Moving closer to Coltsville Park, Hartford

The decade-long effort to build a national park on the site of Coltsville - gunmaker and inventor Sam Colt's showcase industrial village along the Connecticut River in Hartford - took a major step forward last week.

The Congressional Budget Office put a price tag on getting the project started - $9 million to restore and develop the surviving buildings - along with a management plan for the park. A House vote should follow, and approval is expected.

When completed, Connecticut would have quite a park. In all of its 19th century glory, Coltsville, as described in William Hosley's "Colt, the Making of an American Legend," was dominated by the "enormous brick armory at the center of a compound that included civic and industrial amenities, commercial, education, social and residential facilities for the workers, a gas works, reservoir and waterworks, a farm and produce warehouse, a river port dock and railroad depot, separate facilities for the manufacturing of gun cartridges and willow furniture and crowning the hillside above, the owner's mansion, Armsmear."

What remains includes the armory and factory, rebuilt in 1864 by Sam Colt's widow, Elizabeth, after a fire destroyed the original brick building and halted production of arms and ammunition for Union troops. A replica of the onion-shaped dome, which Mr. Colt placed on the original - possibly in tribute to one of his better customers, Czar Alexander of Russia - tops it. The original wooden dome is in the state library.

Also surviving are some cottages built for workers recruited by Mr. Colt from the basket-weaving district of Prussia to manufacture furniture from willows trees he planted to strengthen a dike along the river. He had cottages built to resemble the homes he had seen in a village near Potsdam.

The national park would be an overdue recognition of Mr. Colt, who was only 22 when he patented his revolving pistol or "six shooter." He soon found his first significant market when the U.S. Army ordered 1,000 pistols, assembled at Eli Whitney's New Haven armory during the Mexican War. The park would also honor Elizabeth Colt, the young widow who took over the factory when Sam died at 47 in 1862. She rebuilt it after the fire two years later and ran the company for the rest of the century. Also part of the national park site will be the family mansion Armsmear, an Italian-style villa with oriental minarets and domes of steel, which overlooks the factory and the Church of the Good Shepherd, with its carved pistols and pistol parts providing ornamentation not usually found in churches.

The Wadsworth Atheneum owns the Colt mansion's furnishings and works of art. The world's largest collection of Colt firearms is now hidden away in the rarely visited Museum of Connecticut History in the state library. The plan is to loan these items to the national park for prominent display.

Bipartisan support for the national park bill, introduced more than a decade ago by Rep. John Larson, came after a Utah Republican successfully eliminated a plan to have a "Coltsville National Historical Park Advisory Commission" oversee the park instead of the National Park Service. The governor, the mayor of Hartford and members of the state's Congressional delegation, all currently - and frequently - Democrats, would have appointed the 12-member commission.

The House Natural Resource Committee voted unanimously for Rep. Larson's bill in February after the removal of the commission proposal, placing control with the National Park Service of the Interior Department. This would put the park in the most appropriate hands and remove the possibility of it becoming a patronage plum.

A national park that honors the gun-making heritage of the state would be especially welcome at a time when guns and their regulation have become a matter of sometimes bitter contention in Connecticut. Mr. Colt's guns, notably his Colt 45, "the gun that tamed the West," deserve a place in Connecticut and American history.

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