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.”
On the Connecticut River, we have the steamer Granite State. Four people died when the 270-foot sidewheeler caught fire and burned at Goodspeed’s Landing on May 18, 1883. Among the dead was a bride on her honeymoon whom, newspapers reported, went over the side “in her husband’s embrace.”
More tragic was the fate of second cook Nicholas Jackson, a young African American man from Springfield, who drowned trying to escape the flames. When his body was recovered the morning of the tragedy, East Haddam selectmen refused to allow his remains to be brought ashore “as such an action would entail a burial at town’s expense.” The New York Herald called attention to local officials’ shocking indifference : [Jackson’s] body was towed into the pebbly beach, just south of the steamboat dock, where it was left in the water, tied at the end of a rope, awaiting a coroner’s inquest.”
Granite State was among the most elegant Long Island Sound steamers plying the Connecticut River. At 270 feet, with a 30-foot beam she was a trifle smaller than her rival, City of Hartford, “but in every respect worthy to be her associate in the navigation of the Connecticut River,” the Courant remarked in 1853. “On the upper deck is a long saloon beautifully carpeted and furnished with settees and easy chairs.” However, by 1883 “she was an old craft…heavy with paint, her woodwork unusually dry and inflammable and the whole structure a floating tinderbox.”
Granite State was returning from her usual night run to New York, with about 45 passengers and as many crew members aboard. Interestingly, at least 20 passengers were Irish immigrants, some heading to Middletown to toil in Portland’s brownstone quarries. Mr. and Mrs. G.M. Pratt of Middletown were returning from their daughter’s wedding in Brooklyn. The Pratts were bringing back $1,000 worth of wedding presents, all of which would be lost. They were joined by Cyprian S. Brainerd and his wife. The Brainerds, of Brooklyn, kept a summer place in Haddam Neck which they were opening for the season.
Many also remember a portly man, thought to be a Mr. Graham of Hartford, nattily dressed, with a gold watch chain looping across his paunch. There was also a German immigrant whose name no one could recall, and for some reason did not appear on the passenger list. As for freight, Granite State was carrying $40,000 worth cargo, including a dozen trotting horses for sale in Hartford.
It was nearing daybreak when Granite State — Capt. Dibble at the helm — was making her approach toward Goodspeed Landing. A stiff headwind was blowing, and the river was running high and fast from the spring freshet. All the passengers and the hands not on duty were in their beds. At some point, an engineer noticed “a strong smell of something on fire. He went forward and was met by a dense blinding volume of smoke pouring from the stairwell to the forward cabin.”
Immediately, Capt. Dibble drove the boat full speed for the Landing, while his first mate, Samuel Silloway, scrambled below to rouse passengers asleep in their bunks. “The rush of the boat swept the backwards the flames and the smoke in great clouds, and the passengers, blinded and bewildered some dressed and some as clad in only such garments they quickest could put on, hurried to the various exits.”
As the burning steamer swung into her dock, a hawser was drawn fast while passengers scrambled to shore. But before all could disembark, flames burned the bow and amidship hawsers, and the 270-foot sidewheeler was cast adrift. She was now at the mercy of wind and tide, neither of which was in her favor. As she was carried out into the river, her bow stuck fast on the opposite shoal; but her stern, where flames had driven passengers, was over deep water. Their only hope was to jump.
Villagers put out rowboats to pluck up passengers leaping into the chilly river water, and many were saved by their heroic efforts. But some of the small craft were overloaded and swamped. Adding to the chaos were the horses frantically escaping the flames. Plunging over the side, one steed struck a passenger in the face, knocking out her front teeth.
An old ferryboat was put into action, and picked up a number of survivors. Of course, for those who could swim, it was a fairly easy time to reach the near shore. A 70-year-old man, who hadn’t taken a stroke in 25 years, made it without much trouble, noting that “the swimming art, once learned, never forgotten.”
The newlyweds, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Main of New Haven, were not so lucky. Clutching each other tightly, they dropped into the water in a last loving embrace. Three times they went under before Clifford Main surfaced alone. Later, he said he could remember “nothing until he found himself lodged against the paddlewheel and clinging to it.” Mrs. Main was nowhere to be seen. Her body would be recovered that afternoon.
The blazing steamer was now broadside to the current. The Herald wrote: “As the hull lightened by the burning away of the upper work, the bow lifted from the shoal, the stern hawser parted at nearly the same moment and the blazing mass was swept down steam by the rapid current. It was a grand and beautiful sight.” Granite State was carried a mile downriver before grounding off Lord’s Island, where she burned to the waterline.
The nearness of the steamer to the shore undoubtably is what saved so many lives. Also, the quick efforts of villagers was crucial. In all four people were lost – Mrs. Clifford Main, the cook Nicholas Jackson, the German immigrant, and the so-called “missing fat man,” as he would be called in the press.
The body of “young Jackson the colored cook,” was found later that morning. To his credit, James Gordon Bennett Jr’s, New York Herald was the only newspaper to report on Jackson’s body being left in the water tied to a rope while the coroner was summoned. Dr. Karl Stofko, East Haddam’s town historian, said Jackson’s death eventually was ruled as accidental drowning, meaning the steamboat company would cover burial costs. He was laid to rest in a local cemetery but nobody knows which. Stofko believes Jackson was interred in the unmarked pauper’s lot at the back of the old Landing Cemetery on the hill above the river.
On July 13, 1883, three months after the disaster, the Hartford Times wrote that the wreck the Granite State was still awash on a shoal off Lord’s Island, where “it is one of the sights that all going up and down the river look for. The only portions that remain visible are the two wheel-houses, which are falling to pieces, the walking-beam of the engine, and the boiler, with the stern post and head of the bow. The water at off-tide reaches just to the lower part of the name, Granite State, on the wheel-houses.”
Two months later on Sept. 8, 1883, a grim bulletin appeared on page eight of The New York Times: “The remains of the missing fat man who was lost on the steamer Granite State, which sunk at Goodspeed’s Landing, were discovered last Saturday by workmen who have been taking out coal from the wreck. Portions of the skull, vertebra, arm, finger-bones, the setting of a large oblong shaped cameo ring, and the remains of a gold watch, a long link plated chain…were found.”
It was the gold watch chain and the cameo ring, noted previously by several passengers, which helped identify the remains as probably those of Mr. Graham, the “missing fat man.”
Editor’s note: Late in 1884, the steamboat company that owned Granite State raised the vessel in an attempt to salvage the boiler and other machinery. But fire damage proved too great and nothing could be saved. Some time later, the steamer was towed to the mouth of North Cove in Old Saybrook, where she performed her final act as a breakwater. The 270-foot hull can still be seen today.