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Proud Merchant Ships and Vessels Formidable In a Fight Once Slid Down Busy Ways of Connecticut River Shipyards
A. Hyatt Verrill
The Hartford Courant; Nov 3, 1935; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2011
Revolution Industry's Big Boost
Speedy Privateers and War Craft Could be Constructed Safely Out of Enemy's Reach
First Large Boat Never Came Back
'Mercury,' With Heavy Cargo of Lumber, Sailed for London in 1752 and Vanished
E. Haddam's Fame Then World Wide
World War Saw Some Still Afloat
Author Came Across Weather-Beaten Barks From Valley Ports in Far Distant Harbors
Nearly Every Port of Prominence Knew Trim Traders Built in That Little River Town
Our Navy, its Growth and Achievements.
By A. Hyatt Verrill, Author of 'Our American Indians,'
We are so accustomed to thinking of Boothbay, Bath, Gloucester, Salem, Boston, New Bedford, New London, New Haven and other familiar New England ports as centers of the shipbuilding industry, that it will doubtless come as a surprise to many to learn that at one period in our history more vessels were built on the shores of the Connecticut River than in any other locality in America.
Shipbuilding for many years was the leading industry of the Connecticut Valley and in practically every maritime port in the world one might then see ships bearing on their broad sterns the names of Hartford, Glastonbury, Middletown, Haddam, Windsor or Rocky Hill as their home ports.
Activity Begun Early.
It is impossible to say who built the first vessel on the banks of the Connecticut or to learn the name and rig of the earliest craft to be launched there. But we know from the records that vessels of various types, such as pinnaces, shallops and a few larger craft, had been constructed beside the river before 1700. No doubt these were built by men who had been ships' carpenters or shipwrights in England and who built their little vessels in their own dooryards. They probably had no regular shipyards and did not make shipbuilding a profession. Also, we know that as early as 1642 the towns of Wethersfield and Hartford united forces to build a "shippe" which, so meager are the records, may have been anything from a good sized rowboat to a sloop. In all probability, too, all the craft owned on the Connecticut between 1640 and 1700 were home-built, with the exception of a few which came from Boston, Plymouth and Europe. But by 1702, regular shipyards were established at Hartford and elsewhere. There was a thriving yard on North Meadows Creek in this city where, in 1730, two sloops of 35 and 90 tons burden had been built. But even before that time other smaller towns were well in advance of Hartford in shipbuilding activities.
First Important Shipyard.
So far as I have been able to learn, the first really important shipyard was established at Haddam in 1743, but no large vessels were built there prior to 1751, and no vessel of any considerable size was owned in Haddam before 1756, while during that same period, shipbuilding had become an important industry at Wethersfield, Chapman's Ferry, Essex, Middletown and Rocky Hill.
The first large vessel recorded as having been built on the river was the snow 'Mercury’ of 100 tons burden, constructed at East Haddam in 1751-52.
Upon its completion, the "Mercury" was loaded with 30,000 feet of lumber at New London, on July 1, 1752, and sailed for London, England, on July 26. She touched at Newport, but appears never to have returned from this maiden voyage, as her name is not again mentioned in the old records.
Four years later, in 1756, another snow, the "Augustin," of 180 tons, was built at the same yard in East Haddam. Following the launching of these large vessels the shipbuilding interests increased rapidly, and yards were established everywhere along the river. One contemporaneous writer spoke of seeing nine "greate shippes" on the ways at one time, and, by 1762, the industry was running a close second to river commerce, and vessels from Haddam, Wethersfield and Middletown were in great demand throughout New England.
Every Rig and Size.
Craft of every rig and size were constructed. There were sloops, ketches, pinks, brigs and brigantines, snows, and many others. The sloop of the eighteenth century was usually an open boat with a single, sharply-raking mast, carrying a fore and aft sail laced to mast and spars, and with huge square topsail and topgallant sail. The bowsprits were uptilted at an angle of 45 degrees, and in addition to a foresail and jib carried a water-sail or "Jimmy Green" laced to a cross-yard under the bowsprit. The "ketch" of those days was similar to the sloop, but was provided with a tiny square or lug sail, or "pusher," at the extreme stern. The brigs and brigantines were not greatly different from the present-day rigs of the same names, aside from the sharp rake of their masts the angle of their bowsprits and the Jimmy Green sails under the latter. The "pink" was a double ended craft, sharp at bow and stern, and was variously rigged, while the "snow" was, in effect, a barkentine with a square topsail on the mizzen mast, and usually with a lateen or lugsail, mizzen or spanker.
Famed On Seven Seas.
But of all these popular types and rigs, which varied greatly in details, the most famed and the favorites were the Connecticut River sloops. Often they were of large size, 100 tons burden or more, and while they must have been most ungainly, hard to handle and uncomfortable, yet they were excellent sea boats, as is proved by the fact that even the smaller sloops made regular voyages to the West Indies, South America, Europe and northern Africa. One of these sloops, the "Olive," of 80 tons, was built at Haddam In 1775, and for many years was engaged in foreign trade.
But it was the prospect of war with England, and the outbreak of hostilities, that gave the greatest impetus to shipbuilding on the Connecticut River. Not only were the riverside yards free from danger of attack by the enemy, but in addition, there was a tremendous demand for privateering vessels and war ships, and the river-built craft had become famous for their speed and seaworthiness.
The famous Connecticut state sloop-of-war "Defence," of 100 tons burden, was built at Wethersfield in 1741, and, quite naturally, when, in 1775, Congress ordered Connecticut to supply its quota of two war vessels, the state officials selected a riverside yard as the place where the ships should be built.
A Gallant Fighting Ship.
The first of these, the famous "Trumbull," was built at Chatham, below and across the river from Middletown, and was launched in February, 1778. It is of interest to note that this famous war vessel was a four-masted ship with a lateen "jigger." In a contemporary letter, Gilbert Saltonstail, captain of marines aboard the "Trumbull," wrote: "Not a shroud, stay, brace or bowline or any of our rigging standing. Our maintopmast shot away, our fore, main, mizzen and jigger masts going by the board." This was after a battle, naturally.
Following the launching of the "Trumbull," orders for privateers and smaller craft came thick and fast. Among the privateers built were the sloop "Revenge" of eight guns, built in 1776; the schooner "Olive." launched 1777; and the brig "Marshall," built in 1781, while many others were built on speculation and were advertised for sale in the local papers. Thus, in the "Connecticut Gazette" of March 27, 1778, there is an advertisement offering "A sloop of sixty tons. Just built at East Haddam," and in the same paper, under date of July 11, 1784, "The brigantine 'Fanny.' recently built at East Haddam, a fast sailer of 116 tons," is offered for sale.
Engaged In Indies Trade.
The great boom in shipbuilding, brought about by the war, increased instead of diminishing at the close of the Revolution, and the river yards were kept busy turning out vessels mainly intended for the West Indian trade, which, now that England could not restrict United States commerce, was becoming the most lucrative and important commerce of New England.
Among the West Indiamen built at East Haddam was the sloop "Fox" which sailed for Guadeloupe in July 1784, and returned on Sept. 20, having made the passage from Turks Islands in 13 days, a record for those times and for many years thereafter, and which went far to establish the fame and prestige of East Haddam builders. As a result, East Haddam became one of the greatest shipbuilding ports in the United States and vessels constructed in the riverside yards of this little town were to be seen in nearly every port of the world, but especially in the West Indies.
In November 1786, the sloop "Alfred" and the brig "Dolphin," both built at East Haddam, were at Port au Prince, and in February 1787, the East Haddam built sloop "Union" was at Statia.
A Prize for the French.
In this connection it is revealing to discover the value of one of these Connecticut River vessels and its cargo. Thanks to the fact that an East Haddam sloop, the "Julia," was seized by the French and confiscated in July 1798, and a claim was filed in Washington, we are able to secure an exact account of her value, as follows:
"Value of sloop 'Julia’ and fixtures $1772.75
30 fat oxen @ $30. $900.
*7 tons pressed hay @$17. $111.
150 bushels corn @$0.60 $90.
13 hgsds. corn @$9. $117.
51 bbls. flour @$5.75 $292.75
20 bbls. beef @ $9. $180.
23 bbls. beans @$3.50 $80.50
3 bbls. pork @$18 $54.
6400 red oak hgsd. staves @0.10 $64.
1000 hgsd. hoops @0.15 $15.
3000 ropes onions @0.50 $150.
(* This is a most interesting item as it proves that pressed hay, which is commonly considered a modern innovation, was known and used by Connecticut farmers in the eighteenth century.)
The above value of $1772.75 placed on the sloop and fittings seems very low for a new vessel, the "Julia" having been built in 1794, but we must remember that both labor and materials were very cheap, lumber could be had for the cutting on the hillsides, and a good sized ship could be built for less than $3000.
Process of Evolution.
It was about this time that the riverside shipbuilders began to alter the types and rigs of their vessels. Ketches had almost disappeared. Pinks of large size had been practically abandoned. Sloops for overseas trade were being supplanted by brigs and brigantines in the smaller tonnages and by snows and ships for larger craft, while the advent of the schooner, and the fine showing this new rig had made during the Revolution, had led many of the builders to devote nearly all their energies to these fore-and-aft-rigged vessels, although at that period all carried square topsails.
A Significant Freak.
Many of the builders tried their hands experimenting with entirely new forms of vessels, and as a result, some most curious freaks were developed. One of these made its appearance at Hartford in 1784. It consisted of two scow-like flatboats fastened side by side and surmounted by a horizontal circular platform attached to gears connected with a horizontal shaft carrying paddle wheels at its extremities. Its motive power consisted of horses, the animals walking on the rotating platform, thus transforming it into a treadmill. For some time this unique contrivance was operated as a ferry boat at Hartford and created a great deal of attention. It is mainly of interest, however, as the forerunner of the steamboat. It led directly to the inventions made by John Filch and his experiments in steam navigation on the Connecticut River near Hartford. These were the very first experiments made with steam-propelled vessels and antedated Fulton's "Claremont.”
By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the shipbuilding industry had become thoroughly organized on the river, and the numerous small and individual builders had either abandoned their trade, had sold out to larger firms or had combined with the latter. The largest of the river shipyards was Green's at Haddam. It was established in 1800, but two years later, it became Green and Smith and continued as such until 1842. A great many boats were built in the Green and Smith yards, among them the schooner "Science," 1817; the "Washington," 1821; the "Imperial." 1822; while the pride of the Green fleet was the "Cotton Planter" whose keel was laid down April 1, 1838 and which was launched on the eighteenth of October the same year.
Another prominent builder of that period was Captain Horace Hayden, whose last ship was the "Southworth," built for the Bulkleys of Fairfield in 1846-7.
At Goodspeed's Landing there was another large shipyard, and when Hayden died, Mr. Goodspeed took over the former's business. Before 1845 he had built two schooners, the "United States" and the "Cinderella," and in 1846 he built the brig "Manhattan" and the schooner "Commodore," following these, in 1847 with the ship "Hero" and the schooner "Telegraph." Another Haddam builder was Daniel B. Warner who built the ship "Genius" in 1845; the "Wave Crest," 1855, which was captured by the Confederate cruiser "Alabama," in 1853. Warner built the largest vessel which had ever been built on the Connecticut, the 2000 ton schooner "Chauncey Jerome."
Rowboats and Gunboats.
Succeeding the Greens, H. S. Tyler, in 1849, built the 890 ton ship "Marathon." In 1850 a new ship by the name of "Trumbull," and in 1852 the schooner "John W. Miner," both large vessels, were launched for deep water trade. At this time the Haddam yards were launching everything from tiny skiffs and rowboats to steamships, among the latter being the gun boat "Kanawha," built in 1861 for the United States Navy. It seems strange today to think of war vessels being built and launched on the Connecticut, far from the sea, and it is difficult indeed to visualize the shores of the river lined with ways and stocks, with tapering masts rising high above the roofs of the little riverside towns, with gaunt frames of great ships towering above shops and smithys, with the sound of mallets and broad axes, mauls and caulking irons echoing from the hillsides and the wooded slopes. But during the Civil War, the yards along the Connecticut were hives of industry and many a fighting ship, many a merchantman, many a blockade runner, for that matter, took form and shape and slid from the ways into the calm waters of the river.
Decline Sets In.
With the end of the Civil War shipbuilding on the Connecticut died out as contracts for large sailing vessels decreased in favor of steamships. Other important factors in the slump of the industry were the depletion of native timber and the increased cost of labor and transportation, as well as the difficulty large vessels had in navigating the river. And with the abandonment of square-rigged vessels and the advent of the big three, four and five-masted coasting schooners, the river shipyards were doomed. The huge cargo carriers could be built far more economically in coast towns than on the river and very soon the shipwrights of the towns along the Connecticut confined themselves to building small sailing craft and steamers, towboats and ferry boats and yachts. In the same old yards wherein quaint, bluff-bowed, high-stemed pinks and snows, and the stout old 24-gun frigates had slid the ways, side wheel river steamers such as the "Washington Irving," steam tugs, trim steam yachts and ugly ferry boats took form and shape.
But it was only a matter of time, a short time, before the end of shipbuilding on the Connecticut. Long before New Haven and New London, Noank and Stonington ceased to be centers of the industry, the yards at Wethersfield, Haddam, Middletown and other towns beside the river, were silent, deserted and still. Grass and weeds hid the piles of sawdust and chips. The timbers of stocks and ways were carted off to serve other purposes, and where many a stately ship had once been reared, and scores of busy shipwrights had labored and the air had rung to the sound of hammer and maul, cattle graced or houses were built, and few aside from the "oldest inhabitants" recalled that their home towns by the riverside had once been famed In every port of the five oceans and the seven seas.
They Had Their Hour.
Many a famous ship first rose in its gaunt skeleton frames in those forgotten shipyards. There was the ship "Neptune" which, in 1798, sailed around the world, being the very first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe and the first to carry the Stars and Stripes to the Orient, the South Seas and the East Indies. In an East Haddam yard was built the brig "Commerce," one of the very first stout old Yankee whaleships, and the first whaleship to cruise for whales in the Pacific. And at Chapman's Ferry, Mr. Goodspeed built another famous whaleship, the brig "Bruce," which in 1836, voyaged to the coast of Africa and discovered new grounds for the sperm whaling fleet.
During the World War when every battered old hulk that would float was patched up and sent to sea, I saw a bark in Port of Spain Trinidad with the half-obliterated words "East Haddam," traceable under the blistered weather-beaten paint, daubed on her by Norwegian owners; and at the very tip end of South America, in the harbor of Punta Arenas, the world's most southerly city, there was a hulk that once had been a proud, full rigged ship whose counter still bore the name of her home port—Wethersfield.
Notes with the images, mostly from ‘Sea-Lore.’
Connecticut seaman of 1770, the type who raided with Smedley.
Stanley Rogers's drawings of the early schooner, ketch and yawl, (left to right), from his splendid book, "Sea-Lore."
Deck hand of the '50's in the rigging of a merchant ship.
Of this type was the Federal gunboat "Kanawha." built in 1861 at H. S. Tyler's extensive shipyards at East Haddam. This little river town was once one of the country's greatest shipbuilding centers.
The "Trumbull," sadly disabled, fights a losing but valiant fight with pursuing British cruisers. This famous four-masted war vessel was built at Chatham, now Portland and launched there in February, 1778.