Willimantic's 1893 Charter as a City - Part 1
by Pete Zizka
The first ever meeting of the city of Willimantic’s Common Council occurred on December 19, 1893. As with so many other initiatives, the transition from borough to city was a difficult, often contentious process. Anyone keeping up with local news outlets or online chat sites will know that many residents bemoan situations in which they feel that local improvements or projects are taking too long to either get started or get finished. As a student of Windham-Willimantic history, I’d have to say that the citizens of 100-plus years ago must have felt the same way but to an even greater degree. Let’s focus on  how Willimantic became a city. Prior to becoming a city, Willimantic was a borough of the Town of Windham and as such, it was governed by a Warden and a Court of Burgesses. Our background will begin with events of 1890 but it is important to note that even as a borough, Willimantic had been graced with several municipal benefits. By 1873, both police and fire departments had been organized. (Today’s photo shows the Police Department outside their Church Street lockup.) In 1885, a municipal water system went into operation and by 1890 most of the borough had access to the sewer system (but no treatment plant since the sewage went right into the Natchaug River). For a few years prior to 1890, there had been on and off talk about organizing a city government for Willimantic. In December, 1890, at the urgings of many local businessmen, a borough meeting was held for the purpose of discussing whether or not to petition for a city charter for Willimantic. A large number of citizens attended and the great majority were in favor of applying for a charter. Attorney James Lynch began the meeting by presenting formal resolutions in favor of obtaining a charter and then spoke at length about the advantages that would be derived from having a city form of government as opposed to a borough. He was immediately followed, however, by another attorney, John Hunter, “who made a lively attack on the proposition”. It was noted that a “lively” discussion followed. Many local businessmen spoke in favor of the proposition and finally Judge John Hall asked that a charter be written up and submitted to the people of Willimantic who would then vote on it. After a period of questions, several resolutions were adopted with only one dissenting vote (John Hunter). The first resolution instructed the Borough’s Warden, Julius Pinney, to “give public notice, as required by law, that a petition would be presented to the next General Assembly, for a City Charter for said borough”. The next resolution required the Warden to appoint a committee of fifteen electors of the Willimantic borough to draft a charter that would be presented to the General Assembly. The committee would be required, “to do all things necessary to secure passage of said Charter” and that included selecting members from different political parties. The committee was instructed to print a thousand copies of the charter, “to be circulated among the citizens at least two days before the meeting”. By the next day, Warden Pinney had selected the fifteen committee members from among the borough’s leading citizens. After several months of work, the Committee members realized that the draft of a proposed charter would not be completed before time expired for the introduction of new business in the House of Representatives. And so a petition was circulated asking the General Assembly to grant the borough a city charter. A draft proposal had been written up and circulated but disagreements among committee members (as well as disagreements among members of the community) stalled the process for almost two years. At the heart of the disagreement was the question of what type of legislative body would run the city. Charters from several other cities were cited. Several charters continued the use of a Board of Aldermen and a separate board of councilmen as well as a mayor. The general feeling in Willimantic seemed to be that there was no need of two legislative bodies. Towards the end of December, 1892, some civic leaders, among them Water Commissioner George Burnham championed the original proposed charter, saying it had been, “prepared with great care by an able committee” and that continued attempts to make radical changes to it could overthrow the whole project.

go to part 2

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