Walnut Hill Park

Plaques commemorating WWI soldiers were taken from New Britain's Walnut Hill Park. (Photo courtesy NB Parks Department / January 2, 2013)

Connecticut has a whole lot of history, and a surprising amount of it is being ripped off and melted down for quick cash by thieves and unscrupulous scrap dealers.

The plague of thefts of metal plaques, statues, and fittings from historical monuments, veterans' memorials and landmark buildings has gotten so bad that both state and federal lawmakers have passed tough new penalties to stop it.

"Some of these things are basically irreplaceable," says Christopher Wigren, deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

Wigren says the epidemic of historic thievery — all triggered by huge increases in recent years in prices paid for scrap metals — has infected all parts of the state. Critics complain that law enforcement officials simply aren't enforcing the laws designed to prevent scrap yards from taking all this suspicious metal stuff.

The Hamden-based preservation trust itself hasn't been immune. Thieves broke into the basement of its headquarters in the historic Eli Whitney Boarding House a couple of years ago and stole all the copper piping.

Replacing missing basement plumbing isn't all that difficult or unusual. But it's a different story when someone steals bronze plaques and fittings (replacement cost estimated at $20,000-plus) from a World War I memorial built in 1927.

That's what happened in New Britain in October. The memorial in the city's Walnut Hill Park is listed on the National Register, and included 124 bronze plaques commemorating each of the New Britain men who died in World War I. Four of those plaques and several fittings designed to display flowers were taken and by now have presumably been melted down.

The October incident wasn't the first time New Britain had suffered that sort of loss, according to Mike Hadvab, the city's superintendent of parks.

In 2007, metal pirates struck at Kulper Park, a little triangle at a road junction over on the east side of New Britain. Hadvab says they took a huge six-foot-by-eight-foot plaque listing all the guys from the city who died while serving in World War II. A second, smaller plaque was also ripped off the monument.

"We never had the money to replace them," says Hadvab, who estimates the larger plaque alone would have cost more than $4,000 to replace.

As if that wasn't enough, a second memorial in Walnut Hill Park was also hit a few years back when "several large bronze plaques" honoring the city's industrial leaders went missing.

None of those historical markers have ever been recovered, according to Hadvab.

The catalog of metal artifacts ripped off in Connecticut in recent years is a long one.

A bronze piece in honor of War of 1812 hero Commodore Isaac Hull was stolen in Shelton in December 2011. Ansonia officials reported last year that two plaques went missing from one of their war memorials. Bronze plaques in memory of a World War II Medal of Honor recipient disappeared in Derby.

Copper gutters and downspouts (value estimated at $5,000) were stolen from the Burr Mansion in Fairfield. Two massive statues were carted off from a Waterbury cemetery. Another 19th century bronze statue was taken from the Yantic Cemetery in Norwich and cut into pieces before it was recovered.

What's driving all this thievery is a dramatic rise in the prices you can get for scrap metal. Copper, for instance, went from 65-cents a pound in pre-recession years to $1.25 per pound in 2009, then soared to $4.50 per pound in 2011. The price has dropped a bit since then, but there's no guarantee it won't rise again.

Theft of historical markers is only one part of a national problem that's hitting residential homes, businesses and industrial plants.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of brilliant fellows broke into a currently closed power plant in New Haven. They left with 50-100 pounds of copper and brass and sold it at a nearby scrap yard, according to a New Haven Independent story.

The only problem was, the plant and the stolen metal were contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Somebody spotted the dudes leaving the plant and called the cops. They checked the nearest scrap dealer and found the stuff, and called in the fire department and the hazmat squad. Both thieves were caught.

The problem, according to critics, is that police aren't doing a hell of a lot to enforce existing laws governing scrap yards.