History slips, slides away

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.

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