You won’t find a place called Elm Street in Bethel. It disappeared from maps and directories in 1935. But until that time, it was an address known for being both the birthplace of the town’s most noted citizen and the site of a tragic accident whose specifics had been lost over time, until now.
When I first became interested in Bethel’s history many years ago, one of the first sources I consulted was a booklet produced for the town’s centennial celebration in 1955. On page thirty-five of that work, I found an old photograph with a cryptic caption that strongly piqued my interest. It read: “Where the great elm was taken down and the man killed”. That was it: no details, just one simple phrase. I couldn’t help wondering about the who, what, where, why, when, and how of the incident. Little did I suspect that it would be another thirty years before I would find the answers to my questions.
As mentioned at the outset, there is no longer an Elm Street in Bethel. In 1934, the Bethel Board of Selectmen voted to combine four previously separate thoroughfares under Greenwood Avenue’s name. East Street, which ran from Milwaukee Avenue to Hoyt’s Hill Road, Elm Street, which ran from the foot of Hoyt’s Hill Road to Chestnut Street, and Center Street, which ran from Chestnut Street to the railway crossing, had their names eliminated. They were all annexed to the existing portion of Greenwood Avenue that ran from the railway crossing to Grassy Plain Street. The change officially went into effect the following year to give residents time to adjust to new house numbers and postal addresses.
From the earliest days of the town’s development, the landmark for which Elm Street derived its name stood on the north side of the dirt road bordering today’s 55 Greenwood Avenue, just to the left of the eastern entrance to Prospect Street. (The tree actually predated Prospect Street, which was constructed in the early 1850s and was originally called New Street.)
On July 5, 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum first saw the light of day in a house that sat just yards from the noble elm. The great showman even included a recollection of it in a speech he gave when visiting Bethel in 1881. “I was born in an old-fashioned house on Elm Street, where the great elm-tree now stands. This tree looked as large to me then as it does now. My father, early one morning, discovering an eagle perched near the top of this tree, shot it. When it struck the ground, he found it was one of his turkeys.” Barnum provided an idealized drawing of his birthplace in his 1854 autobiography, and directly in front of the family home, one can see a tall tree presumably meant to represent the familiar elm. A fire consumed most of Barnum’s first home in 1843 after it had left the family’s possession, but a new Greek Revival house took its place. Barnum’s mother bought back the property in 1846 and spent the last twenty-two years of her life there. Irena Barnum could look out her front window and gaze upon a tree she had come to know for at least six decades by the time she died at the age of 83 in 1868.
As Bethel grew in the 19th century, so did its need for improved transportation. The Danbury-Norwalk Railroad began operation in 1852, assisting both travel and freight. In 1887 a horse-drawn trolley system connecting Bethel and Danbury was initiated that provided a somewhat reliable, albeit slow, passenger service. By 1894 the push was on to create an electrified trolley system that was more dependable than the existing one that sometimes relied upon aging, overworked horses who strained, and sometimes withered, under the weight of pulling passenger-packed cars up daunting inclines. Once the project was approved, the goal was to have the new trolley service placed in operation by January 1, 1895. Owing to regulations that prohibited trolley tracks from crossing railroad tracks, Bethel had to create two separate segments. One line would come from the direction of downtown Danbury and then turn around at the Greenwood Avenue railway crossing before starting the return trip. The other would have its own special car that would run from the east side of the Greenwood Avenue railway crossing to Milwaukee Avenue, where it too would be turned around to retrace its route back to the center of town. (The original horse-drawn trolley only went as far east as Fountain Place, today known as P.T. Barnum Square.) This separate trolley car was parked overnight directly in front of the opera house, where the ornamental clock and flower planter are today. Because of its solitary status as the only car on a very short run, Bethelites would later affectionately nickname the car “The Toonerville Trolley”. This name referenced the central component of a popular newspaper comic strip officially called Toonerville Folks that began national syndication in 1913.
In the summer and autumn of 1894, the Danbury-Bethel Street Railway worked to widen and improve streets in the town center to make them better able to accommodate both horse-drawn carriages and wagons and the much anticipated electric trolleys. One focal point of their efforts was the area where the old elm tree presented an obstacle at the junction of Elm and Prospect Streets. This very spot had been improved just three years earlier as the following newspaper item from October of 1891 attests.
“The grading, widening, and building a bank wall on Elm street is a great improvement and is under the management of H. H. Baird.”
In this initial endeavor, the great tree was left in place. Its stay of execution, however, would prove to be of short duration. Exactly three years later, the elm’s final fate was decided, as related by The Newtown Bee.
(October 19, 1894)
“REMOVING A HISTORIC TREE. The time has come when it appears to be necessary to cut the old elm tree that has probably stood for a century or more on Elm street, in order to widen the roadway for the trolley line, which will be extended to the east part of the borough. The tree has stood directly in the way of public travel for a number of years and several unsuccessful efforts have been made to have it removed. The inhabitants in that part of the borough petitioned for a meeting, which was called for last Monday evening. The question was fully discussed and a vote was taken which resulted in favor of cutting the old tree, which will now be removed within a week or so. The street will be made several feet wider and put to a proper grade. The old elm tree has the reputation of standing in front of the old house where the late P.T. Barnum was born.”
Just as promised, work was begun in short order, as noted in an article published exactly one week later.
(October 26, 1894)
“The old elm tree lays upon the ground. An expert workman sawed off the limbs one by one and left the great trunk standing. The great roots were then dug out and cut until what was left of the old tree fell to earth. The great stump has been sawed off and buried in the sand. The body five feet through was sound as a dollar and would probably have lived many years if public travel had not demanded the sacrifice.”
The sacrifice demanded would prove to be far greater than expected. This progress report was set in type before the arrival of more recent and disturbing news. For on a different page of the same issue, the sad account of what transpired on the night of Tuesday, October 23, 1894, was provided in detail. That story is presented here in its entirety and its original format, just as first published in the pages of The Newtown Bee.
“On Tuesday afternoon, William H. Beers of Hopewell district started for Danbury, for beef. He stopped and talked in Bethel with the men who were digging a hole near the middle of the road in front of the S. H. Hickock home for the purpose of burying the roots of a large elm tree, in order to widen the road. Peter McDonald and Oscar Bates had the contract for this job. At 8:30 o'clock Mr. Beers returned, in company with a German, who worked for F. W. Platt. As they neared the hole, which was about 18 feet across and 15 feet deep, Wallace Huse, who was on the sidewalk nearby, called to them that they could not drive in there where lanterns were hung. But not heeding the warning, if it was heard, they drove on, and the horse and wagon turned a complete somersault, throwing both men to the bottom of the hole. Mr. Huse gave the alarm and Edgar T. Andrews was the first on the spot and got at once into the hole where the horse was floundering and made every effort to save the men. Mr. Beers called to have the German pulled off from him. Mr. Andrews pulled him out finding him badly intoxicated, and before getting him out, the bank (on which several people had gathered) caved in, covering Mr. Beers with about five feet of earth. Help arrived and the horse was gotten out and the dirt shoveled out. But Mr. Beers had met his death by suffocation before he could be reached. Mr. Andrews at once sent one of his team to notify the family and another to take the body to Undertaker Sanford's after Medical Examiner Barber had pronounced his death caused by smothering by falling dirt from the embankment. The supposition is that no pole had been put up after the day's work ceased and by the light of lanterns nothing prevented the driving into the pit. Aside from his farm work, Mr. Beers had followed the butchering business and had made many friends by his genial nature. He was highly respected in his neighborhood for his generous sympathy and thoughtfulness in time of need. He was 57 years, nine months and seven days old, and leaves a wife and three children, Robert W., who has a meat market in Waterbury, Sarah K., wife of E. Maurice Botsford, at Botsford, and John M. Beers, living at home. The funeral was held from his late residence at 1 p. m., Thursday, October 25, Rev. Mr. Pillsbury officiating. The interment was in the Newtown cemetery. In regard to the accident, our special correspondent in Bethel writes: ‘I was at the place, Monday evening, for an item for The Bee, between 7 and 8 o'clock. I found the lights all right and could see all I wished. I drove up to the bank of dirt in the road and got out and walked partly around the pit to see the depth of the hole. The big stump had been dropped over into the hole but was not low enough to clear the travel, consequently, the workmen had dug to the east and were digging under to drop the stump down out of the way. Mr. Beers must have forced his horse beyond the stump along the edge of the pit and on to the dirt thrown out. The horse may have gone through all right, but the wagon would be sure to turn over, bottom up. Mr. Beers was probably in the bottom of the pit before the horse or wagon, and went down head-first where he could not help himself, and very soon suffocated. Some parties think they heard him cry for help. The German was badly intoxicated, but escaped unhurt’."
For the benefit of greater clarification, the following additional background on places and individuals mentioned in the account is provided.
Hopewell District, Newtown - William H. Beers, the victim in the accident, was said to be from Hopewell. The Hopewell school district was located in Newtown’s southwest corner, bordering both the Bethel and Redding town lines, and was also situated east of today’s Collis P. Huntington State Park.
S.H. Hickock was Silas Henry Hickok (1845-1906). The accident took place directly in front of his home at today’s 55 Greenwood Avenue. His father, Horace E. Hickok, had purchased the P.T. Barnum birthplace at auction following Irena Barnum’s death in 1868. The Hickok family would retain ownership of the home until 1963.
Peter McDonald (1851-1934) was one of the two men given the contract for removing the ancient elm tree. McDonald was an Irish immigrant who lived at 80 Grassy Plain Street and worked as a coal merchant, builder, and teamster.
Oscar Bates (1850-1923) was the second man responsible for the tree’s removal. Bates was a stonemason by trade and lived a short distance from the accident at what was then 4 Elm Street and is now 73 Greenwood Avenue.
F. W. Platt (1867-1935) was the employer of “the German.” Francis Wilber Platt was a dairy farmer who lived on Poverty Hollow Road in the Hopewell section of Newtown.
Medical Examiner Barber was Dr. Alvin E. Barber (1831-1922). Barber officially declared William H. Beers dead following the accident. He was one of Bethel’s few practicing physicians and made his home in a house that stood directly to the right of the Bethel Methodist Church at what was then 64 Center Street and is now 137 Greenwood Avenue.
Undertaker Sanford was Allen T. Sanford. The body of William H. Beers was placed under his care following the accident. Sanford lived at what was then 37 Center Street and is now 158 Greenwood Avenue. His former home now houses, among other things, Dr. Mike’s Ice Cream Factory.
Edgar T. Andrews (1862-1948) rushed to the accident scene to lend assistance and sent word to the victim’s family. Andrews was a building contractor and real estate developer who lived at what was then 34 Elm Street and is now 49 Greenwood Avenue. Ironically, it was his custom to plant a small elm sapling at the corner of each plot of property that he sold. One of his last ventures was the development of Oxford Street in the 1930s.
Wallace Huse (1876-1929) shouted a warning to William H. Beers that he was heading directly for the pit located at the north side of Elm Street. Huse was an eighteen-year-old employee at a corset making factory who lived with his mother at what was then 38 Elm Street and is now 45 Greenwood Avenue. He would later go on to become the owner of a very successful grocery business.
The German - Perhaps due in part to the prevailing ethnic prejudice of the time, the second passenger in the wagon is referred to only as “the German”. Withholding his identity may also have been an attempt to spare his family embarrassment owing to his intoxicated state at the time of the accident.
Following the tragic incident, William H. Beers’ family decided to seek legal action against Bethel’s borough for not taking proper safety measures at the Elm Street construction site. It would take nearly a year and five months before the trial began in March of 1896. The case drew great interest and was powerfully argued by legal teams representing both sides. The press reported it as follows.
“The taking of testimony having closed on Wednesday night last in the case of the estate of W. H. Beers against the borough of Bethel before Judge Ralph Wheeler, Thursday was given up to the arguments. The courtroom was well filled at 9 o'clock when Attorney Charles H. Northrop of Newtown arose to make the opening address. He spoke for 50 minutes, making an able and convincing argument. He held that the borough was grossly negligent and liable for exemplary damages. He claimed the so-called danger signals were hung in such a manner that the traveler would naturally drive between them and on to his death. Mr. Northrop cited liberally from the statutes in similar cases.”
“The case of the borough was ably presented by Attorneys Tweedy and Scott. They held that Beers hadn't used the caution a person of prudence would, and as a result, the borough was not liable for exemplary damages. Lawyer DeForest closed for the plaintiff and made as usual one of his brilliant speeches. In opening, he said that no matter what other claims they made, there was no disputing the fact that W.H. Beers was dead, and that he was literally entombed alive. ‘Talk about danger signals, your honor, why these lights were so placed as to entice a man to his death. Notwithstanding what these witnesses may say about Beers being drunk, they can't come in here and claim the horse was drunk.’ He scored the officials of the borough for their negligence in the case, holding for this reason that the borough was fully liable. ‘Why,’ said DeForest, ‘dig a hole in the earth as big as a house and then leave it unguarded?’ Judge Wheeler reserved his decision.”
The judge’s decision was delivered the following week. Although Judge Wheeler ruled in favor of the plaintiff (the victim William H. Beers’ widow and children), the actual outcome appeared to be more of a victory for the borough of Bethel. The Newtown Bee had the following to say regarding the results of the case.
Judge Ralph Wheeler of the Superior court has handed down his decision in the case of the estate of Beers vs. the borough of Bethel, rendering judgment for the plaintiff to recover $20 and costs. This is regarded as a victory for Bethel, but as will be seen from Judge Wheeler’s memorandum, he scores the borough for culpable negligence. In his decision, he said: ‘The excavation existing in the highway in the borough of Bethel, as alleged in the complaint, guarded as it was on the night of October 23, was a dangerous defect in such highway and the defendant borough is chargeable with culpable negligence in relation thereto. From all the evidence in the case, I find that Mr. Beers, in view of his knowledge of the work going on in the highway at the place in question and his opportunity to observe the lights near the excavation which would serve to recall to his mind the condition of the highway, did not exercise the care of a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances and that his want of such reasonable care contributed to the unfortunate result. The plaintiff, therefore, cannot be allowed to recover anything but nominal damages.’”
In all, it was somewhat of a split decision. Bethel’s borough was negligent in not taking proper safety precautions, and yet Beers had not exercised reasonable caution when approaching a construction site he had observed only hours before. The $20 fine imposed upon the borough, which would be equivalent to approximately $622 in today’s terms, would hardly prove fair compensation for his grieving family. Despite the accident and its subsequent investigation, the trolley line was completed on time and began service with much fanfare on New Year’s Day, 1895. The electric trolley service provided by the Danbury and Bethel Street Railway would continue in operation for another thirty-two years until it was subsequently replaced by a passenger bus system beginning in 1927.
The mystery behind the old photograph labeled “Where the great elm was taken down and the man killed” has now been solved, but its unraveling brings with it the sobering reminder that progress often comes with a price. And that price is not always paid in dollars.