Hiawatha Lane: 150 Years Of History

This Thursday (April 11, 7 p.m., Town Hall), the Planning & Zoning Commission holds another hearing on the long-running, often-amended, quite-controversial proposal to build a 5-building, 187-unit housing complex on Hiawatha Lane. The application is made as an 8-30g, meaning some of the units will be “affordable,” as defined by state regulations.

But the road — wedged between I-95 Exit 17 and the railroad tracks — has long been where owners and renters find some of Westport’s least expensive prices.

Homes on Hiawatha Lane.

Hiawatha Lane has a very intriguing history. Here’s a look at how the neighborhood developed — and a little-known fact about its deeds.

In the late 1800s, train tracks for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Rail Road tracks sliced through what today would be considered prime property.

Laying those tracks was a back-breaking effort. The physical power was provided by thousands of men, who immigrated to America from all parts of Italy.

When their work was done, some of those laborers settled close to the tracks in Saugatuck. They built a tight-knit community — as well as churches, stores, a vital small business economy, and their own homes. Some still remain.

Families with names like Vento, Stroffolino, Cribari, Nistico, Anastasia, Luciano, Sarno, Caruso, Fabbraio, Pascarella, Penna, Giunta, Valiante — and many more — settled in Saugatuck, and helped it grow.

They built all of Westport, as barbers, stone masons, restaurateurs, store owners, carpenters, police officers, firefighters, town employees, lawyers, teachers, and in many other professions.

In the 1920s — when Italian immigrants made Saugatuck a thriving community — Esposito’s gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge.

Three and four generations later, many of their namesakes still live in Saugatuck, or elsewhere in town.

In the mid-1950s, another transportation revolution plowed through town: I-95 (known then as the Connecticut Turnpike).

Many of the same families who had forged the railway built the new highway system. It was a source of national pride — but also a massive disruption to the lives of those living in its path.

Churches, stores, meeting places, roads and many homes were demolished.  Westport’s Italian community was bisected. Roads like Indian Hill and Hiawatha Lane were cut in half by the highway. Longtime neighbors were suddenly displaced.

I-95 under construction. The photo — looking east — shows the toll booth near Exit 17, with Hiawatha Lane on the right. The Saugatuck River bridge is in the distance.

But some Westport philanthropists saw what was happening. The area between the rail tracks and I-95 — today known as Hiawatha Lane and Extension, Davenport Avenue and Indian Hill Road — was subdivided into parcels. They were then deeded to many of the displaced Saugatuck families, for as little as $1.

Julia Bradley deeded most of those properties, which still stand today. The Bradley family put a specific restriction on each deed. It stated that each house should remain in perpetuity, as one single-family house on each plot.

Ever since, the neighborhood has remained a unique place, providing affordable, low-cost home ownership.

Of the 187 units proposed by Summit Saugatuck LLC, only 30 percent are deemed “affordable” by state Department of Housing standards. They will be small 1- and 2-bedroom rentals — replacing the homes that are there today.

Sixty years after the turnpike came through, many longtime families and close neighbors who have lived next to it may again be displaced.

9 responses to “Hiawatha Lane: 150 Years Of History

  1. Joshua Stein

    Lots of history in that neighborhood. If I recall, quite a few of the houses were actually moved out of the way of i95 in the 50s instead of being destroyed.

  2. Doug Fierro

    If the deeds were in perpetuity, why is this even being considered?

  3. Westport is becoming overdeveloped.. we are losing the small town charm. When is enough enough?

  4. Matthew Mandell

    Nice piece – The point about Old Saugatuck already being an affordable area is important. This is why the developer is there. They took advantage of the affordability to buy 10 houses. They made a business decision that backfired when the town 15 years ago said no to building the original condo project. And 3 times since they continued to say no.

    The developer is taking advantage of 8-30g to now propose a mind boggling 187 units. This is not about creating affordability, but instead profitability. They are destroying affordable housing to create a huge number of market rate units to finally reap their profit. They made a bad business decision and are now using a law to put it back on us.

    But they have problems, and rightly so. They have issues with those deeds, they have issues with the ownership of the road Hiawatha Lane and they have healthy and safety issues especially with no secondary access to this massive project at the end of a road.

    Come on out on Thursday night 7pm at P&Z and support your neighbors as they literally try to save their neighborhood. This isn’t about one project, this is about the thin edge of the wedge ultimately flattening what is there and replacing it with a massive amount of housing long term. You want to see more traffic, overcrowding of schools and beaches? Hiawatha will only be the first of many of these in this same area. Future development will be based on the existence of this one and Old Saugatuck will be lost.

  5. Holly Wheeler

    In the early 70s, I lived on Dr, Gillette Circle in one of three houses that were moved ‘down from the hill’ when I-95 was built. Tucked away down a long dirt driveway off of Hiawatha Lane, it remains to this date, the most favorite place I have ever lived. I could lie in bed and see the Norwalk Toll neon light blinking in the dark. I could hear the trains on the other side of the parking lot. And there was something comforting about it. Tranquil. And the people that lived in DGC and the surrounding neighborhoods were quiet, polite, gentle and generally the kinds of people I wanted to live around. I drove up there the other day. DGC has been gussied up, the driveway paved, decks built onto the first floor apartments. But it’s still cozy. I cannot imagine what a 187 unit housing project would do to this area, not to mention the pretty much one+ lane access up the hill to get to it. And, so much for in perpetuity. As much as I would like to see ‘low income’ housing in Westport (so I might be able to move back), this is NOT the place for it.

  6. Michael Calise

    There are many issues here. Unanswered questions about road ownership and existing deed restrictions. Fire department access, the destruction of a free market affordable neighborhood, increased stress on education and other public services. This is 830G gone bad! The legislative majority in Hartford refuses to take a common sense approach to their vision of affordable housing and surprisingly they continue to get re-elected.

  7. 8-30g was explicitly designed to prevent the loss of Hiawatha Lane and the Saugatuck community by making it obvious to commiunities what would happen if they didn’t save room for their local heritage.

    I knew Julia Bradley and she was very much in favor of 8-30g. She was doing 8-30g before it was a law. But there were too few like her, so the State made sure CT towns would know to do something before it was too late. – Chris Woods

  8. Bonnie Bradley

    Just saying… For the record: I and my direct family members, alive and deceased, are to my knowledge in no way related to Julia Bradley. A relationship was assumed by many in the years I lived in Westport. I was asked the question “are you related to Julia?” numerous times; actually, I never even met her. My father, J.K.B. and grandfather, J.P.B. were direct descendants of David Bradley who owned and farmed at 1 Apple Tree Trail (David’s farm ran from the Minute Man to the end of South Compo Road at the Sound, then all the way down Soundview to the cannons on Compo Beach and south from the Minute Man to what is now Compo Basin, until the beach property was taken from him by the town in 1902.) That’s how my grandfather and father ended up in Owenoke, other nearby land, also part of David’s farm. Owenoke at that time provided the family with salt hay, a valuable crop in the day – much of Owenoke was filled to create homesites. Fred Lewis of Longshore fame was also a part owner of Owenoke before my grandfather Bradley purchased the Lewis property there. My Bradley family lived in or built 9 houses in Owenoke over many years. Rindy Higgins lived in one of those houses. I was the last Bradley to live in Owenoke.