From Theaters To Whistles, City Was Unique

Norwich Firemen's Ball

The highlight of the night was always the Grand March for both the Police and Firemen's Balls. The photo of the Firemen's Ball and many legendary firemen and their ladies.

Once upon a time, the Norwich Police Department was in the basement of City Hall. In fact, the old department is now occupied by the office of Judge of Probate Linda Salafia. The police department had a cell block in the courthouse. They also had a drunk tank. If someone was drunk, he or she was put in the drunk tank and released the next morning. Today, it is treated as an illness, and if you are drunk, you are taken to the hospital — not by a police car, but in an ambulance.

This was during the time when Norwich was truly a boom town. Every store on Main Street, Broadway and Franklin Street was occupied. Where today stands Ron Aliano’s beautiful marina, once stood the Chappell Coal Co., owned by Goffe Briggs. There were mountains of coal because everybody burned coal. There were no oil furnaces. There were a few gas furnaces.

In those days, there were two ancient theaters in downtown Norwich. The old Broadway Theater was something from another world. There were three balconies and boxes on each side of the stage. There was a band pit, and over the main lobby was a beautiful reception room for the stars and their guests when Broadway shows would first play in Norwich at the Broadway Theater. There were mirrors and chandeliers and overstuffed furniture.

The Breed Theater was across town on Washington Square. It was historic in many respects. During the Civil War, Norwich women volunteers gathered there daily to sew uniforms for the men fighting with the Union Army. It was the headquarters for a suffrage campaign in the late 1800s. The Breed Theater was the first theater to provide talking pictures. In 1928, Al Jolson’s, “The Jazz Singer” played the Breed. It burned down in the 1970s and, for a while, Dunkin’ Donuts took that historic site.

Next to the Broadway Theater, the Masons had abandoned their lodge and, in 1929, built the Masonic Temple at the corner of Washington Street and Sachem Street. Across from the Masonic Temple was the Blackstone mansion. The Blackstone’s ran the Occum Mill, but they lived in a mansion which, regrettably, was torn down and in its place are the Blackstone Apartments.

Where the Dime Bank now accommodates customer parking, there was a five-story, yellow brick building that once served as Norwich’s first YMCA. When they built the new Y across from the post office, the old YMCA building was taken over by Gilbert’s Furniture. Of course, next to Gilbert’s was the Otis Library on Union Square.

Gilbert’s burned one night, and the water pressure was so low the uniformed firemen couldn’t break the upper windows to get at the fire. Then arrived East Great Plain, Yantic, Taftville and Occum pumpers — all volunteers — with so much pressure they actually blew bricks out of the building. Gilbert’s was a total loss, and a few years later, the old Masonic Temple burned to the ground.

Illegal Gambling

Funny story about the Masonic Temple: It was being used by the American Legion, and the day of the fire, the custodian reported to the police department that someone had damaged their slot machines. Of course, they were promptly arrested for running a gambling operation, and that very night they lost the whole building to fire.

Up Union Street was a brick building that served for many years as Southern New England Telephone’s central office. Later, it was the police department, and now, I believe, the planning offices are there.

In those days, there were two editions of The Norwich Bulletin. The Bulletin, as we know it today, was published in the morning, and The Norwich Record was an afternoon newspaper. The Norwich Bulletin, in the 1930s and 1940s, sold a great number of newspapers in both Groton and New London. The New London Day was an afternoon paper with very little circulation in Norwich, but it dominated the shoreline.

Back then, Norwich had a strong mayor form of government, and those mayors had vision. They purchased all the rights for our current reservoirs. They established a strong gas and electric company. During the war years, they served as our air raid alarm system.

The main plant was then, as it is today, on lower North Main Street at the foot of Roath Street. There was a big tank that would rise and fall, based on the amount of gas they had manufactured.

In those days, much of electric power was produced by the dams — Occum and Greeneville — and for a period, the Indian Leap Falls provided some electricity.

Air-Raid Whistle

During World War II, Norwich Public Utilities actually attached a boat whistle to the steam generator, and that whistle could be heard in Taftville and East Great Plain. I don’t know how we got it, but in the 1930s, the SS Morro Castle, a luxury cruise ship, caught fire and burned. It was en route from Cuba to New York City. It was in September 1934, and 137 passengers and crew killed. The ship was beached near Asbury Park, N.J., and later sold for scrap. But Norwich got that great luxury liner boat whistle.

The Stanleys lived on Cliff Street, and as I heard that whistle so many times, I thought of the 137 who died. It was, in fact, a very mournful whistle.

Looking back, it was quite silly, but occasionally they would blow that whistle unannounced at night to warn us of an approaching make-believe German air attack. The Germans had trouble getting to England. I couldn’t imagine how they felt they could bomb America. So, cars would stop, turn off their lights, and all street lights were put out. For a half hour, you could not see Norwich from the air. Then, the all clear was sounded by that same, mournful whistle.

Best Parties

In the 1930s and 1940s, there were many civic events with great public participation, none more popular than the firemen’s and policemen’s balls. The police ball was held on Thanksgiving Eve, and the firemen always had their ball, sponsored by the union, sometime in February as the last event before the Lenten season.

Can you imagine today any public organization planning a social event and timing it because of a religious holiday or, in this case, the Lenten season?

This week’s picture is of the Firemen’s Ball, which took place in the Armory on McKinley Avenue. The firemen spent the week decorating the hall, and about the only things that weren’t decorated were the fire exits. The old Armory never looked as beautiful, nor did it ever look that way again. Now, of course, that beautiful Armory on McKinley Avenue is no more. What a shame.

Today, I just reminisced a bit about some of the things that once were and will never be again. Norwich was more human then, when everybody knew everybody else, and we did enjoy, for many years, being the shopping center of Eastern Connecticut as well as the transportation center.

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