Bridgeport is Connecticut’s most populous city, situated on the coast of Long Island Sound. From centuries-old Paugussett tribal land to ports of the American Revolution, Bridgeport has some of the top historical sites in the state.
Around 150,000 people call Bridgeport home, so there’s plenty of bustle around this mid-sized New England city. Let’s look at the best places to visit to reflect on the coastal city’s history.
Black Rock Harbor & Seaside Park
Walking trails, recreational sports fields, and New England’s classic rocky beaches make Seaside Park an ideal destination for locals and tourists alike. On a peninsula extending from the tip of the park is the Fayerweather Island Light. This 200-year-old lighthouse was once a guiding light into Black Rock Harbor, the booming port that greatly contributed to Bridgeport’s vast historical significance.
Black Rock Harbor and the surrounding land were home to the native Pauguessett tribe for possibly over a thousand years before Europeans arrived; unfortunately, much of the traces of the tribe have been destroyed or lost over the years. The Wheeler family were some of Black Rock Harbor’s first white settlers, and their still-standing 1680s home is the oldest in Bridgeport.
The city grew rapidly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with the establishment of trade ports. George Washington himself used Black Rock Harbor to pass the information on British troops to and from New York during the Revolutionary War.
Black Rock Harbor and the land that is now Seaside Park embody quintessential moments of America’s history. Today’s visitors enjoy frequent concerts and ample space for picnics. But mostly, it’s a place to enjoy the tranquility of nature and appreciate the events that shaped the land.
Mountain Grove Cemetery
Cemeteries tend to get a bad rap for being spooky. On the contrary, they can be great places to visit for those drawn to rich history or the solace of eternal rest. This is especially true for Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport. Quiet ponds, vibrant trees, and grand funerary structures contribute to the claim that it’s one of the most picturesque resting grounds in Connecticut.
Mountain Grove Cemetery was built in 1849 on land that is believed to have previously held a Native American village. The world-famous showman P.T. Barnum, a Bridgeport resident, financially contributed to the building of the cemetery and is the most famous person to have been laid to rest here.
His tomb was the site of an attempted grave robbery weeks after his death in 1891, though some say this was merely a publicity stunt for his newest circus attraction. Some also say the cemetery is haunted; a number of phantom sightings have been reported over the years, but most visitors find the cemetery peaceful rather than frightening.
Mountain Grove is an active cemetery, meaning that there are ongoing interments today. It’s open to the public, but as with all burial grounds, visitors should be mindful of the reverence that is expected in such a place.
Don’t let its small size fool you—Beardsley Zoo is brimming with wildlife and educational programs. Animals from all over the world live in the zoo, including several endangered species protected by Beardsley’s numerous conservation efforts.
Visitors can explore the habitats of Siberian tigers, South American monkeys, and a variety of Connecticut’s own domestic birds and mammals. However, the first animals to call Beardsley Zoo home were donated by Bridgeport’s very own residents.
In 1884, New York City’s Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted crafted acres of beautiful land into Beardsley Park. Crowds often gathered in the park to watch P.T. Barnum parade around his circus animals for exercise. Perhaps this spectacle is what inspired the creation of a zoo within the land in 1920.
Bridgeport citizens donated their own exotic animals, and by the end of the decade, there were enough to officially call it a zoo.
A visit to Beardsley Zoo means exploring the world’s wildlife while tromping where circus animals once roamed. You may even encounter one of the zoo’s free-roaming peacocks or wild turkeys!
Weir Farm National Historical Park
Red barn-style buildings and sprawling gardens offer a glimpse into art history in this cozy park. Impressionist painter Julian Alden Weir acquired the land in 1882, and it has since been home to his descendants and fellow artists. Once you see the park’s reflective ponds and lush woodlands, you’ll understand why thousands of artists have journeyed here to paint these beautiful landscapes.
Visitors can tour the grounds and buildings of the farm to learn how artistry and life, in general, have changed over the past century. Admire the idyllic New England scenery as you hike or stroll around the park’s rolling hills.
Get inspired by masterpieces in the museums and galleries, then grab some supplies to “Take Part in Art”. Join centuries of artists who have used the scenic backdrops of Weir Farm as a muse.
Weir Farm National Historical Park is open year-round, with seasonal building tours. It is located in the town of Wilton, a short drive from Bridgeport.
Boothe Memorial Park & Museum
Seated upon the Housatonic River in the neighboring city of Stratford is a place some claim to be “the oldest homestead in America”. First occupied in 1663, this large expanse of land was occupied by the Boothe family up until 1949 when they willed it all to Stratford.
Brothers David Beach and Stephen Nicholas Boothe turned the property into a quirky museum to ensure their extensive family legacy lives on. The result is a miniature town containing a trolley station, cathedral, and so much more.
You’ll feel as though you’ve traveled back in time to a mystical world when you see the structures’ quaint and often bizarre architecture. And, you’ll understand why the Boothe family made this colorful land their home.
Boothe Memorial Park and Museum is open all year, but tours of some of the historic buildings are seasonal.
St. Margaret’s Shrine
The shrine to St. Margaret of Antioch is a newer piece of history as far as New England goes. Bridgeport pastor Father Emilio Iasiello created the shrine following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. He dedicated the land to locals serving in the war, and to serve as a constant prayer for world peace.
While designated as a sacred space, visitors need not be religious to enjoy the wonder of the shrine. Marble and stone statues spread throughout the serene gardens and grottos symbolize figures and stories of Roman Catholic history.
The influence of Bridgeport’s Italian community comes through in a large chapel on the grounds adorned with Renaissance-style art. The Diocese of Bridgeport continues to immortalize historic events in the shrine—one of the newest additions serves as a memorial to the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike can find wonder in the peaceful displays of history that goes back for millennia. St. Margaret’s Shrine is open daily. Visitors should be mindful that many consider the space to be hallowed ground.
Bridgeport and the rest of Fairfield county have several historically significant sites that can be easily missed. Many of these structures are not sound enough to welcome visitors, and others are private property. Still, they are worthy of being acknowledged.
Main Street in Bridgeport holds two houses that have been vacant for decades. They belonged to Mary and Eliza Freeman, free-born women of color. The homes were built in a neighborhood referred to as Little Liberia in the early 1800s, which was inhabited by free African Americans and served as a stop along the Underground Railroad.
The Freeman homes are the only two homes from Little Liberia still standing, and there are ongoing efforts to raise money to restore the buildings.
Golden Hill Paugussett Reservation
The arrival of European settlers in Bridgeport in the 1600s started what was to become a drastic reduction in land owned by the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe. Today, the Paugussett land in the neighboring town of Trumbull is one of two reservations owned by the tribe and is the smallest reservation in Connecticut.
In fact, there is only space for a few homes on the land while the rest of the tribal members live in surrounding towns. It’s unclear how non-Paugussett people may go about visiting the reservation, but it’s likely limited to invitations by members of the tribe.
Bridgeport is a city that achieved prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries before seeing a decline after World War II. Their government and citizens have not given up on their home, though, and continue to make strides in making Bridgeport better than ever. Not only will visiting help this effort, but you’ll see exactly why such a historically significant city deserves to thrive.