River song

The other day I heard voices on the river. It was a warm spring morning, and I was walking along the path at Haddam Meadows, admiring the wide blue expanse through a screen of cottonwoods and silver maples. Usually, at this hour, all I hear is the chattering of birds. Now, excited shouts and laughter were coming up through the trees.  Ahead, a knot of teenagers in shorts and T-shirts were shouting to others in the river, the latter in rubber waders dragging a seine through the shallows. It was just like we did at the beach as kids. But this was a high school science class. What shrieks of delight, as these would-be biologists examined their catch — a wriggling mass of silvery life! The river is full of surprises!

I love the quiet of the lower Connecticut, but sometimes I long for the sounds of the river’s past. It must have been a noisy place! To be sure there was singing. Historian David Dudley Field, writing  in the early 1800s, states that there were 89 places along the lower Connecticut where shad were taken. I like to imagine the gangs of fishermen in the spring, haul-seining for shad off Haddam Island, breaking into song to set the pace of the work, a capstan chantey perhaps, as they pulled in 1,000-foot nets:

Windy weather boys, stormy weather, boys
When the wind blows we’re all together, boys
Blow ye winds westerly, blow ye winds, blow
Jolly sou’wester, boys, steady she goes.

Life revolved around the river. Through the morning mist echoed the boatman’s cry, the shouts of steersmen. At Warner’s Ferry in Chester, you blew a horn hanging from a tree to signal your wish to cross. That horn blew a lot. And what a racket from all the shipyards! The pounding of the mallet, the sawing of planks was a constant. All the rivertowns — Middletown, Portland, Middle Haddam, Haddam, East Haddam, Chester, Deep River, and Essex — had vessels on the stocks; Essex, with three yards, more than most. Then came the launch. Cannons boomed, bands played, shouts of huzzah! huzzah! huzzah! A reluctant groaning, the creaking of timbers, and a new vessel slid down the ways into the river: sloops, pinks, barques, and brigs, sturdy Yankee-built vessels, bluewater bound.

In 1824, regular steamboat service commenced on the Connecticut, and a whole new music was added to the waterway. Above the plash of the paddlewheel now was heard the clear high ringing of the steamboat bell, surely the prettiest music of all. These bells, sometimes with quarts of silver dollars melted in the metal, rang steadily, announcing landings, rousing roustabouts into action. And sometimes, there was frantic ringing, as on the morning of May 18, 1883, when the stately sidewheeler Granite State caught fire and burned at Goodspeed’s Landing. Four people died, including a bride on her Honeymoon. The Connecticut — a noble, at times tragic river. Stay tuned.

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