Planning is going on in Hartford this summer that could have a major impact on the capital city and its legacy. In the coming weeks, an ad hoc committee of stakeholders in Coltsville will be setting the parameters for a national park there that could draw visitors from all over the world.
Coltsville, the historic district that encompasses the physical legacy of industrialist, inventor and arms manufacturer Samuel Colt and his wife, Elizabeth, was a vital cog in America's industrial growth. It was, as Colt scholar William Hosley characterizes it, the Silicon Valley of its day.
Telling its complex story in a way that engages a diverse audience and does justice to its contributions in shaping U.S. history is both a challenge and an economic development opportunity that may never come this way again.
In the next few weeks, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne is expected to sign off on the Colt district's recently approved status as a National Historic Landmark. That honor certifies that the events that took place within its bounds are nationally significant, a chief criterion for naming national parks.
But what should a national park in Coltsville look like?
That key question is being weighed by Museum Insights, planning consultants hired by the ad hoc committee as part of a resource study conducted by the National Park Service's Boston office. Hartford's fortunes could depend on the right answer.
Ideally, a Colt national park would include a visitors center in the east armory under the iconic Colt onion dome and staffed by the National Park Service. It would offer a museum experience showcasing Hartford's unparalleled collection of Colt-related art and artifacts from the State Library and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Preferably, there would be working machinery and/or demonstrations in the art and craft of arms manufacturing, Colt-style.
There is fresh fodder in the role of Elizabeth Colt, who ran the business for decades after Sam's death, kept beautiful gardens, collected art, practiced philanthropy and built lasting monuments to her husband and lost children.
Such a park would have something for everyone. It could include tours of Coltsville's Church of the Good Shepherd, Colt-built worker housing, Armsmear, the Colt mansion, or the riverfront in front of the Colt factory. The tour might direct visitors to other Hartford heritage sites, such as the Old State House, the Butler-McCook House and the Museum of Connecticut History, thus lifting all boats.
Cost, of course, will define the scope of the experience.
The Lowell National Historic Site, however, is an example of a partnership that combines a modest-scale national park presence with privately owned commercial and residential elements. The park has helped revitalize Lowell's downtown.
The Coltsville study authorized in 2003 is expected to be concluded in November, at which time the National Park Service will evaluate the merits of adding the Colt experience to its roster of national parks. A vote of Congress, necessary to complete the designation, could take place as early as December, but certainly sometime in 2009.
The dream of a national park in Hartford is no mirage. With the vision and persistence of many history lovers and Hartford devotees, it is nudging closer to reality.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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