It’s been a long wait, but it’s finally here — my first book, “Night Boat to New York,” a portrait of the vanished Connecticut River steamboat era. (Globe/Pequot) I know maritime enthusiasts will delight in this look back to the days of steam, but I think many others will enjoy the ride, for I tried to conjure up a world I would have enjoyed stepping into. I’ve always been interested in the history of entertainment and leisure, especially 19th century fun, and the steamboat was at the center of this revolution. Labor saving technology often strips away the poetry of life. The steamboat, however, was unique in combining up-to-date travel with a romance and glamour that has never been matched in any other form of transportation. I have to thank Globe/Pequot for doing such a fabulous job. Ready to take the show on the road!
The city of Middletown, working to reclaim its waterfront, just lost a bit of it when a section of ancient seawall this week slipped into the Connecticut River. Weakened by this winter’s river ice, and recent heavy rains, a 40-foot section of brownstone seawall, or bulkhead – which dates to at least the early 1800s when Middletown was still an international port sending ships all the way to China – gave way and slid into the river.
The affected section lies at the northern tip of the city’s Harbor Park, below the Airline Railroad bridge spanning the waterway. The bulkheads were built of brownstone, massive blocks of reddish Triassic sandstone, cut away from the famous quarries on the opposite bank in Portland.
“As we expected, the old seawall and a portion of the hill above the river are sliding into the water on either side of the collapse,” Middletown Mayor Dan Drew posted recently on his Facebook page…We have a lot more [rain] coming through so we expect even more of this to slide away. ”
Drew said the city is bringing in engineers to assess the damage and see what might be done to repair the old seawall. No timeline has been given for the repairs.
The brownstone bulkhead is a reminder of the days when Middletown was a major colonial port, ranked with Newport, Salem, and Providence, Rhode Island. The city’s shipping wealth came largely from provisioning with agricultural products the slave-worked sugar plantations of the Caribbean.
At that time, warehouses lined the waterfront, and a dozen wharves pushed out into the wide river, from which sailed sloops, schooners and full-rigged ships. Later, Middletown became an important steamboat landing for riverboats carrying passengers and freight between Hartford and New York.
Middletown also had direct involvement in the African slave trade, with several city sea captains, including William Van Deursen, trafficking in human beings. His fine house furnishings — Chippendale high-chests, bow-front bureaus, silver place settings, for years were hidden away in an upstairs room at the Middlesex County Historical society, shrouded under white sheets. On the wall, Van Deursen’s portrait, in a powdered wig and buff waistcoat and clutching his mariner’s spyglass, stared out from the shadows.
In the summer of 1878, a beautiful sailing yacht nosed up Selden Creek on the lower Connecticut River in Lyme to anchor in the pretty marsh-fringed Selden Cove. The lower river already was something of a yachting hub, but no one had glimpsed this vessel before, and rumors began to swirl about its owners and their purpose on the river. Indeed, the yacht from New York was on a strange mission.
The Hartford Daily Courant revealed that the mysterious craft was owned by none other than Pierre Lorillard IV — heir to the Lorillard Tobacco Company fortune. The 45-year-old was an avid sportsman who helped make Newport a yachting center, and also a major figure in thoroughbred horse racing. But what was the sporting gentleman doing messing about on the Connecticut River? Continue reading “The Egyptian Lotus of Selden Cove”
A replica of a 17th century Dutch wooden sailing ship – handsomely rigged with a single mast and decked out in the bright colors of her homeland – was stalled more than an hour on the Connecticut River last week as she waited for the East Haddam Swing Bridge to open. Welcome to Connecticut!
“I’m not sure why the wait was so long,” says Dan Thompson, skipper of the Onrust, a replica of the 44 ½ -foot sloop the Dutchman Adriaen Block sailed up the Connecticut River more than 400 years ago. “But what are you going to do?” Continue reading “Yo Adriaen!”
A strange apparition appears in a satellite image on Google Earth. It looks like a shadow. But a closer look reveals the hull of a ship, nearly 300 feet long. The wreck is lying on a shoal at the entrance to Old Saybrook’s North Cove, her bow pointing east into the channel. It’s eerie. One hundred and thirty-five years after she burned, the steamer Granite State still haunts the Connecticut River.
Shipwrecks have an eternal fascination. Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about one – the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The Great Lakes freighter went down in a gale on Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, carrying her crew of 29 men to the bottom. “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead, When the gales of November come early.” Continue reading “A river’s ghosts”
Old Glory is again flying above one of the prettiest beaches on the lower Connecticut River. Everyone knows the huge sandbar in the river off Haddam Meadows below the tree-fringed Haddam Island, where Native Americans gathered perhaps for millennia. Today, the island and the sandbar half a mile below are popular destinations for boaters and sunbathers alike, and others just out for a stroll with their dogs. A couple of years ago, someone, we don’t know who, erected a makeshift flagpole at the tip of the sandbar, and the Stars and Stripes was a familiar sight waving above the wide gray expanse. The flag survived a couple of fierce New England winters, until this January’s massive ice jam. It proved too much, and Old Glory was swallowed up by the advancing floe. Sad to see in the spring that our flag was not still there. However, the flagpole, although somewhat battered, was discovered buried in the mud. Some days ago, it was glimpsed leaning against a beached log. Then last week, visitors to this most picturesque spot were cheered to see a new flag snapping in the breeze above the river. The Haddam Meadows flag is back. Long may she wave!
Editor’s note: As a supplement to “Athens on the River,” we thought readers would enjoy this delicious tidbit from the East Haddam -based Connecticut Valley Advertiser, June, 1857, regarding a hotel guest who left without paying his bill.
“The scamp who lived so fast and attracted so much attention by his admiration of champagne, horses, and the ladies at the Steamboat Hotel in this town during the fall of 1856, and then left without paying his bill, turned up again at Goodspeed’s Landing, Thursday evening. He assumed the same old strut and swagger that he used to wear at the Upper Landing, and did not pretend to know any of his old acquaintances and supposed they did not recognize him; but his disguise and effrontery did not save him, for he was politely invited into the lawyer’s office and was there informed that unless he made some satisfactory adjustment of the claim against him he would have an excellent opportunity to rusticate a while at Valentine’s summer retreat. [the local lock-up, we assume] At first, he seemed indignant at such a proposition, but the appearance of Mr. Gladwin with a warrant in his hand seem to alter his deportment somewhat, and he consented to leave his watch chain as security for the debt, promising to return in a few days and redeem it. Other complaints were pending against him, but with the hope that he would never be seen in this town again, he was permitted to leave on the night boat.”
The notorious Tammany Hall Boss, William M. Tweed — who stole millions of New York City taxpayer money in the 19th century with sham municipal contracts — wore a 10-carat diamond on his shirt front worth half a million in today’s money. We wonder: Did he sport the famous jewel as he strutted about the Gelston House?
That’s right, Boss Tweed himself sought the salubrious air of the lower Connecticut River, when he and his family retreated to East Haddam in the years before the Civil War. The rivertown then was among the most fashionable watering places in New England, boasting two steamboat landings, each with its own hotel, saloon, and other attractions. City swells flocked to the flossy Steamboat Hotel, which graced the Upper Landing a mile above Goodspeed’s. Later, the Steamboat Hotel was renamed the Champion House.
Fifty years ago in 1968, the Atomic Age came to the lower Connecticut River with the commissioning of the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant in Haddam Neck. Construction of the 619- megawatt facility was begun in 1965, following intense debate about the plant’s impact on the environment, especially thermal pollution from the discharge of heated condenser water. Connecticut Yankee was the first nuclear power plant in Connecticut, and among the earliest in the nation. To mark the anniversary, we dug into our files and came up with these photographs of the building of the plant in the mid-60s, in which Mohawk Indian ironworkers, known for their expertise in high steel, were brought in to erect the 170-foot domed containment structure.
Could this rare stereoscopic image be the wreck of the famous steamboat Granite State, which caught fire and burned at Goodspeed’s Landing on May 18, 1883, killing four people? We believe this is indeed the ill-starred sidewheeler awash on the shoal of Lord’s Island, a mile below Goodspeed’s. She lay there for months, her walking beam engine still visible, a gaunt smokestack rising above the gray waves. It was an ominous sight; we’ll have lots more to tell about the once-proud river steamer.