A Lottery to Finance a New State House in Hartford

In 1783 Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris, and when word reached Hartford, the people celebrated by illuminating buildings and setting off fireworks. Unfortunately, during the celebration, the General Assembly’s Meeting House caught fire, destroying a portion of the roof.

 

Although the building was not rendered unusable, the fire contributed to the feeling that it was an inadequate structure to serve as the seat of government. In the May 1792 session, the legislature authorized the construction of a new state house, and appointed a committee to oversee its financing and construction.

 

Financing for the building came from the state and City of Hartford and was supplemented by a number of donors, the most generous being Jeremiah Wadsworth, who gave $500. Nevertheless, between the donors and the public funds, only $13,600 was raised – a small part of what would be required to construct the building.

 

To raise the remaining money, the Committee asked the legislature for permission to hold a lottery. It was not the first time a lottery had been held to finance a public works project. Lotteries had been used in the past to help finance bridges and roads, to extend the New Haven wharf, and for the construction a courthouse in Fairfield and a jail in Danbury.

 

 

The Hartford State House Lottery was to have 26,667 tickets at a cost of $5 per ticket (approximately $100 in today’s money). The prizes ranged from $10 to $8,000 and the odds of winning a prize was about 1 in 3. If all of the tickets were sold, the Committee would raise about $16,670 for the State House. The first drawing was to take place when three fourths of the tickets were sold.

 

The lottery did not prove to be popular – between the lottery’s announcement in August 1793 and October 1794, fewer than half of the tickets were sold. Some neighboring states had passed laws prohibiting lotteries, reducing the pool of buyers. As the time dragged on, it seemed unlikely that the prizes would ever be awarded, further reducing sales. It took until 1795 to sell three quarters of the tickets and after all was said and done, the lottery netted only about $1,450 for the construction of the State House. Needless to say, the lottery was considered to be a failure.

 

Following the failure of the lottery, two men, Jeremiah Halsey of Preston and Andrew Ward of Guilford, offered to complete the building in two years and give a $40,000 performance bond for doing so in exchange for the proceeds from the lottery and a strip of land between New York and Pennsylvania called The Gore. The two organized the Connecticut Gore Company, sold shares to it, and used the proceeds to finance the building of the State House.

 

 

Further problems plagued the financing and construction of the State House, including litigation over The Gore, but the building was substantially completed and in use by 1796, with a final cost of about $52,840. The Charles Bulfinch-designed structure was used as the meeting place when the General Assembly met in Hartford until 1879, when the current Capitol Building came into use.

 

The State House, located on Main Street in Hartford, is today open to the public as a museum.

 

Sources

Newton C. Brainard, The Hartford State House of 1796, Connecticut Historical Society, 1964. Catalog record.

Joan W. Friedland & Wilson H. Faude, Birthplace of Democracy, Globe Pequot Press, 1979. Catalog record.

Henry Freeman Walradt, The Financial History of Connecticut From 1789 to 1861 (1912). Catalog record. Also available on Google Books.

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