Athens on the river

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.

Well before Goodspeed Opera House went up in 1877, East Haddam was on the map. Indeed, shipping magnate William H. Goodspeed, who built the steamboat Gothic-style concert hall, was a showbiz late comer. Musical entertainment had been a staple of the Upper Landing for decades. Then, in 1865, was opened the Maplewood Music Seminary, a posh music school for young ladies, nestled in the hillside above the Landing. Here, were performed light opera, plays and various pageants before elegant crowds, many arriving with the plash of the paddlewheel.

Brought in as director of Maplewood was a certain Prof. Babcock, a dead ringer for Wild Bill Hickock, with a handlebar mustache and mass of raffish curls falling about his chiseled features. A competent instructor by all accounts, Babcock taught the ladies, from all over, piano, harp, organ, guitar and, of course, voice. At night from the veranda of the Champion House, you could hear the warbling voices of the “Maplewood girls,” as they went through “Sweet Spirit Hear my Prayer,” “Roll on Silver Moon,” and an especial favorite, “The Last Rose of Summer,” from the opera “Martha.”

The spring commencement ceremony at the Maplewood Seminary was the social event of the season. Never has East Haddam seen such opulence and splendor. “As a stranger stepping off the steamboat onto the wharf at the Champion House last night, I became aware that something unusual was about to transpire,” a visitor wrote in 1870. “The red flag of the Maplewood Seminary was waving above of the cupola, long lines of carriages were standing in the streets, elegantly dressed ladies seemed to be out in full force, and locals of rustic loveliness were arriving from the back towns. The annual opera is looked forward to for months before its advent, and its departed glories stand long after the pomp and pageantry have passed before the footlights.”

The lower wharf was known as Goodspeed’s Landing, a notch below in status. Still, they would not be outdone. To attract guests, owners of the Gelston House paid newspaper reporters to sing the praises of their summer resort: “This hotel, on a most commanding position at a bend in the river occupies a spot that in Egypt would have been dedicated to an ibis, a crocodile or a calf,” the Courant in 1855 wrote. “We are told that the Gelston House is really one of the best in the county – a fine place for family and invalids – capital air for children, glorious hills about…”

The rivalry between Upper and Lower Landing was intense. Apparently, the feud had its beginnings in a dispute between long-established merchants, who dominated commerce at the Upper Landing, and Nathaniel Goodspeed, father of William H. Goodspeed. Nathaniel’s family had come from Barnstaple, Mass., and were viewed as parvenus. Thus, in the early 1800s, when the younger Goodspeed sought to open a dry goods business near the Upper Landing, the merchants objected. They claimed the store encroached upon a town right-of-way by a few feet. Goodspeed was given 30 days to move the building or face stiff fines. What he did surprised everyone.

He had a team of oxen haul the building to a new location — the Lower Landing, which he rechristened “Goodspeed’s.” His store was “stocked with more goods than anyone had ever seen before.” It was a huge success, allowing his sons, George and William H., to branch out into shipbuilding, steamboats, and hotels. The brothers Goodspeed even started their own bank, which would occupy the ground floor of the eventual Opera House. They also operated the ferry across the river, though retained the traditional name of Chapman’s. The money poured in. Still, despite their success, they never forgot the original snub, and a bitter taste remained.

“Goodspeed’s Hall,” as the Opera House was known in its day, went in mostly for popular fare, in contrast to the highbrow stuff of the Upper Landing. William Goodspeed was very much in the tradition of P.T. Barnum, once displaying a 60-foot stuffed whale on the lawn outside his hall. There was even a performance of Kickapoo Indians, after which snake oil was hawked among the throng.

Some 600 people gathered for the opening of Goodspeed’s Hall on Oct. 27, 1877 (the crowd probably would have been bigger had it not been for a sleet storm). Still, it was a glorious celebration. “The hall has been fitted up in metropolitan style, with parquetry and galleries on both sides,” The Courant enthused. “It has a good-sized stage and four private boxes. It is lighted with gas and the seats are numbered and movable, so that the hall can be used for dancing purposes.”

After the performance of several “pleasing comedies” and singing by the Madrigal Boys, this concluding at about




10:30 in the evening, “the hall was cleared and there was dancing until the wee hours.”



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