On February 13, 1651, a time when the only white men living in the area were a few sustenance farmers and fishermen, a group of early Connecticut settlers met with the Indian leader Runckinheague of the Siwanoy tribe to purchase the land between the Five Mile River and the Norwalk River. Six months earlier, this same group of settlers had purchased a tract of land between the Saugatuck River and the Norwalk River from Roger Ludlow. The “Runckinheague Deed,” as it was called, greatly enlarged the holdings of the settlers. Thus on September 11, 1651, when the Hartford Legislature officially declared, “Norwauke shall bee a Towne,” the place we now know as Rowayton was included.
Within 20 years, Rowayton became part of Middlesex Parish (Darien), and by the start of the 18th century, blacksmiths, shoemakers, carpenters and weavers were contributing to its economy. However, in 1740 only three dwelling houses and a shipyard were known to be in the area south of Flax Hill Road. The Revolutionary War brought much activity to the easily accessible shore, but it wasn’t until after the war that Rhoton and the Five Mile River area saw growth.
And grow it did, first with coastal trading and farming and by the mid 1800’s with the oyster business. Despite its emergence as an important bedrock of the community, oysters succumbed early in this century to over-harvesting, fierce storms that destroyed the beds, and pollution. In spite of the decline of the oystering industry, Rowayton continued to grow, with more jobs, more houses—and a railroad. Vessels once carrying produce now carried summer vacationers. By the 1860’s, Rowayton had become a summer resort. Its drawing card, Roton Point Park, attracted thousands of day-trippers from New York. Over the years they came to hear and see Rudy Vallee, Alice Faye, Glenn Miller and others and to ride the airplane swing and Big Dipper roller coaster. The park closed in 1942.
The land where farms once prospered became more valuable when divided up into building lots. Soon the village was required by the Postal Service and the Railroad to decide on a name for itself and finally (after much squabble) the name “Rowayton” emerged victorious.
In 1910, James A. Farrell, president of United States Steel Corporation and founder of the Farrell Steamship Lines, bought two large tracts of land straddling Highland Avenue. On one side he built an Elizabethan-style estate and gatehouse, and on the other a horse barn, carriage house and several outbuildings. Just three years after completion fire broke out during a reception at the mansion, and it burned to the ground. The mansion was eventually rebuilt—in granite. The Farrells lived in this house until their death in the early 1940s. The fifteen-acre estate passed into the hands of James Rand, chairman of the board of the Remington Rand Corporation, known for its office furniture, machines and systems. Rand ran his business on the rambling estate, and from 1947 through 1951, a select group of engineers were entrenched in the old stable, which they endearingly referred to as “the barn,” working on the Remington Rand 409—now recognized as the first working business computer. Although none of the men, many fresh out of school, realized the significance of what they were doing at the time, it is because of their work that Rowayton is now known as the birthplace of the business computer. In 1966, the stables where they built their computer and the land surrounding it were sold to the town and have been transformed once again as Rowayton’s community center and library.
Rowayton has long seemed like a small town to many of its residents. Bounded on three sides by water, it has the aspects of a coastal village with its own school, two churches, a post office, a library and (at one time) two firefighting companies. However, Rowayton had no sovereignty over its own affairs until 1921 when it became the Sixth Taxing District of the City of Norwalk.
On May 19th of that year, the Connecticut General Assembly approved an act dividing Norwalk into six taxing districts. As the Sixth Taxing District, Rowayton could elect a board of commissioners, contract for its own street lighting, and all inhabitants and property within the limits of its borders would be liable to taxation to defray any expenses the districts might incur.
Today’s Rowayton residents enjoy their amenities including schools, public transportation, emergency services, and public parks. Rowaytonites continue to elect their own Board of Commissioners, who manage the district’s properties, and have their own civic association, volunteer fire department, library, community center, and beaches.