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New Book on Connecticut River’s Vanished Steamboat Era

It’s been a long wait, but it’s finally here — my first book, “Night Boat to New York,” a portrait of the vanished Connecticut River steamboat era. (Globe/Pequot) I know maritime enthusiasts will delight in this look back to the days of steam, but I think many others will enjoy the ride, for I tried to conjure up a world I would have enjoyed stepping into. I’ve always been interested in the history of entertainment and leisure, especially 19th century fun, and the steamboat was at the center of this revolution. Labor saving technology often strips away the poetry of life. The steamboat, however, was unique in combining up-to-date travel with a romance and glamour that has never been matched in any other form of transportation. I have to thank Globe/Pequot for doing such a fabulous job. Ready to take the show on the road!

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.

The Egyptian Lotus of Selden Cove

In the summer of 1878, a beautiful sailing yacht nosed up Selden Creek on the lower Connecticut River in Lyme to anchor in the pretty marsh-fringed Selden Cove. The lower river already was something of a yachting hub, but no one had glimpsed this vessel before, and rumors began to swirl about its owners and their purpose on the river. Indeed, the yacht from New York was on a strange mission.

The Hartford Daily Courant revealed that the mysterious craft was owned by none other than Pierre Lorillard IV — heir to the Lorillard Tobacco Company fortune. The 45-year-old was an avid sportsman who helped make Newport a yachting center, and also a major figure in thoroughbred horse racing. But what was the sporting gentleman doing messing about on the Connecticut River? Continue reading “The Egyptian Lotus of Selden Cove”