25 Things You Should Know About Bridgeport, Connecticut
By Nick Keppler
“No outsider, including me, really understands it,” veteran Connecticut journalist Colin McEnroe once said of Bridgeport. But we can try, with these 25 facts about the state’s largest city.
1. The English first arrived in the area in the mid-17th century. Bridgeport was initially part of nearby Stratford, but was incorporated as its own town in 1821.
2. Several English settlements, including Newfield and Stratfield, used the harbor on which Bridgeport sits. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army “privateered” (or commissioned commercial vessels) several ships docked there, including that of famed naval commander David Hawley.
3. In 1821 (the same year Bridgeport was incorporated), free African-Americans founded a community in the city. The residents of “Little Liberia,” a.k.a. “Ethiope,” were freed slaves, refugees from southern states and the remnants of the area's native tribes. Many worked as seamen and whalers on the busy port. One house from the settlement still stands.
4. Bridgeport’s most famous resident was 19th-century showman P.T. Barnum, who was born in and established his first string of businesses in Bethel, about 20 miles north of the city. At the height of his circus’ success, Barnum headquartered his troupe of performers, “freaks,” and animals at Iranistan, his Moorish palace-like country manor. (Iranistan Avenue is named for it.) Barnum also invested heavily in a few companies to buttress the local economy, which all went belly up, resulting in near financial ruin for the mogul.
Iranistan, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
In 1842, Barnum met his most successful performer, Charles S. Stratton, a.k.a. “General Tom Thumb,” a singing, dancing dwarf, in Bridgeport. Stratton, who stood 25 inches tall, was the son of a city carpenter when Barnum backed his tours of America and Europe. As a result, Stratton became richer and more famous than Barnum and lent him money after his investments soured. Stratton is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery under a stone monument topped by a life-sized statue of himself.
6. In his 60s, Barnum became active in politics. He represented the area in the Connecticut state legislature. In 1875, at the age of 64, he was elected mayor of Bridgeport and served a one-year term. Despite his tawdry reputation, Barnum prioritized enforcing prostitution laws and regulating the city’s saloons.
7. Another favorite son is James Henry O’Rourke, a baseball player who scored the first-ever hit in National League history in 1876 and went on to a six-decade career. A Yale Law graduate, O’Rourke worked as an attorney in Bridgeport during the Boston Red Stockings' offseason. He commissioned a Victorian-style home in the East End, near the water. The city was so attached to it that, when the neighborhood was razed for a development in the 1990s, the O’Rourke house was preserved. When the project stalled, the shuttered house stood alone in a vast field for decades. The city finally parted with it in 2009.
8. While running for president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln campaigned in Bridgeport making “an impassioned political speech against slavery.” The local paper described the visitor as a “tall, bony, angular, big jointed figure with a great towering head and very expressive countenance.” A cheering crowd reportedly followed Lincoln back to the train station.
9. By the 20th century, manufacturing dominated Bridgeport’s economy. In 1915, workers went on strike, hoping to limit their workdays to eight hours. The city was the first in the Northeast to successfully establish an eight-hour day, and is considered to have set the standard for the rest of the country.
10. In 1933, despite the first Red Scare, Bridgeport elected a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party to the mayor’s office. Jasper McLevy, a roofer, had run for mayor nine times and was known to stand on street corners decrying political corruption. A wave of discontent with the two major parties finally swept him into office; he would go on to be reelected 11 times. Despite his leftist leanings, McLevy pinched pennies to balance the city’s budget. He even refused to use tax dollars to plow the streets. He famously told residents to ask God for help, exclaiming, “Let the guy who put the snow there take it away!”
11. Subway, the world’s largest restaurant chain by number of locations, began as Pete’s Subway in Bridgeport. In 1965, with a $1000 loan from family friend Peter Buck (not the R.E.M. guitarist), Central High School graduate Fred Deluca established it at a “crummy location” on a side street. Business was better at the second outpost downtown, creating the Subway business plan: Always expand.
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
As of 2013, Bridgeport was home to one of the world's oldest bartenders, per the World Record Academy. Resident Angie MacLean, then 98, had tended bar since the age of 17; in 2013, she was still slinging drinks at Panama Joe's Cafe, where she'd worked for more than 20 years. "If you stay at home, what are you gonna do? Watch TV?" she told Connecticut's News 12. "That's not for me."
13. Deindustrialization hit Bridgeport hard. Shuttered buildings, a shrinking tax base, and gun violence have plagued the city, resulting in a sharp contrast to the rest of Fairfield County, one of the overall wealthiest places in the U.S. and a home base for Wall Street commuters, hedge fund managers, and Judge Judy.
14. Pleasure Beach, a two-mile sand barrier jutting off the mainland, was once the site of an amusement park and vacation cottages. In 1996, a fire destroyed the bridge leading there, leaving it abandoned. The ghost town still attracted visitors—mainly curious kayakers toting cameras. In 2014, the city cleared away all the crumbling structures and established a water taxi to the beach.
15. In 2010, Fox’s Family Guy mocked the city. When Brian and Stewie uncover Santa’s workshop as an industrial wasteland, the baby exclaims, “This looks like Bridgeport, Connecticut!” A cutaway shows a Bridgeporter writing an angry letter defending the town as “among the world leaders in abandoned buildings, shattered glass, boarded-up windows, wild dogs, and gas stations without pumps.” Locally, the stir was so great that Mayor Bill Finch was asked to comment. He shrugged off the joke. “[Stewie] comes across as a smarty-pants and a know-it-all,” the mayor said, “so consider the source."
16. Igor Sikorsky, the engineer behind the world's first working helicopter, achieved liftoff with his creation in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1939. After receiving a contract from the U.S. government, he began manufacturing the aircraft in neighboring Bridgeport.
17. The current mayor of Bridgeport, elected in 2015, is Joseph Ganim, who also served as mayor from 1991 to 2003. Ganim’s may be the most flabbergasting comeback in political history. He was convicted on corruption charges in a pay-for-play scandal that ended his fifth term. Companies provided Ganim with $500,000 worth of stuff in exchange for city contacts. Much of it was garish luxury items, like French wine and tailored suits. He served seven years in federal prison. Last year, thanks to backing from the Democratic machine and former mayor Finch’s unpopularity, Ganim clawed his way back into City Hall.
18. The Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry has linked the Connecticut coastline to Long Island since 1883. The ever-industrious P.T. Barnum was the first president of the steamboat company that established the line. Ridership picked up in the 1980s, thanks to an increase in gas prices and the NYC commuter nightmare created by the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95. Currently, the company operating the ferry line has three ships—the Park City, the P.T. Barnum, and the Grand Republic—that take passengers and some of their cars on the 15-mile, 75-minute trip across the Sound.
19. The defining piece of the city’s skyline is the red-and-white-striped smokestack of the Bridgeport Harbor Station. It’s the last coal-fired power plant in Connecticut.
Bridgeport is nicknamed the Park City. In addition to the larger recreational areas, like Seaside Park and Pleasure Beach, nearly every neighborhood has a green or pocket park. The city has 1300 acres of public space.
21. Since the '70s, the city has played host to an ever-expanding population of monk parakeets, a species typically only found in the wild in Argentina. As the story goes, a cargo crate full of the birds broke open at New York City's JFK Airport, releasing dozens of them—although a senior director for the Connecticut Audubon Society called the tale an "urban legend," adding, "it [did] start from the pet trade … maybe someone just opened their window and let their pet out."
22. From 2007 to 2015, Seaside Park became a hippie wonderland for a few days each summer during the Gathering of the Vibes, a music festival/campout catering to fans of jam bands. Initially, the shindig rotated between East Coast venues before settling on Bridgeport. Organizers announced a one-year hiatus in 2016.
23. Actors John Ratzenberger and Kevin Nealon both hail from Bridgeport. Both have made shout-outs to the city on their respective shows. Ratzenberger, know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers, can be seen in one episode perusing a copy of the community newspaper, the Bridgeport Light. Nealon, pothead accountant Doug Wilson on Weeds, experiences a flashback to lifeguarding in Bridgeport while sniffing a marker during season two.
24. Bridgeport has claimed to be the birthplace of the Frisbee, supposedly patented after the aerodynamic tins used by the Frisbie Pie Company, which baked its wares on Kossuth Street from 1871 to 1958. It’s a little more complicated than that. Fred Morrison, inventor of the Frisbee, clarified in his autobiography that he had no knowledge of the pie company and had never visited New England when he first made the disc, which he called “the Pluto Platter.” Toy company Wham-O borrowed the name because kids in the New York region were already tossing around the pie tins and colloquially calling them “Frisbies.” (The pie discs were also popular with Yalies goofing around on the New Haven Green.)
25. Every summer, the neighborhood of Black Rock holds a street fair, a component of which is the bed race. Teams decorate beds and put them on wheels in the name of civic pride. The Black Rock Community Council’s original idea of actually racing the furniture pieces against one another, pinewood derby style, was deemed “unsafe,” so teams of bed fellows maneuver down the street, racing against the clock.