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Gun politics shouldn't block Colt park

Published July 19. 2013 4:00AM

The state's congressional delegation has been working for 20 years to transform a cradle of the industrial revolution in America, the sprawling Colt Armory on the Connecticut River in Hartford, into a national park.

Built in the 1850s by Sam Colt, the genius inventor and promoter of "the gun that won the West," the huge factory complex under the blue, onion-shaped dome was home to a showcase industrial village that was the first to make products with interchangeable parts. In the process, it turned Connecticut into a leading manufacturing state and Hartford into America's wealthiest small city.

Colt is believed to have been the first great American company run by a woman, Sam Colt's widow Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, who assumed control of the armory upon her husband's untimely death at 48 and ran it successfully for the next 39 years. After "the Great Fire of 1864" destroyed the armory, she quickly rebuilt and saved the company. Her role in Colt and American history has been ignored or forgotten and it shouldn't be.

The historic Coltsville area is much more than factory buildings. Armsmear, the mansion that Sam built for Elizabeth is nearby, as is her memorial to him, the Church of Good Shepherd, with its carvings of revolvers and pistol parts providing ornamentation not often found in churches.

While Congress has dawdled for decades, developers have made a good start at resurrecting the site with scores of apartments, two schools run by the Capitol Region Education Council and a major private employer, Lexis Nexis, in some already renovated buildings.

These enterprises would be adjacent the National Park Service's Samuel Colt Museum and Visitors Center in the main building under the iconic dome. The museum would house what has been described as the world's finest collection of Colt firearms, now hidden away in the little known and rarely visited Museum of Connecticut History in the state library.

But support for the project was recently eroded when two groups on different sides in the controversy over guns in America said they now oppose the national park plan.

First to complain was the Washington-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which speaks for 47 organizations and associations that support stricter gun control. The group's spokesman says its members object to what they call the glorification of a gun maker, especially in Connecticut, the site of the mass murders of 26 school children and educators in December.

Then, on July 10, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which works out of Newtown, where the massacre occurred, announced it would be dropping its previously announced support, also because of the killings but mostly because of the tougher gun legislation they inspired in the Connecticut General Assembly. The association, which represents gun makers, said its members are offended by the hypocrisy of elected officials who advocate a national park that pays homage to the gun industry's heritage and legacy in Connecticut while simultaneously pursuing gun control legislation.

Both of these groups miss the point, which is the establishment of a national park where people can recall Connecticut's remarkable industrial history and yes, pay homage to a gun maker, which, by the way, has been a leading provider of arms to the American military in all of its wars since the Civil War.

It's up to the state's congressional delegation to sell this historical jewel to their colleagues. They can do this by emphasizing what the Coltsville National Park will be - a fitting memorial to the nation's golden age of manufacturing and more than incidentally, to the memory of the nation's first great, female entrepreneur. The role of Mrs. Colt has been ignored but it could help restore Coltsville, just as she did after the Great Fire.

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