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CRONKITE: Colonial Connecticut was quick to  exploit the sea for economic growth. Connecticut’s farmers and merchants prospered during the colonial period and the early 19th century with a huge maritime trade to the West Indian islands of the Caribbean. 

Connecticut shipped endless amounts of livestock, …to the West Indies as well as a lot of grown products: wheat, corn, potatoes, butter, cheese and what they generally brought back was rum, molasses and it was a very, very lucrative trade.

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): When you think of the West Indies Trade in Connecticut you ¾ you think of New Haven, you think of New London, Norwich, Stonington, ports along the Connecticut River, particularly Middletown and Hartford, Glastonbury all were deeply involved in the trade to the West Indies.  If you look at the marine lists …in the various newspapers of the time vessels were constantly leaving … for the West Indies.

BRENDA MILKOFSKY (Dir., Wethersfield Historical Society): The trade was an impetus for shipbuilding all over the state and for all of the allied trades for the anchor forgeries for sail makers for rope walks. It created a great deal of prosperity that a lot of people shared in, farmers as well, coopers, and it really led to the development of much of the great architecture that remains in Connecticut and the furniture and paintings that we find in museums and collections.


SALLY RYAN (New London Municipal Historian): This is the home 

built by William Coit 1763 But actually the Coit family in New London – goes back to the 1660’s when Coit came here and became involved in shipbuilding. The family was always involved in shipbuilding and they had shipyards right down on this cove here. If you look, you see it’s still land, you can see behind the houses across the way was where the Coit had their shipyards.  People like Coit built the ships that the mariners used in the West Indie trade.

New London, from the very beginning was a seaport.  Merchants like Nathaniel Shaw who lived here, this was his home, he was involved in the West Indian trade and people like Nathaniel Shaw became extremely wealthy. 

In the 18th Century the islands of the Caribbean, the West Indies, most of them their one big crop was sugar and they completely cleared the islands and planted every bit of land they had into sugar. So  places like New London, supported the plantation system down there in the West Indies.

BRENDA MILKOFSKY (Dir., Wethersfield Historical Society): The trade lasts really until the 1830’s when the plantation system in the islands begins to break down and the London investors who were backing all of those sugar plantations are looking to new industry for investment. The slaves are freed down there and so the mass markets for agricultural products and – and lumber begins to dissipate.


CRONKITE: Shipbuilding -- for pleasure, commerce and defense -- is an enduring Connecticut industry, starting in the Colonial era and continuing through today.

BRENDA MILKOFSKY (Dir., Wethersfield Historical Society): Shipbuilding along the Connecticut River was one of the largest industries with the exception of agriculture during the 18th and 19th Century. 

Some two dozen vessels were built across the river here in the Goodspeed Shipyard between 1848 and 1881.  Over the years there were about 42 shipyards between Saybrook and Springfield, Massachusetts. In the early period they built small coastwise vessels, sloops and schooners many of them in response to the – the stone industry, to carry brownstone and cobble and granite from the Connecticut River Valley to New York.

In the later years  the shipyards congregated in the lower valley and they began building 700 to 1,000 tonners. Many of those cotton packets for the cotton packet trade that many Connecticut families invested in. Many of them whalers …and vessels in the European packet trade as well. 

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): In the 19th Century I think of the principal activities as shipbuilding, fishing and coastal commerce as the great sort of triumvirate of activity.

The number of vessels sailing along the rivers and the Sound were just tremendous …today we don’t really get a glimpse of it at all because of the size of the vessels have changed, the types of vessels have changed.

CRONKITE: For a small state, in the 19th Century, Connecticut had a far-reaching impact in the maritime industry. Although most of the oceangoing long-distance vessels sailed from large ports like New York City or Boston, ownership often was Connecticut-based.

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): Being so close to New York which was the chief entrepot, chief port …of the nation …during the 19th Century was very important to the development not only of New York but of Connecticut itself. Connecticut built the vessels that sailed out of the Port of New York, supplied the merchants who operated the counting houses and the commission houses on South Street and also supplied the ship captains who sailed many of these vessels as well.

During the era of the clipper ship, for example, Connecticut furnished 22 clipper ships to the Port of New York and these vessels would sail from New York. A clipper ship actually is a vessel that was designed to carry cargo …in the quickest possible fashion to the ¾ to the gold fields of California.  They were very heavily sparred, heavily canvassed vessels, carried a lot of sail.

The clipper ship era lasted about 10 years, from 1850 to 1860, essentially, …Connecticut participated in it principally through the port of Mystic.  The Mystic clippers were ¾ were kind of a distinctive vessel.  In fact, the speed record from New York to San Francisco during that 10-year period was held by Mystic built clippers three of those years.

One of the clippers built here in …Mystic was a ship called the Andrew Jackson whose master was also a Mystic man, Captain John E. “Kicking Jack” Williams. And he is credited along with the famous Massachusetts built Flying Cloud as making the fastest passage from New York to San Francisco and he made that voyage in 89 days and 4 hours.

CRONKITE: There are few remaining shipyards in Connecticut today.  The building of wooden boats is all but a vanishing trade.  Howard Davis is a fourth-generation Connecticut shipwright whose years of experience inform his work as an exhibit interpreter at Mystic Seaport.

HOWARD DAVIS (Retired Shipwright): Well, you know, when you grow up next door to a boat shop, your father and grandfather are both working in the shipyard which is just over the hill, why, it just kind of came natural to me that that’s what I wanted to do.

I went in the shipyard as soon as I was out of high school at 18 years old and I learned to be a ship carpenter.

By 1941, I was ready to go to work in the Noank Shipyard.  So after I had been there a while I was moved into the carpenter’s crew and worked on the building of the ships which were 97-foot wooden mine sweepers.

After we finished the boats for the Navy we worked on pleasure boats, fishing boats and all this general maintenance of all kinds of boats, then I was offered a job at the Eldridge Boatyard in - down in Noank in 1947.  We built smaller boats mostly in the 35-foot class, by 1958 though something had happened to wooden boats. I spent 17 years learning to build them, then they build them out of fiberglass and so the Eldridge shop closed in 1958.

I haven’t worked on anything but woodworking because I wanted to build wooden boats.  To me it’s the best work anybody could get.  You start out with a pile of oak and a pile of cedar, two piles of wood and by April, if you’d start around Christmas, by April you’ve got a finished boat that’s ready to slide down into the water and the sense of satisfaction, I can’t describe it, but you’ve got it.


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