Worcester is a poster child for central place theory. There is little else in its history to
Settled in 1636 as an outpost of Connecticut, Springfield, Massachusetts got off to an earlier and far more ambitious start than Worcester. The success of Springfield resides
Unlike Springfield, both New Haven and Hartford always dominated their respective areas. Even after the colony of New Haven was absorbed into Connecticut, both communities retained political clout as co-capitals and the seat of their respective counties. New Haven had been founded by a group of wealthy merchants for the express purpose of establishing a commercial center, while Hartford’s Puritan ministers and merchants enjoyed a central location among Connecticut’s founding settlements. New Haven’s harbor and Hartford’s location on the Connecticut River were the keys to their commercial growth. Both were incorporated as cities at the same time in 1784, and by 1790 both had become bustling, urbane communities.
Several other Connecticut towns experienced rapid growth. Middletown, Norwich, and New London had all caught up with New Haven and Hartford by Washington’s first inauguration. But no one could have forecast the future importance of Bridgeport, which did not then go by name Bridgeport, or even legally exist until 1821. But the farmers of “Poquonnock” had considered themselves a separate entity from neighboring Stratford and Fairfield as far back as the 1650’s. The road to their eventual independence began when Poquonnock was incorporated as an independent ecclesiastical society in 1694 and changed its name to Fairfield Village. Over the next century, the community underwent several more changes in name and political status. In 1790 Newfield, Connecticut had a population 3000; its village center provided a tavern and home to number of part-time artisans’ shops. More important to the eventual rise to urban status, the community’s outstanding deep-water harbor, a resource that went unnoticed during the colonial period, was only dimly grasped for the first time during the Revolutionary War. It is unlikely anyone would have ever predicted this Connecticut hamlet would outshine every other major Connecticut center its rapid economic development.
All roads lead To Providence
Manchester, New HampshireAll seven of these cities had geographical advantages that aided their development, but so did many other communities that never grew into major urban centers. Political forces and early settlement are two other important factors yet they are also not the sole determinant, as Bridgeport and Manchester had neither distinction. Natural and man-made transportation systems also played a significant role in the rise and fall of New England's central places. Individual initiative was another key to the success of all these communities -- exceptional individuals like Moses Brown, William Pynchon or Samuel Blodgett, group efforts by the Puritan merchants that founded New Haven and Hartford played key roles as well. However, of all the key characteristics of successful cities, this might be the most impossible to quantify of all, only serving to remind us it is the very unpredictability of the human venture that makes history such a fascinating business. Bruce Daniels reminds us that while “urban development between 1790 and the twentieth century seems smooth and organic, the inevitable quality of this evolution is a trick played on us by the arrogance of hindsight.”
Bruce C. Daniels, “The Colonial Background of New England’s Secondary Urban Centers,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Volume 14 No. 1 (January 1986).
NB: A version of this article also appears in the August 2012 Hinterlander, the monthly newsletter of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society