Ship stories

full-riggedshipEditor’s note: This story first appeared in the Hartford Courant in 2012 in a slightly different form.

Wooden sailing ships live remarkable lives. Take the strange tale of the Niantic, built in Middletown in 1832. “I just love the story of the Niantic,” says Jerry Roberts, Director of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, speaking about a new exhibit on Connecticut River vessels, “Blue Water Bound.”

Niantic, a 451-ton square-rigger, was built for the China trade. She spent her first dozen years sailing of New York, rounding Cape Horn and dashing across the Pacific to Canton, where she traded American-grown ginseng, saltpeter and lead for tea, china and silks. When that trade dwindled, Niantic was refitted as a whaler and sailed for the Pacific whaling grounds in January 1849 — at the height of the California Gold Rush.

Stopping in Peru to pick up provisions, Niantic’s Yankee captain learned of the huge profits to be made carrying gold seekers from Panama to San Francisco and the California gold fields. In March 1849, Niantic picked up 246 would-be miners from the western side of the Isthmus of Panama and sailed for San Francisco Bay.

The final twist came at the end of the voyage: Not only did the passengers head out, but Niantic’s crew deserted the ship to search for gold. The abandoned whaler was beached and converted into a hotel — the Hotel Niantic. “Imagine this Middletown ship becoming part of the streetscape of San Francisco,” Roberts says.

The Niantic is one six Connecticut River ships whose remarkable voyages are featured in “Blue Water Bound,” which also profiles several local sea captains. Paintings, maps, logbooks, cargo manifests and ship models, together with large display panels, bring the sea tales to life.

There is the harrowing tale of the Middletown brig Commerce, whose shipwrecked crew under Capt. James Riley, in 1815, was captured by Arabs and sold into slavery. The story was a bestseller in its day, and it was retold several years ago by author Dean King in the book, “Skeletons on the Zahara.”

And there is the last cruise of the frigate Oliver Cromwell, the first ship of the American Navy, which was launched from Uriah Hayden’s shipyard in Essex— then called Potapoug — in 1776. The warship, under the command of Capt. Timothy Parker, seized five British prizes before being captured in 1779 off the New Jersey coast.

Curator Amy Trout says a less glamorous voyage, that of the Old Saybrook sloop Leander, also is worthy of attention because it represents the characteristic coasting trade, and another old Yankee practice — smuggling. Leander sailed from the mouth of the Connecticut River in 1807, bound for the British possession of Nova Scotia. This was in defiance of President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo, which strictly prohibited American trade with the British. Ghosting into Nova Scotia’s Passamaquoddy Bay, Leander was loaded with 24 tons of gypsum before slipping past British privateers in heavy fog. “You could do quite well if you could get away with it,” Trout says. “This trip returned a nice tidy profit for the owners.”

The state’s own history is represented in the exhibit. A principal theme is the role river towns like Essex, and especially Middletown, once played in global trade. At the time, Middletown was the fourth largest seaport in New England — and Barbados and Jamaica seemed closer than they do today. Much of the trade was with the slaved-worked plantations of the Caribbean, where lumber and livestock were exchanged for sugar, molasses and rum.

Middletown sea captain Stephen Clay, one of the Connecticut River mariners profiled in the exhibit, made a fortune in the West Indies trading pacing horses and other local products for Jamaican rum. His wealth enabled him to build a fine mansion near the river and invest in a rum distillery. Later, Clay had his portrait painted by the iterant artist William Jennys.

The painting shows a resolute Clay in his blue seaman’s frockcoat, with a billowing cravat, one hand tucked in his double-breasted waistcoat. In the distance Clay’s ship — probably the 146-ton brig Polly & Betsy — can be seen with square sails full of wind.