Lee Wood was enjoying his lunch at the little beach below Goodspeed Opera House on the Connecticut River some weeks ago when he noticed something unusual in the sand. “It didn’t look natural,” said the East Haddam resident, a retired shop teacher. “It looked like old iron.”
Wood is a dedicated beachcomber. Only a month before on the Haddam side, he found a curious looking object that turned out to be a sounding lead, which sailors used to test the depth of the water under their keels. Sensing another treasure, he wasted no time getting a stick to use as a makeshift shovel. But it was tough going. The more he dug, the more he seemed to uncover. Whatever it was, it just kept going. When Wood had exposed all of it, he was looking at something 12-feet long and 3 feet wide, weighing 1,000 pounds or more.
Dick Everet, the blacksmith, expert in all things mechanical, was intrigued enough to take a look. He surmised that the grating belonged to a steam engine, probably wood-fired. “He thinks the grating would have rested above the firebox — wood-fired because of the spacing of the grates which are a bit wider than in a coal-fired engine,” says Wood.
Everet’s assessment fits with history of the area. The landing where the grating was found was a bustling shipyard during the 19th century, Goodspeed Shipyard, owned by brothers William and George, who built scores of sailing ships as well as steamboats, among them the 1026-ton Civil War steam transport the General Lyon, launched in 1864.
Interestingly, the steamboat Granite State met her tragic end here, when she burned to the waterline on May 18, 1883. The sidewheeler was eventually towed to a spot nearby, as owners attempted to salvage what they could. But the fire damage was too great, and even the engine and boiler were deemed a total loss. Could the object Wood uncovered be from the ill-fated steamer? Everet intends to inspect the metal for “scaling,” an indication of extreme temperature.
Meanwhile, workers at the town garage, who pulled the grating from its sandy grave with a backhoe and brought it to the storage shed on Mount Parnassus Road, have their own ideas of what it might be. Their conjecture is that it’s a section of open-grated decking from the East Haddam Swing Bridge. The bridge, spanning the river between Haddam and East Haddam, is an antique, opening more than 100 years ago in 1913.
But Wood thinks the grating is much too heavy for bridge decking, and not the right size either. In fact, the original bridge decking probably wasn’t metal but timber. Wood points to an old picture of the span on opening day in 1913, which shows a team of oxen crossing. “I can tell you that oxen will not cross an open grated deck,” Wood says, firmly. “It spooks then. They just won’t do it.”