THROWBACK THURSDAY: Civil War doctor brought clean water to Wallingford

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Editor's note: This story is part of a monthly series highlighting Wallingford history as the town approaches its 350th anniversary.

From the field hospitals of the Civil War south, Wallingford physician Dr. Benjamin F. Harrison saw firsthand the importance of clean water and sanitation.

Upon his return to Wallingford, he led the charge in founding the town’s water division.

Bob Beaumont, town historian and chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, said a combination of things made Harrison want to ensure Wallingford had a municipal water supply; his experience as a sawbones in the grim battlefields—where disease and infection often killed soldiers if battle wounds didn’t—but also the changing demographics of Wallingford in the late 1860s.

“The center of town was beginning to get somewhat densely populated,” Beaumont said, “and there were beginning to be issues with fouled wells due to septic systems of sorts that were not that effective.”

The townspeople’s waste, at that time, was put into long, open trenches behind buildings, which flowed downhill to near the current location of the wastewater treatment plant, he said.

Harrison started pushing for a town water works to ensure a potable water supply and improve sanitation around 1870. A water works formation committee was created in 1871.

Map of Wallingford, 1905.

Momentum had been building slowly, but really gained traction when the manufacturers in town joined the effort in 1880, after a particularly bad fire at the Wallingford Wheel Shop on North Cherry Street and Hall Avenue made them realize the importance of water for extinguishing fires.

A municipal water utility was formally created by 1881 with the first bond issue.

Pistapaug Pond was the original town water supply.

Initially the water was untreated, Beaumont said, when it was shipped to the center of town. By 1926, the Mackenzie treatment plant was built at what would become Mackenzie Reservoir.

“We certainly would not have had a municipal water supply as soon without his efforts, as well as the efforts of the industrialists of the time,” Beaumont said. “It wouldn’t have been too long after that, because about that same time is when we also started the sewer.”

Harrison’s life

Harrison, born in Northford in 1811, grew up on his father’s farm in North Branford. Despite his impoverished background, he was a quick learner and keen student, graduating from the Yale Medical School in 1836 at age 25.

He began practicing medicine in Wallingford later that year and remained active for a decade. In September 1846, Harrison, then 35, embarked on a year-long trip to Europe, spending the first six months studying in Paris and afterward traveling the continent.

Harrison returned to Wallingford in October 1847 and resumed his practice until August 1862 when, at age 51, he received a commission from the governor of New York as surgeon of the Independent Corps, New York Volunteer Light Infantry, then in the field at Yorktown, Virginia.

Yorktown, Virginia. Naval battery with Nelson house in background used as a hospital July 1, 1862. | Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs

The next year, he was appointed chief medical officer of Davis Brigade, Terry Division on Morris Island, outside Charleston, South Carolina. A sketch of his hospital tent from 1863 shows clusters of A-frame tents surrounding his hospital tent along the rocky island shore.

Morris Island, South Carolina. Unidentified camp, 1863.| Retrieved from the Library of Congress

He continued with the regiment until his term of service expired in February 1864.

“Thus I have finished eighteen months of service in the field, most of it arduous and fatiguing; have not slept under a roof more than eight nights during that period,” he wrote in his diary.

In May 1864, Harrison entered government service as the sanitary commissioner in South Carolina and Florida, remaining until August of that year. At the end of 1864, he resumed his medical practice in Wallingford.

Harrison's death notice in the April 24, 1886 edition of the Meriden Journal.

He continued in his profession until his death in 1886 at age 75.

“Seen from any point of view, Doctor Harrison was a man who would attract attention,” according to a biographical entry in the 1892 book “History of New Haven County, Connecticut.”

“Socially he was an agreeable companion and a brilliant conversationalist,” the biography stated. “His eyes would sparkle and his mind open its riches of thought and humor and agreeable comment, in entertaining manner.”

Legacy left in park, rainfall records

Harrison was married three times. His first two wives died—both after only a year or two of marriage—as did a 17-year-old daughter. Harrison himself died after two years of marriage to his third wife, Sarah E. Hall.

His widow—whose prominent family, the Halls, were a Wallingford founding family—granted the town the 7 acres of land, with understanding it would always be a park and not developed, as a tavern had been proposed for the site.

Today, Harrison Park, at North Main Street Extension and Cedar Lane near In Memoriam Cemetery, is a 15-acre park with a sports field, tennis courts and World War I veterans memorial trees.

Another contribution to the town came from Harrison’s weather records.

Following an interest in meteorology, he faithfully kept a record of the local rainfall from 1856 until his death, except for his absence during the Civil War.

Beaumont said a copy of Harrison’s records are kept at the town public utilities office, a document that is still referred to today by town officials.

“We still refer to that as part of the baseline,” he said.

His alma mater, Yale College, recognized his contributions to science by conferring upon him a master of science degree in 1872, at age 61.

Harrison’s meteorological records also helped modern scientists who wanted to estimate the strength of the 1878 tornado that ripped through the center of Wallingford and killed about 34 people, determining it was a category F4 tornado.

A tornado ripped through Wallingford Friday Aug. 9, 1878. There were 30 killed and 40 wounded and $300,000 worth of property destroyed.| Courtesy Wallingford Public Library

“Like a lot of people, he was a man of many parts,” Beaumont said. “Would have liked to have known him.”


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