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History of Madison

Town of Madison, Connecticut historical marker

Madison, Connecticut historical marker

The town of Madison, Connecticut in the county of New Haven lies in south-central Connecticut on the shore of Long Island Sound. It nestles between the East and the Hammonasset rivers, which respectively form its western and eastern boundaries. A semi-rural suburb of the city of New Haven, 16 miles to its west, Madison measures 36.20 square miles. In 2010 its population was 18, 229, according to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center's Town Profile; according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the population was 17, 858. Originally a parish of the town of Guilford to its west, the area now called Madison was known as East Guilford in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In 1826, it was incorporated as a separate town. At the suggestion of prominent citizen Captain Frederick Lee, the town was named for James Madison, fourth president of the United States (1809-1817). Largely agricultural with some industries such as shipbuilding, charcoal production, and milling throughout its first 250 years, Madison became mostly a residential town in the late nineteenth century. It has enjoyed some renown as a resort community for seasonal cottagers and tourists, a characteristic that continues to this day. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, it remains primarily a residential suburb with close ties to the nautical and maritime history of the Sound. This history of Madison is far from complete, but it is an accurate account of the main facts as we know them.

Pre-contact era: 12,000 BC to 1630 AD

Rocky shore at Meigs Point in Hammonasset Beach State Park

Rocky shore, Meigs Point/Hammonasset State Park

As is true for all New England communities, the history of Madison begins long before its incorporation as a separate named town in 1826. Its regional topography and its local waterways certainly positively influenced the area’s fitness as a place of human habitation—a history that began, perhaps, as much as 12,000 years ago.

Covered with glacial ice at least a mile thick during the Late Wisconsinan glaciation, about 22,000 years ago, Connecticut, Long Island, and Long Island Sound were formed by the action of advancing, melting, and receding ice floes. Trapped in the ice were such loose materials as sand, gravel, silt, clay, and till, and these were dropped as the glacier receded, creating ridges of unsorted glacial debris. Two of these ridges, called moraines, formed during fluctuating periods of warming and cooling and created Long Island. Water collected behind this landmass and formed Glacial Lake Connecticut in the place we know as Long Island Sound.

By 17,500 years ago, the ice front had melted back as far as the area now called Fenwick, in the place where the Old Saybrook moraine formed. Slightly later, the Hammonasset-Ledyard double moraine formed. Visitors to Madison’s Hammonasset State Park can see the evidence of that second moraine in the rocks at Meigs Point.

By 15,500 years ago, the ice had melted away, and Lake Connecticut had completely drained. As the glacier melted, the sea level rose, and water began to fill in the ice-scoured basin we now call Long Island Sound. Meltwater that flowed downhill washed fine sediments into low-lying areas, creating sand and gravel deposits in Connecticut’s valleys and leaving undisturbed glacial sediments of all sizes on the hilltops and in flat areas. These conditions contributed to the growth of forests, the contours of rivers and streams, the abundance of flora and fauna, and, then, the influx of a human community.

New England Woodland Period Tribes

Traditional Native American crops - maize, beans, and squash

Traditional Native American crops - maize, beans, and squash

The first humans are believed to have appeared in this area approximately around 10,500 B.C. Primarily hunters who moved seasonally with the migrating large mammals that provided meat, hides, and sinew, these people gradually became more settled and agrarian. By the time just prior to the European contact period (after 1550 in the modern era), five tribes of American Indians lived in the area near and around what is now called New Haven and Middlesex counties. From east to west, the Pequots and Mohegans lived in the Old Saybrook/New London area; the Hammonassets lived in the Madison and Clinton coastal area; the Menunkatucks lived in the Guilford area; and the Quinnipiacs lived in the area around present-day New Haven.

Like most New England Woodland Period tribes, the Hammonassets were mostly farmers who subsisted on corn, beans, and squash, but they also fished and hunted. The word Hammonassett means "where we dig holes in the ground" and refers to the cultivated areas the people farmed along the southern Hammonasset River, which runs south approximately 30 miles, from Bunker Hill in Durham to its outlet into Long Island Sound.

The Hammonassets spent their summers farming along the Hammonasset River, just north of the present state park area. As far as it is known, they did not have a permanent village in the park area, though they probably hunted on this land and fished the local waters. During the winters they moved to the protectively wooded area that is now near the Durham-Killingworth town line, near the present Hammonasset Reservoir.

According to a field report by Tom Paul of the New England Antiquities Research Association, many pre-colonial (and probably native-built) stone structures exist in the upper Summer Hill Road area in Madison, in the northern part of town on the eastern border of Killingworth. These structures also exist near the Hammonasset Reservoir, in the area occupied by the Hammonassets before the colonial period. In general, the Hammonassets lived on the west side of the Connecticut River to the edges of the Hammonasset River along the Sound and also resided westward of that river in North Madison and North Guilford.

From Native Camp to Colonial Village 

Antique map of the Connecticut colony 1766

Plan of the colony of Connecticut by Moses Park dated November 24, 1766.

In July of 1639 a company of white newcomers from Surrey and Kent, England, arrived by ship at the colony of Quinnipiack (now New Haven). Their signed covenant stated their firm intention to create an independent community. Led by Reverend Henry Whitfield, they negotiated for land with the Pequots, who lived to the east; with Shaumpishuh, the female sachem of the Menunkatucks; with Sebaguenosh or Sebeguencsh, the sachem of the Hammonassets; and with Uncas of the Mohegans (who was the son-in-law of Sebaguenosh).

By September of 1639, the planters had secured a Menunkatuck tract that stretched from Oiockcommock (now called Stony Creek) to Kuttawoo (now called the East River) for an assortment of clothing, tools, domestic utensils, and wampum. Settlement at first centered on a sixteen-acre green surrounded by side streets where home lots were freely given to forty-eight heads of households. Four houses, including Whitfield’s, were constructed of stone, for the purposes of defense, and a meetinghouse was constructed at the head of the public green.

Founding of Guilford Settlement

Henry Whitfield Statue in the gardens of his home in Guilford, Connecticut (photo credit: Henry Whitfield State Museum)

Henry Whitfield Statue in the gardens of his home in Guilford, Connecticut (photo credit: Henry Whitfield State Museum)

Two years later, in September of 1641, Reverend Whitfield secured another tract of land between the East River and Tuxis Pond (in present-day Madison). The price paid to Wequash, a Pequot sachem, was “a frieze coat, a blanket, an Indian coat, one faddom Dutchman’s coat, a shirt, a pair of stockings, a pair of shoes and a faddom of wampum.” Records indicate that, for reasons relating to overlapping ownership, the Hammonasset area may have been purchased as many as four separate times.

Three months after its original purchase, the Mohegan chief, Uncas, claimed the land was his by inheritance, and “in order to avoid unpleasantness the settlers paid again, this time more generously in the same type of goods.” Not long after that, George Fenwick of Old Saybrook bought from Uncas the land between Tuxis Pond and the Hammonasset River, and by1650 he had donated this purchase to the Guilford planters. This area, from the East River to the Hammonasset, was thereafter called East Guilford.

In 1670 the total population of Guilford, including East Guilford, was 255 inhabitants—135 male and 120 female--and at that time, the town of Guilford had firmly established and defined boundaries—at least for the time being. A bridge across the East River was built in 1649, and in 1650 the town of Guilford encouraged settlers to head east to the plain at Hammonasset by offering cleared portions to each planter. By 1656 the Hammonasset uplands had been surveyed and allotted, and settlement began in earnest.

By 1695 about thirty families had built homes and established farms in the Neck District on the east and in the Hammonasset River District on the west. In 1703 the East Guilford settlers, having long petitioned to hold their church services closer to their own community, were allowed to form their own society.

The first meetinghouse in East Guilford was constructed in 1705, on the southeastern section of the present green, which was then a common ground. In May 1743 a new meetinghouse was dedicated, and roughly built sabbath day houses, used as shelters for the preparation of midday meals during long services, were constructed on the nearby common.

Founding of the First Congregational Church

First Congregational Church on the historic Madison green

Madison's First Congregational Church

The establishment of a separate ecclesiastical society and the construction of the substantial meetinghouse led inevitably to an assumption that East Guilford would soon define itself as a community independent of Guilford. Indeed, petitions were made to Guilford that East Guilford might be made a separate town, and in May 1826 the new town of Madison was incorporated and named for James Madison. In 1837 the present First Congregational Church was constructed on the north side of the common, which, in 1826, had been appropriated by the ecclesiastical Society as a “Public Square and parade ground, and for other public purposes.” This classical structure remains among the most notable landmarks in town.

Until 1897 town government meetings were held in the church, and town records were kept in the home of the town clerk. In October 1874 a vote taken at a special town meeting allowed for the construction of a building at the east end of the green to house probate and other town records. This building, containing two vaults, was later used as the Town Hall; it is currently renamed Memorial Town Hall and is now home to the Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives, the Probate Court, and several community rooms. A new town campus, created in the 1990s on the grounds of a former private school, houses all Madison’s current government offices.

Early Industries of Madison

Hammonassett House postcard, 1908

Hammonasset House postcard, 1908

Wheat, Indian corn, flax, rye, potatoes, oats, onions, and turnips were among the earliest crops grown in East Guilford; salt hay was harvested from the edges of the Sound and along the rivers. Cedar, white pine, oak, chestnut, and hickory were harvested for home construction, household fuel, and ship timber, and a variety of mills (sawmills, grain mills, a paper mill), at least one bog iron furnace, several charcoal production sites, and tanneries, and multiple shoe-making shops were in operation during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Several companies operated fish pounds off Hammonasset Beach, and small fishing vessels could haul-net as many as 200,000 white fish a day, to sell for fertilizer. In 1792 a profitable but short-lived porpoise fishery was established on the Madison shore. The porpoise skins were tanned for use in such items as smiths’ bellows; the fat was rendered for illumination oil; and the remains were sold for fertilizer. Oysters from the East River had a reputation for quality and flavor, and shad and clams were taken from the Hammonasset. In 1828 the Madison Channel Company dammed the East and West Neck Rivers for development of the oyster beds, but that project too was eventually abandoned.

Shipbuilding in Madison

Drawing of Long Island Sound schooner by John F. Leavitt

Drawing of Long Island Sound schooner by John F. Leavitt

After 1750, shipbuilding began in earnest. Abraham Chittenden built a wharf on the East River in 1771, and the Hotchkiss yard and Blatchley yard operated there in subsequent years. Jonathan Bassett had a yard in the Neck after 1760, and Captain Abel Hoyt and his son John built ships at West Wharf. East Wharf was the most active shipbuilding area, and Ichabod Scranton and Charles Miner each had shipyards there.

Twenty-seven kinds of vessels were constructed from Madison timber, including scores of three-masted schooners and ships used for the West Indies trade. Seventy-five sloops, brigs, and barques were built at East Wharf alone. Known as West Indiamen, these vessels were used to run molasses, sugar, and rum to the West Indies.

Other one- and two-masted vessels, known as coasters, carried cargoes of produce, livestock, and hay to New York. The Madison wharves were profitable places for shipping and shipbuilding, especially between 1850 and 1890. In the latter year, however, a fire destroyed the shipyard at East Wharf, and both shipping and shipbuilding in Madison declined sharply—and eventually ceased altogether.

Change comes by Steam and Rail

View of the Boston Post Road with the East River Rail Station in the distance

Boston Post Road with East River Station in the distance

Madison’s shipbuilding days were also threatened by larger global changes in transportation: The Age of Sail was escorted off the high seas by the Age of Steam. By 1850 both passengers and cargoes of all kinds were carried by steam locomotives on the nation’s new rail system and by steam-powered vessels on the sea. The state’s first rail line was the New Haven and New London Railroad, which ran from Stonington to Providence, Rhode Island, stopping in Madison to pick up mail, freight, and passengers.

With the financial support of Madison native Cornelius Scranton Bushnell, the “Shore Line Route” was completed in 1858 between New York and Boston—a route that allowed Madison farmers and merchants to ship goods to inland cities and allowed urban travelers to visit the beach resorts that had begun to sprout along the Connecticut shore by the 1850s. Other railways changed the pace and face of Madison as well. Around 1900, the Shore Line Electric railway laid track from Stony Creek to Chester. The trolleys, which carried up to forty passengers, made stops in Madison at East River, in the center of town, and at Hammonasset State Park. Along with the tourists, suburbia arrived in town.

The Creation of a Suburb

Hand-colored vintage postcard of Circle Beach, Madison

Hand-colored vintage postcard of Circle Beach, 1908

With its “uncommonly beautiful” qualities indicating “comfort and prosperity,” as David Dudley Field wrote, and its focus on matters of importance to church and school, Madison became a haven for families as well as vacationers. After shipping and shipbuilding declined, industry was scant and light. Along with its small mills, tanneries, some quarrying, and a crayon/ chalk factory, Eber Judd crafted swords in his shop and William Crampton made eyeglasses in his. George Shelley cut gravestones, and Reuben Shailor designed toys and weathervanes. P. P. Coe’s store sold everything from buttons to snakeroot oil, and Charles Scranton kept a livery stable.

By 1814 a post office had been established, and a public library collection, first opened by subscription in 1792, was housed in a variety of Main Street stores. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the town of Madison had evolved from an agriculture- and maritime-based economy to a community of merchants, tradespeople, and professionals who worked in business, law, and medicine. Between 1811 and 1825, three turnpike roads had been built for travel to Durham, Essex, and New Haven. Visiting city-dwellers bought property along the shore, and cottagers swelled the population from June through August. Despite the 300 cottages built by 1904, the town still remained small. In 1900 the year-round residents numbered only about 1,500 souls—and grew to only triple that figure (4,567 in 1960) after the railroads, trolleys, and Connecticut Turnpike had made migration from the cities to the shoreline easier.

Vintage photograph of Lee's Academy, 1886

Photograph of Lee's Academy, 1886

From its earliest days, when most children were educated at home, Madison was invested in the instruction of its youngsters. Thirteen schoolhouses, consolidated into a town-wide system by 1892, were scattered throughout town. In 1821 Captain Frederick Lee established Lee's Academy in the Neck District, under the supervision of schoolmaster Samuel Robinson. [This building was moved in 1830 to the town green, where it remains today.] Originally a private school that took boarders as well as local students, the Academy eventually became town property, and a high school was established there, “open to all town pupils of 12 years or over at the rate of $4.00 for a term of 12 weeks.”

Vintage postcard of Hand High School with Lee's Academy in the distance

Postcard of Hand High School

In November 1884 the Madison-born philanthropist Daniel Hand erected a brick academy just east of the green and gave it to the town for use as a public high school, under the condition that an academy always be kept there. Expanded over time to hold twelve grades, the school most recently served elementary students; it is now closed. While Hand stipulated that “if the building is ever not to be used as an educational institution, it is to be sold and the money is to be used for the education of [African Americans] in the South," the Town of Madison was released from this obligation in 1958, when the town's new high school was named Daniel Hand High School.

Modern Times come to Madison

vintage postcard of the ec scranton memorial library

Colored postcard of the Scranton Memorial Library

In the twentieth century, life in Madison changed rapidly. Roads were paved, and horses and wagons pulled to the side for new automobiles. Land developers carved property into neighborhoods with names like “Seaview,” and hostelries such as the Madison Beach Hotel, once a boardinghouse for shipyard workers, offered rooms to house-hunters. By 1915 a country club had opened on Middle Beach Road, and the Young Men’s Club of Madison had published an illustrated booklet about the town, which, they predicted, was on its way to becoming “an ideal place to live.”

By the end of the first two decades of the new century, the district schoolhouses were closed, and Hand Academy had been renovated as the Hand Consolidated School. The magnificent E. C. Scranton Memorial Library had welcomed its first patrons, as had the Madison Airdome, the town’s first movie theater. The sky-scraping Monroe Building on the Boston Post Road lent a big-town look to the main thoroughfare, and the mile-long beach at Hammonasset State Park was purchased by the state in 1920—the same year that the Madison Historical Society purchased the Allis-Bushnell House for the purpose of preserving the town’s swiftly changing history. During these years, as in earlier years, important town matters were—and still are—decided by the typically New England form of town government: the town meeting, which is overseen by an elected Board of Selectmen (which can include women). All of the registered voters of town are allowed to voice their opinions, debate issues, and vote at the town meetings.

Downton Madison, CT, 1930s

Vintage photograph of downtown Madison, 1930s

By 1930 Madison's trolleys were gone, and the Boston Post Road was clogged with traffic making its way from New York to Boston. Even as a handsome new post office was built in 1938, some citizens were worried that Madison was forever ruined—a sentiment that seemed shared by everyone when the Great Hurricane struck late in September of that year. By the end of the day, the Boston Post Road was a literal logjam, strewn with fallen trees and broken branches; cottages and golf links alike were inundated or destroyed altogether.

After the devastation of the storm and the drama of widespread changes, the 1940s dawned in relative peacefulness. The nation was on the brink of World War Two, but the growing town enjoyed a period of stability. Chockablock with older business, newer enterprises lined U.S. Route 1: rental cabins, gas stations, and diners served the needs of the still-thriving tourism trade. Families set up house in the new developments, and in this decade, the number of preschool students in Madison was twice the number of residents over the age of 65.

During the 1950s, rapid growth of town infrastructure ensured the education and care of all those new residents. Schools were built and expanded, as the enrollment more than doubled between 1951 and 1960. By far, the most monumental change came with the construction of the Connecticut Turnpike. While the project restored peace and quiet to the town center, the Turnpike forever changed the landscape and the pace of life. The state claimed Madison homes and farms under the principle of eminent domain, but the road made Madison even more desirable to commuters working at city jobs.

Aerial view of Madison, CT, 1970s

Aerial view of Madison, CT, 1970s

From 1960 to 1970, the population jumped from 4,567 souls to 9,768. Madison had been transformed, at least in part, into a bedroom community.While summer visitors still arrived in great numbers, the volume of permanent residents had grown larger than the seasonal influx. Sixty-four new roads were added by 1969, and newcomers spread north of the turnpike into the wooded hills. School construction continued, and a waterfront park was added to town property with the purchases of the once-private Surf Club and Garvan Point parcels.

By the mid-1970s the town had a new police department, and a new firehouse was built in North Madison. By 1980 the town population had soared to 14,000. While growth was not deliberately restricted, a growing awareness of the importance of preserving the character of the town resulted, during the next decades, in thoughtful planning and zoning regulations and the acquisition of several important open-space parcels.

Daniel Hane High School at dusk

View of Daniel Hand High School

Among the late-twentieth-century improvements to the town were the formation of an Inland Wetlands Commission, the creation of both a downtown historic village district and a Historic District Commission, and the innovation of a private grass-roots initiative called the Madison Land Conservation Trust. Such gifts or purchases as the Bauer Farm property (now Bauer Park) and the Braemore property (now Rockland Preserve) have ensured that the character of the town and its open spaces are protected. A narrow stretch of coastal and village Madison also now forms a section of Connecticut's Shoreline Greenway Trail, an accessible pathway for passive recreation for all residents and visitors.

In 2003 a new Daniel Hand High School opened. In 2008 a 2.3-mile section of the Boston Post Road was designated a CT Scenic Road, a tribute to the stewardship of town planners and residents. A notable neighborhood was further protected in 2014 with the formation of the Liberty Street Historic District--and Salt Meadow Park was created on the site of the former Griswold Airport, opening up athletic fields while also protecting precious coastal meadows and uplands. While Madison still has some room for growth, responsible planning makes sprawl an unlikely consequence of Madison’s small-town appeal.


Christopher P. Bickford, ed., with associate editors Carolyn C. Cooper and Sandra L. Rux. Voices of the New Republic: Connecticut Towns 1800-1832. Volume 1: What They Said. Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume XXVI (New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2003).

Merritt W. Cleaver. The History of North Madison, Connecticut, revised and enlarged edition (Madison, CT: Merritt W. Cleaver, 2006).

Stephen P. Elliott, ed., with writers Lauralee Clayton and Warner P. Lord. Madison: Three Hundred Years by the Sea: Farmers and Fisherman; Sailors and Summer Folk (Madison: Madison Bicentennial Committee, 1976).

Warner P. Lord and Beverly J. Montgomery. Madison Connecticut in the Twentieth Century (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing for the Madison Historical Society and Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives, 1998).

Philip S. Platt, ed.  Madison’s Heritage: Historical Sketches of Madison, Connecticut (New Haven: Walker-Rackliff Company for Madison Historical Society, 1964).

Kathleen Hulser Ryerson. A Brief History of Madison, Conn. (New York: Pageant Press, Inc., 1960).

Bernard Christian Steiner. History of Guilford and Madison, Connecticut (Guilford, CT: Guilford Free Library, 1975).

To learn more about the history of Madison, visit the website of the Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives, Inc. at The CLEMA collection is located at Memorial Town Hall, 8 Meetinghouse Lane in Madison. Telephone: (203) 245-5667.

For other published historical materials on Madison, visit The library’s Local History Room contains many early volumes and documents related to Madison history and genealogy. The E. C. Scranton Memorial Library is at 801 Boston Post Road, Madison.  Telephone:  (203) 245-7365.

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