Friday, April 21, 2017

Baltic Mill

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: Manufacturing built Connecticut. In the west half of the state it was metals and machine tools; in the east it was textiles. Authorities tell me the Baltic Mill was at one time the largest textile mill in the United States. Baltic was built as a company town, and its vitality was always tied to the fortunes of the companies that owned the water rights and the mill site on the Shetucket River.

Baltic was founded by, brothers, Amasa and William Sprague. William was a banker and leading promoter of the Hartford, Providence, and Fishkill Railroad. Amasa was an innovator and expert in textile dying and printing. They sought a site along the new railroad for a textile mill, and in 1856 they purchased land and water rights on the Shetucket River at the village known as Lord’s Bridge. Workers would live in company housing, and the town would be run for the benefit of the business.

The town and the mill thrived and was expanded by Amasa's and William’s sons, Amasa, Jr. and Byron, and by 1870 the company had a work force approaching 1400 men, women and children making cotton yarn that was shipped to the company’s weaving mill in Cranston, RI. The workers were predominantly French-Canadian, and this ethnic unity permitted factory workers to advance to positions of leadership and to establish businesses in town. However, the depression of 1873 found the company over-extended. Bankers kept operations intact until the interior of the buildings were destroyed by fire in 1887, and Baltic became nearly a ghost town. 

A residual pool of talent remained, and in the 1892 Michael Donahue opened Shetucket Worsted and employed 100 men. In 1900 Frederick Sayles bought the ruins of the old Sprague mill and associated property and rights, rebuilt the mill within the old walls, restored the workers’ housing, and opened the Baltic Mill Company which kept expanding through the 1920s and continued manufacturing textiles until 1960. 

Among the remains of old, granite and brick walls one can still make out the elaborate systems that turned river power into textiles. Nothing remains of the main building but its foundation. It’s been that way since 1997 when an accidental fire sent asbestos dust over the region and gutted everything. Since then wind, rain and ice have been consuming what’s left. 

Manufacturing buildings in the west half of the state betray the scrappy roots of their machine and metals heritage. Those in the east wear their textile pedigree like palaces. However, it’s hard to discern a palace in the remains of the Baltic Mill.