For over 200 years Connecticut has had a somewhat unique type of local government – a borough, of which nine currently survive. The borough has provided public services that its parent town would not or could not afford.
Vermont, with its incorporated villages, is the only other New England state that allows similar responsibilities below the town level. (Notably, Connecticut had two incorporated villages—Litchfield and Wethersfield—during the nineteenth century).
In the six New England states, the town formed the original basis for local government. In Connecticut, towns began to form in the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, towns geographically encompassed the entire state.
These creatures of the state used tax revenues for building and maintaining roads, caring for the poor, providing education, and for several administrative and regulatory purposes. However, in the 19th century residents in some towns eventually wanted a broader range of public services. So to achieve their aims, they sought permission from the state to create an incorporated borough that would be located within and subordinate to the town government.
The Borough of Bridgeport
Bridgeport became the first borough by special act of the state General Assembly in October 1800. It was located in part of the town of Stratford on Long Island Sound in the southwestern part of the state. Originally called Pequonnock in the 17th century, it was renamed Newfield around 1777. Starting as a farming and fishing community, it grew into a bustling whaling, shipbuilding, and trading port after the mid-18th century.
Based on its prosperity, the citizenry sought and received permission for a borough to supply more services. The act of incorporation of the borough provided for the election by secret ballot of a warden (chief executive), six burgesses, a clerk, treasurer and bailiff. Among the initial powers granted: the right to sue and be sued; purchase, hold, and convey real and personal property; levy taxes; layout highways; create a fire department; and make by-laws (e.g., regarding markets and commerce, streets, wharves, anchoring and mooring of vessels, trees, animals, buildings, burial of the dead and public lighting).
Since the borough was subordinate to the town government, its residents had dual residency and paid both town and borough taxes. In 1821 the Town of Bridgeport—including the Borough of Bridgeport–were separated from the Town of Stratford. In 1836 the borough became the City of Bridgeport.
Four other boroughs were soon created near Long Island Sound. A year after Bridgeport, Stonington was incorporated—currently the oldest continuous borough in the state. Guilford followed in 1815, then both Killingworth and Essex in 1820. Killingworth disincorporated in 1838—the first to do so—with the creation of the town of Clinton. Essex disincorporated in 1854 and Guilford in 1939.
After 1820, boroughs formed within inland towns. Although agriculture dominated economic activity in the early 19th century, manufacturing enterprises slowly began to develop across the state. Their success depended upon navigable rivers, a sufficient labor supply and competent management. This was clearly evident in the last half of the nineteenth century, especially within or near towns in the Naugatuck Valley.
Manufacturing grew because of greater interconnections of the railroad, telegraph and telephone systems. Further population growth and increased incomes then fueled a desire for boroughs to provide more governmental services. Thus, between 1800 and 1899, 39 boroughs were created.
Hats, Brass, Pins
One of the earliest boroughs with a manufacturing base was Danbury, incorporated in 1822, known for its hat making. Another example was Waterbury, incorporated in 1825, known for its brass industry. Waterbury and Danbury became cities in 1853 and 1889, respectively.
In the latter half of the century, two notable examples were Wallingford and Shelton. Wallingford, incorporated in 1853, became known for Britannia ware and disincorporated in 1958. Shelton, incorporated in 1882, was known for making corsets, paper, bolts and pins. It consolidated with its town in 1915.
In addition to the customary set of by-laws, many boroughs also dealt with special concerns. For example, West Haven and West Stratford prohibited riding bicycles on sidewalks, while Bethel residents could not fly kites on streets and sidewalks.
Creation of the final six boroughs occurred in the early decades of the twentieth century: Farmington and Ridgefield in 1901, Groton and Woodmont in 1903, Bantam in 1915, and Unionville in 1921. Ridgefield disincorporated in 1921, as did Farmington and Unionville in 1947. Groton became a city in 1964.
Altogether, between 1800 and 1921, 45 boroughs were created. However, between 1800 and 1991 when Stafford Springs became the latest borough to disincorporate, 15 of them disincorporated from their parent town, 15 eventually became cities, four became part of a new town, one (Clifton) became part of a new borough (Winsted), and one (West Stratford) became annexed to Bridgeport.
No New Boroughs
Two new options for districts may explain why no new boroughs formed since 1921, despite an outward migration from more populated to less crowded areas—a process that accelerated after World War II. One possibility: the creation of special taxing districts. These districts (e.g., fire and utility districts) can offer one or more public services, while remaining independent of their town governments. Although the exact number is unknown, they have continued to proliferate. The other option available for providing more services is a 1957 “Home Rule” law that allows towns to change their form of government (e.g., to create a mayor-council system) to better deal with citizen demands.
Of the nine boroughs that currently exist, the prospects for their continued survival differ. Naugatuck, Bantam, Litchfield, Fenwick, Woodmont, and Stonington—the latter four in summer resort areas—appear to be working fairly well. Naugatuck is somewhat unusual. Known for its rubber production (Goodyear) and naugahyde (a synthetic leather material), it consolidated with its town in 1895 but retained its borough form of government.
Meanwhile, Newtown, Danielson, and Jewett City have encountered budgetary pressures in previous years. Their future is more problematic as their town governments have already taken over many of their functions. So far, the majority of residents of these nine boroughs remain proud and self-protective and would be very reluctant to see them disappear. Thus, an anachronistic type of local government continues to survive.
About the author: Edward T. Howe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, of Siena College near Albany, N.Y. He has written academic articles about the bell industry in New York, incorporated villages in Vermont, and nationwide taxation of the electric utility industry. He has also written about the small bells made in Connecticut for the New England Historical Society. This story updated in 2022.