Chapter 15. Maritime History


In the 1500s the English may have been disappointed that their new lands had no gold or spices, but North America did have an abundance of codfish that Catholic Europe consumed in enormous quantities. Indeed, fishing was the continent's first industry and remained a central one for centuries. Indeed, codfishing was so important that a wooden image of the codfish was hung in the Boston assembly chamber. It is still there to this day.

In order to have a fishing industry, boats and ships are needed. This gave rise to another early American industry, shipbuilding, which expanded quickly. Between 1727 and 1766 Philadelphia's yards built 737 ships. By the time of the American Revolution the city was the leading seaport in America and the third most important shipbuilding center in the world, after London and Liverpool. New York City did not surpass Philadelphia until the early 1800s.

This part of the section on the Industrial Revolution covers three maritime topics, including whaling, the China trade, and the advent of steam.

The greatest years for whaling were between 1820 and 1850. After 1847 the industry started a gradual decline. The primary reason was the vast depletion of these great mammals caused by extensive whaling. Other, less important reasons, were the California gold rush of 1849 (which took ships away from the whaling trade); the drilling of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859; and the destruction of many whaling vessels by Confederate ships and several ice disasters. Whaling hung on until the 1920s in the United States, but only on a very limited scale.

Whaling: Mystic

In order to learn more about whales and whaling, this chapter travels to the best whaling site in the travel area: Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut (located one-half mile south of I-95, on Route 270; open daily 9-5, Apr-Nov and daily 2-4, Dec-Mar). This museum gives an excellent idea of what a whaling seaport might have looked like and what the whalers' lives were like onboard and ashore.

The museum is built on the area that was once the George Greenman and Company Shipyard. At the museum don't miss the Diorama of Mystic, 1850-1875, which illustrates the clipper ship "David Crockett" (1853) ready for launching.

The museum has the only surviving wooden whaling ship in the United States, the "Charles W. Morgan." Especially interesting is the Captain's Stateroom. Gimbals (i.e., metal rings arranged to maintain an object on a horizontal plane) supported the captain's bed, allowing it to remain level while the ship rolled. To the right of the bed was the captain's private head. At the foot of the bed was the "slop chest" which contained clothes, knives, and various gear, which sailors could purchase from the captain when needed.

In addition to learning about the lives of the whalers, you see the ancillary businesses that existed to supply the whalers. The cost to build the "Charles W. Morgan" was $25 thousand, while the cost to outfit her was about the same. A number of the shops of the outfitters are found on the museum grounds: the Sail Loft (sailmaking); the Rope Walk (ropemaking); Rigging Loft (ship rigging); Shipsmith (manufacture of ironwork such as harpoons and ship's fittings); Hoop Shop (making wooden mast hoops which held the sail to the mast); Cooperage (cask and barrel making); Ship Chandlery (combination of grocery, hardware, and marine supply stores); and Drug Store (supplying the ship's medicine chest for the captain, who usually doubled as the ship's doctor).

Also very interesting is the Blubber Room. Sailors lowered blanket pieces of whale blubber into the room, while handlers stacked them as high as the workers' necks. Rope yarns, coiled into holes in the blubber, made lamps to light the blubber room where men on hands and knees cut blanket pieces into horse pieces four feet long and six feet wide. Later the horse pieces were "minced" into "books" on long planks set over tubs near the tryworks. The pieces were not cut quite through so that they resembled books. Then the books were tried out or boiled in large try pots. The try works continued day and night until all the blubber had been rendered into whale oil.

The sailors' contacts with the seaport began even before their ships docked. "Landsharks"--runners working for the taverns, boardinghouses, and outfitters' shops--would race to the incoming ships in "shark boats." They would sell outfits to the sailors, persuade them to come to their taverns, boarding houses, or outfitters, or sign them up for other voyages.

Schaefer's Spouter Tavern
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT

In port the sailors would usually head for the tavern/boarding house. Here they were kept amused until their money was gone. And without money, the sailors would be compelled to return to the sea. This type of economic coercion was tolerated in many a port given the ship owners' ever present need for manpower. No wonder seaports were such rowdy places.

The main room of the Spouter Tavern is from the Central House in Stoddard, New Hampshire. The museum has adapted it to represent a waterfront tavern.

Burrows House
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT

This house (c. 1805-1825) represents the home of a more established seaman and his family. Three rooms are displayed, including the parlor and kitchen.

Thomas Greenman House
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT

This 1842 house is one of three at the seaport owned by the Greenman family, all built between 1839 and 1842. The Greenmans owned the shipyard upon which Mystic Seaport Museum sits today. The houses are in their original locations.

The Thomas Greenman house is the most northerly of the three houses. The Clark Greenman House (the administration building) is in the middle and the George Greenman House is the most southerly. The latter two houses are not open to the public.

Although Thomas Greenman was a shipbuilder, his house gives some idea of the lifestyle of a whaling captain--for captains had high prestige in their communities, often ranking with doctors and lawyers. The house is set up in mid-Victorian style. (However, most of the furniture was not owned by the Greenmans.)

Meeting House
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT

In many whaling ports there was a Whalers' Church. This, however, was the church (c. 1851) of the Greenman brothers who were Seventh-Day Baptists.

Children's Museum
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT

This museum building, where children are allowed to play with the toys inside, gives the visitor some insight into the lives of the whaling captains' wives and children. About one out of four wives went with their husbands on the whaling voyages, which could last up to four years per voyage. Letters and pictures help bring the families to life.

Other Sites

Visit Mystic Marinelife Aquarium located at Exit 90, I-95. It is only a few minutes walk from here to Olde Mistick Village shopping center. The towns of New London and Stonington are also nearby.


Whaling: New London

New London whaling dates from the sailing of the "Rising Sun" in 1784. The whaling ships sailed south along the coast of Brazil and returned north with hundred of barrels of whale oil. In 1864 New London's whaling fleet was only one ship less than New Bedford's, with seventy-two ships and barks, one brig, and six schooners. The last whaler to make this port was the schooner "Margaret" in 1909.

Whale Oil Row
105-119 Huntington Street, New London, CT (Open Tues-Sat 1-5, all year; or by appointment)

Perhaps the best indicator of New London's prosperity during the mid-1800s are these four imposing Greek Revival buildings (c. 1835-1845). These are the Coit Houses. They constitute what is known as "Whale Oil Row," so-called because their owners were leaders in that industry. All four houses have similar facades, highlighted by two-story porticoes with fluted Ionic columns.

Three of the four buildings have been converted to offices, while the fourth is home to the Tale of the Whale Museum. This museum gives a great deal of information about the different kinds of whales that were hunted by the whalers, in general, and about New London whaling history, in particular. Among the items on display are a whale boat, small shell collection, nautical instruments, jaw bone of a whale, a small library, whale products, and scrimshaw.

Starr Street
Starr Street, New London, CT

There are a number of beautiful homes here built with money derived from the sea. Some of the more beautiful homes are Catherine A. Slocum (1839), Timothy T. Sugrue (1895), and Albert G. Crocker (1862).

United States Coast Guard Academy Museum
Route 32 and Williams Street, New London, CT (Open daily 9-5, May-Oct; weekends in April)

The origins of the Coast Guard go back to 1790 with the formation of the Revenue Marine under the Department of the Treasury. Alexander Hamilton wanted to collect import taxes, so it was imperative that the nation stop the smuggling going on at that time. The United States Coast Guard Academy began in 1876 as the Revenue Cutter School of Instruction. The original class of nine cadets began their training on the schooner "Dobbin," which operated out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. In 1910 the Academy moved from its then home port of Arundel Cove, Maryland to Fort Trumbull, an Army coastal defense installation in New London.

The Academy continued to grow, and in 1932 new buildings were completed at the present site of the Academy on land donated by the people of New London. In 1946 the "Eagle" was acquired. Visitors can tour the ship when it is in port. In addition, while on campus visit the United States Coast Guard Museum. The museum has many ship models telling the Coast Guard story. There are also models of Coast Guard aircraft and a section dealing with the Life Saving Service (complete with surfcar and Lyle gun used to hurl a line to a ship).

Lyman-Allyn Museum
625 Williams Street, New London, CT (Open Tues-Sat 11-5, Sun 1-5, all year)

Located on the Connecticut College campus, the museum contains an outstanding collection of doll houses, doll furniture, and toys, along with displays of American art, furniture, silver, and costumes. The furniture collection is especially interesting in that it is organized by type (and, therefore, also by time period). There is a nice view of the Coast Guard Academy from the hill on which the museum sits.

Deshon-Allyn House
613 Williams Street (Same hours as the Lyman-Allyn Museum where tours of the house are arranged)

Built by a prominent whaling captain in 1829, this house is now operated by the Lyman-Allyn Museum. The interior contains many original Federal pieces.

Other Sites

There are two other chapters dealing with New London: the raid on New London during the Revolutionary War and the playwright Eugene O'Neill. Also visit the nearby town of Stonington.

The China Trade: Middletown

Following the Revolution, American merchants started looking for new markets to replace the lost British ones. Another motivating factor to search for new markets was the uncertain policies of the often warring European nations. China appeared to be an ideal substitute. Trade with that country began on a grand scale three months after the British left New York City. In 1784 the "Empress of China" sailed from New York City. The ship brought to China the ginseng root, which grows wild in the woods of New England. The Chinese thought the root to be an aphrodisiac. The merchant vessel brought back Chinese tea, as well as other goods. The demand for ginseng was soon satiated, so the Americans had to look around for something else the Chinese might want. That something else was American furs.

To aid the China trade, clipper ships, especially designed for speed, were built. The first clipper, the "Sea Witch," sailed for China in 1846. Although these ships were originally designed for this trade, the discovery of gold in California in 1849 and later in Australia created a scarcity of ships and drove the demand for express freight sky-high.

No matter how romantic these ships were, they flourished scarcely more than half a decade. Too much emphasis was placed on speed and not enough on cargo space. This made it possible for the windjammers to replace the clippers. The substitute may have been slower, but it could carry much more cargo.

By 1756 Middletown, with its population of 5,664, was the largest and wealthiest town in the state of Connecticut. It was Connecticut's most important port because it was the leading shipping center for the West Indies trade. Middletown's Main Street was home to seventeen residents connected with the sea.

During the Revolutionary War, Middletown and the other Connecticut River Valley towns, sent out hundreds of privateers to prey on British ships. They also, of course, provided numerous supplies to the army.

Samuel Russell House
High Street, Middletown, CT

Samuel Russell had been in Canton, China for nearly twenty years with his clipper ships that were the fastest in the trade. He founded Russell and Company of Canton, China. He also owned the Russell Manufacturing Company in Middletown that made woven elastic webbing. While in China, Russell drew up plans for a house. His friend, Samuel D. Hubbard, oversaw the instructions, and hired Ithiel Town as architect and David Hoadley as builder. The house was completed in 1830. Hubbard rescued the two story high Corinthian columns in the front of the house from a New Haven bank that had failed. In the interior are many pieces of Chinese furniture, china, and silks. It was the showplace of the town with garden and grounds that covered more than five acres.

In 1859, Edward Everett, the most famous orator of the time and one-time president of Harvard and secretary of state and speaker with Lincoln at the Gettysburg battlefield, visited the town to give for the 109th time his lecture on George Washington. He stayed at the house and wrote his wife of the luxuriousness of his quarters in the "Russell Palace." In 1860 he enlarged the twenty-two room mansion by adding a north wing. This was to be home for his orphaned grandson, Samuel Wadsworth Russell, who was thirteen years of age at the time. In all there are forty-two rooms in the mansion. The house remained in the Russell family until 1936 when it was presented to Wesleyan University.

Wesleyan University
5 High Street, Middletown, CT

This university was established in 1830.

Richard Alsop IV House
30 High Street, Middletown, CT

Richard Alsop IV owned a business trading with Chile and the West Indies from Philadelphia. Ithiel Town may have designed the mansion. The house has trompe l'oeil sculpture niches and painted decorations, many of which resemble those on the interior walls of the Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Royal Palace in Potsdam. Other interior aspects show Greek Revival and Italianate influences. The morning room is especially lovely with painted flowers, ferns, and vines on the walls. In the entrance hall is a mirror-backed pier table. The university's Davison Art Center is located in a wing of the mansion.

General Mansfield House
151 Main Street (Route 9, Route 66 Exit to Main Street), Middletown, CT (Open Mon 10-4, Sun 1-5, all year)

Built in 1810, this Federal style home, with seventeenth to nineteenth century furnishings contains Civil War memorabilia, firearms, and changing exhibits. Joseph King Fennor Mansfield (1803-1862) was born in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1817 he was a cadet at West Point, from which he graduated in 1822. Mansfield constructed Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River. In 1832 he was made first lieutenant and six years became captain.

Mansfield was the chief engineer of the army under General Taylor during the Mexican-American War. He designed and constructed Fort Brown on the Rio Grande opposite Matamoras and took part in its defense, for which he was made brevet major. At Monterey, he made the preliminary reconnaissance on which the battle plan was based and conducted one of the columns of the attack, for which he was made brevet lieutenant colonel. He became a brevet colonel following the battle of Buena Vista being made a brevet colonel.

After the war Captain Mansfield worked on coastal defenses. In 1853 he became inspector-general of the army, and toured a great many frontier forts. During the Civil War, he was made the rank of brigadier general in the regular army. At the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, it took his corps over an hour and a half to march one mile to Hooker's corps. If the two federal corps could have attacked together it is very possible they would have broken Stonewall Jackson's line. He had been with his corps for only two days prior to the battle, and many of his lead regiments were composed entirely of raw recruits who had enlisted only a month before. A musket ball mortally wounded Mansfield shortly after reaching the scene of action, and while urging his troops to the attack.

Captain Benjamin Williams-DeKoven House
27 Washington Street, Middletown, CT

Georgian-style brick house (c. 1791) now used as a community center.

Other Sites

Since Middletown is halfway between New Haven and Hartford, this tour can be combined with those of either major city.

Steamboats: Essex and Stonington

This chapter tours two communities with ties to steamboat history. They are both very interesting towns to visit. Judging from the size of the boats at Essex, it must be a very rich community. In contrast, Stonington looks a little quainter with more of a fishing village atmosphere. The visit to Essex will take an entire day if every site is toured. Stonington does not take as long, but the charm of the place may make you linger.

John Fitch is considered the father of the American steam vessel. In 1786 he designed a sort of mechanical canoe which used steam power. In 1792 Samuel Morey ran a steamboat on the upper Connecticut River. Several years later he built a stern-wheeler that made the 150 mile trip between New York and Hartford.

Morey gave his designs to New York Chancellor Robert Livingston, because Morey himself could not finance continued endeavors. Livingston in turn passed the designs on to Robert Fulton, and also helped finance Fulton's plans.

In 1807 Fulton journeyed up the Hudson River in a steamboat that came to be known as the "Clermont" in honor of Robert Livingston's Hudson River estates. Fulton may not have been the first to invent the steam boat, but he is given credit for first putting steam power into practical, commercial use. Because of this Fulton and Livingston were given a monopoly over all steamboat services. The monopoly prevented the Connecticut River steamboats from direct access to New York. Passengers had to get off near Greenwich, Connecticut and take a twenty-five mile stagecoach ride into the city. Naturally, others resented this monopoly and did all they could to get around it. It was not until 1825 that the United State Supreme Court struck down the monopoly. After the Supreme Court set aside the monopoly, the ferry business opened up.

Connecticut River Foundation at Steamboat Dock
Main Street, Essex, CT (Open daily, except Mon, 10-5, Mar-Dec)

This 1879 wooden warehouse has an excellent maritime collection. The visitor can learn about some of the steam boats used for ferry services. The dock here served as the steamboat passenger and freight terminal until 1931. This was the year the New York boat service was stopped.

The first commercial steamboat service on the Connecticut River (between Middletown and Hartford) began in 1813 with the "Juliana." Two years later steam boat service was established between New York and New Haven with the "Fulton." Regular steamer service to New York began on the Connecticut River in 1824 with the "Oliver Ellsworth," built in Essex for the Connecticut Steam Boat Company.

In 1822 William Redfield of Cromwell, Connecticut incorporated the Connecticut Steamboat Company. In the 1840s William H. Goodspeed became the manager of the Hartford and New York Steamboat Company, which had been organized in 1841 to succeed the Connecticut Steamboat Company. Goodspeed owned the opera house, hotel, bank and restaurant at Goodspeed's Landing in East Haddam.

The museum has several models of early ferry boats. One such is the "City of Hartford," which competed with the "Granite State." In addition to this exhibit, the museum has exhibits on the first submarine (made by David Bushnell); shipbuilding along the Connecticut River; as well as Essex during the American Revolution. There is a small park along the river.

Hayden Starkey House
Foot of Main Street, Essex, CT

This 1813 house has been restored and now contains Thomas A. Stevens's extensive maritime collection, dealing with the history of the river.

Hayden Tavern
Main Street, Essex, CT

Uriah Hayden was one of the leading shipbuilders of his day. It was in his yard that Connecticut's first warship, the "Oliver Cromwell," was built in 1776. He was the original owner of the tavern. It is now the Dauntless Club (private).

The Griswold Inn
Main Street, Essex, CT

This inn has been in business ever since it opened in 1776. The Tap Room was originally a one-room schoolhouse. The inn has collections of ship prints, antique firearms, and steamboat memorabilia.

First Baptist Church
Prospect Street, Essex, CT

This 1845 church much resembles the 1844 Whaler's Church in Sag Harbor, which can be seen across the Sound. It is even in the same Egyptian Revival style.

William Pratt House
20 West Street, Essex, CT

This 1678 house was home to five generations of Pratts, three of whom were blacksmiths. Lieutenant William Pratt, who fought against the Pequot, was one of the founders of Essex. Some of the items found in the house are Connecticut redware or slipware, a pomander ball (stick cloves in oranges to control odors), pressed tea (called a tea block and that looks more like a book), and courting mirrors (a man would bring the mirror to a woman and, if accepted, it was like accepting a wedding ring). Maintained The Essex Historical Society maintains the house with period furnishings, while the Essex Garden Club cultivates the herb garden.

Hills Academy
Prospect Street, Essex, CT

This 1832 brick school building now houses the collection of the Essex Historical Society. Here, among other items, is the medicine and toilet kit of Captain Isaiah Pratt. There is also a collection of ivory and glassware.

Other Sites

See the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. It was built by William H. Goodspeed who was involved in shipping, banking, and mercantile businesses. The six story building was finished in 1876. The theater is atop the building, which housed Goodspeed's shipping office, bar, steamboat passenger terminal, and general store. The steamboats would often bring whole Broadway shows to the opera house. Today actors still put on performances at the opera house.

Tour the Gillette Castle in Hadlyme or take a train ride out of Essex. The trip to see the Gillette Castle involves crossing the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, which is a state historic landmark, and the second oldest ferry in Connecticut in continuous use. The first crossing was initiated by Jonathan Warner of Chester in 1769. Great views of the Gillette Castle are available from the ferry. This is the former home of William Gillette, who gave us the modern portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Gillette was one of the stars in the Charles Frohman galaxy that included such famous actors as Ethel Barrymore, Billie Burke (who played the good witch in the movie "The Wizard of Oz"), and Maude Adams. The awnings over the windows are constructed of stone and make it appear as if the castle is melting. The center room, reminding one of a hotel lobby, has stairs up to a balcony where the many small rooms are located. There is plenty of beautiful ornate woodwork here. Don't miss the room set up like Sherlock Holme's study at 221-B Baker Street, complete with violin and microscope. From the castle are some great views of the Connecticut River.


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