending outgrew its 1883 building, north of River Street, and moved across the road. In 1885 Hobart Bigelow played a formative role in the next firm to build on River Street, the New Haven Nail Company. His partner was C. S. Mersick, co-owner of English & Mersick, which ran one of the city's largest carriage factories as well as a hardware-wholesaling and metals-importing firm.
The metal fabricators achieved their peak employment and output during World War I. Statewide, industrial growth climaxed during World- War I, and after the war many manufacturers collapsed under the debt from wartime over-expansion. This area along River Street is entirely typical of Connecticut in that its highest industrial capacity was achieved between 1915 and 1918.
This district's period of significance corresponds to the era of New Haven's industrial maturity. It was a stage of development that depended primarily on steam power and rail transport, a combination of factors that resulted in dense, linear concentrations of industrial use along railroads. A steam engine could be placed virtually anywhere, as long as coal could be brought to it. Thus rail access became the single most important determinant in factory location. River Street Historic District preserves this distinctive pattern of development in its tightly spaced or connected buildings, all oriented to the rail line down the middle of the street. Two buildings, Kilborn & Bishop E and Flint Dutee Wilcox Assembly Plant, even feature beveled corners that allowed curving railroad spurs to enter the factory properties. In addition, the presence of numerous architectural features specifically associated with the industries that developed here, such as the huge doors at Bigelow and the iconographic sign at National Pipe Bending, make River Street an outstanding historic resource.
Immediately after World War I, at the peak of railroad-based development and before the advent of substantial motor-truck transport, there were dozens of square blocks in New Haven that featured railroad-dependent streetscapes similar to River Street today. The areas around Water Street, East Street, and Hamilton Avenue held a concentration of carriage, hardware, and clock manufacturers. Industrial decline, urban renewal, and highway construction caused the demolition of most of these buildings and the loss of the industrial streetscapes they comprised. Today, New Haven's era of railroad-dependent industrialization is evident only to a limited degree around the Winchester plant in Newhallville, and a small group of early 20th-century factories around Blake and Valley Streets in Westville. River Street Historic District alone stands as an industrial streetscape from this period that retains all of its constituent elements.
The functional integrity of the district is high: all the properties are either vacant or still used for industrial purposes or ancillary functions such as warehousing, even though the original or long-term historic occupants of the buildings are no longer present. As a consequence, the district as a whole retains the appearance of an industrial neighborhood, with railroad tracks in the streets and piles of discarded material in the yards. Several major buildings, notably Bigelow D and H , retain their historical appearance substantially intact. However, alterations of several distinct levels have occurred: applied material that obscures original fabric without having caused its complete removal; the loss of historic sash in several buildings; the new openings or filled openings that appear in a few locations; and the stucco covering over the New Haven Nail Works building. None of these changes have compromised the overall historic appearance of the district.