Saturday, May 14, 2011

Water Secrets


Sheldon Smith was also born in Derby, but he never got the fancy education at Yale. He never taught school or wrote poetry as did David Humphreys. Instead, after a basic education at the local schoolhouse, he apprenticed himself to a saddle and harness maker in Bridgeport and was eventually taken in as a partner. However, he had other dreams. In New York he met Anson G. Phelps an entrepreneur and former saddle maker who had been investing in copper and other minerals.

Smith went on to Newark, NJ, where he proved doubters wrong by envisioning and building a system bringing clean water to the city. What share he claimed in fostering utopian visions of society is unclear. What is clear is that he had a vision for water.

In the 1830s Sheldon Smith returned to his hometown, Derby, Connecticut, with a plan and a backer. Derby was in decline following the Revolution and in need of revitalization. Smith, who had bought the old grist mill, envisioned, "Smithville," and went to work. He and his New York City friend, Anson Phelps, laid out the streets and built housing to create what is today downtown Derby. They also built the reservoir, and channeled the Naugatuck River through a mile and a half canal system to power a considerable industrial village.

In the end the name that was chosen was not Smithville but Birmingham after the center of England's great copper and brass industry.

You can view an engraving of Birmingham, Connecticut in 1836 here. Sheldon Smith's home is the one at the top of the hill on the left.