Flowing from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound, nourishing both industry and agriculture, and carrying on its back sailing sloops, steamships, and pleasure craft, the Connecticut River has been for three hundred years.
A river is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things,” wrote the famous clergyman-educator Henry van Dyke. “It has a life, a character, a voice of its own.” Everyone, therefore, has his favorite stream, from Father Tiber to the mighty Pedernales. Ancient man revered and deified great rivers like the Ganges and the Nile, and along them have grown trade, settlement, and civilization.
The little colony of Connecticut had an impact upon the development of the United States far beyond its size and population. In the nineteenth century, that keen observer of America Alexis de Tocqueville summed up this fact in a speech to Americans celebrating the Fourth of July in Paris in 1835. Recounting, in his heavily accented English, an illuminating experience he had had in the gallery of the House of Representatives in Washington, he recalled:
… I held one map of the Confederation in my hand. Dere was von leetle yellow spot dey called Connect-de-coot. I found by the Constitution he was entitled to six of his boys to represent him on dat floor. But ven I make de acquaintance person elle with de member, I find dat more than tirty of the Representatif on dat floor was born in Connect-de-coot. And then ven I was in the gallery of the House of the Sen at , I find de Constitution permits Connect-de-coot to send two of his boys to represent him in dat Legislature. But once more … I find nine of de Senator was born in Connect-de-coot. … the leetle yellow spot … make de clockpeddler, de school master, and de senator. De first, give you time; the second, tell you what you do with him; and de sird make your law and your civilization.
But let us return to where the story begins: the river was called the Quinnehtukqut by the Indians, meaning “long estuary” or “long tidal river,” because the tide rises and falls as far north as the Enfiekl rapids, almost at the Massachusetts line, sixty miles from its mouth. The Connecticut twists and eddies through stretches of woods, meadows, and marshes that delight the eye of the modern adventurer as much as they must have pleased the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block when he sailed upstream in 1614. Block had been preparing to return to Holland from the island of Manhattan with a cargo of furs when his ship burned. He and his crew then built the Onrust (the name means “unrest” or “restless") and continued along the coast to the Connecticut, which he called De Versehe, “the Freshwater” river. (The explorer is memorialized by Block Island, just outside the point where Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic.)
During the next few years groups from Massachusetts led by Thomas Hooker and others made settlements along the river at Hartford and Wethersfield. Thus was established the nucleus of the Connecticut colony. One eminent historian, Charles M. Andrews, maintains, in the face of some skepticism, that “every acre … was honestly obtained.” In any case, the land was worthless to the unwarlike river tribes without the Englishman’s musket. Soon the settlers and their Indian friends had to contend with and later decimate the Pequots. Eventually most of the red men disappeared before the onslaught of the white man’s diseases and the conversion of their hunting and fishing paradise into a land of villages and cultivated fields. Now the English had only the Dutch to deal with.
Considering their different objectives, it was inevitable that the English in their new settlements and the Dutch in their little fort would clash. Rarely on the frontier have agricultural and trading societies been able to live peacefully together. Out of this confrontation came the word that is now universally applied to citizens of the United States, “Yankee.” It probably derives from the Dutch diminutive of Jan, Janke (Johnny in English), and then, as now, one of the implications of the term was “rascal” or “brigand.” It was a common nickname among the Dutch buccaneers along the Spanish Main. Thus, it was natural for the Dutch traders to brand the Englishmen who coveted the rich meadowland around their post janke pirates.
With families to feed, the Yankee newcomers soon commenced to encroach on Dutch territory, planting life-giving corn and other crops. The Dutch were too few and the English multiplying too fast for the struggle to be even; unable to resolve their legal claims and unwilling to risk open warfare, the Hollanders finally sailed downriver for good in 1654. A hundred years later the Yankee, by then a trader par excellence, was the butt of jokes everywhere he appeared. But he always bore proudly the nickname which had come to connote, in addition to “rascal,” one who was shrewd, inventive, and practical; and some would proclaim, as did the hero of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the state of Connecticut. … So I am a Yankee of the Yankees. …”
Finally, in 1644, Fenwick sold the fort to the General Court at Hartford. The terms required the colonists to pay him twopence per bushel for “all graine that shall be exported out of this River for ten yeares ensueing,” sixpence per hundredweight for “Biskett,” and twenty shillings for each hogshead of beaver. Later, the terms were changed to a flat payment of 180 pounds annually, one third in good wheat, one third in peas, and one third in rye or barley. After Lady Fenwick’s death in 1645 George Fenwick returned to England. But Lion Gardiner bought an island off the tip of Long Island, named it after himself, and thus established a manor which has remained in the Gardiner family to this day.
The deal between Fenwick and the General Court at Hartford was typical of the barter system which the Yankees used from the beginning along the river highway and, in time, refined to the highest degree. The first building erected at the confluence of the Farmington and Connecticut rivers, at Windsor in 1633, was the Plymouth trading house, which in prefabricated form had been transported over water by William Holmes from Plymouth, Massachusetts.
William Pynchon, at Springfield, Massachusetts, was the first Englishman to establish a thriving river trade; because of the rapids at Enfield he built, in 1636, a warehouse just above Windsor, where he could unload his shallops and pinnaces and move the goods overland to Springfield or transfer the cargo to flatboats poled by a dozen stout men who, their labors eased by ample consumption of West Indian kill-devil, braved the rapids and reached Springfield by water. Pynchon’s trade with the Indians was mostly in pelts, which he shipped to Boston. In fact beaver skins were such a common medium of exchange that when merchants struck the first coins or tokens, long before the issuance of government currency, that specie bore a crude image of the valuable little animal and the coins were popularly called beavers.
It was not long before Indian maize, tobacco, and other crops were being exported, not only to Massachusetts but after 1650 to England and the West Indies. Sailing masters found that the voyage upriver was in many ways more hazardous and certainly more frustrating than the ocean passage to the Indies. It usually took as long to sail from Saybrook to Wethersfield, two weeks, as to reach the mouth of the river from the land of rum and sugar. There was no dependable channel, there were no markers, no cuts through the sand bars—and no sailing was allowed on the Sabbath; they had to contend against strong tidal currents and fickle southwest winds impeded by the hills. To beat to windward in such a narrow body of water was nigh impossible. Frequently, a vessel had to be towed by the crew, who carried a line ashore or who “walked” the ship by kedging an anchor upstream. Captain Lord of Glastonbury, in his sloop Speedwell, took twenty-six days to cover the ten miles from Glastonbury to Rocky Hill and wrote in his journal: “We can neither warp, tow, nor sail, and I feare me we never schalle.” Next to the big bar at Saybrook, which had only six feet of water over it, the greatest obstacle in the seventeenth century was the double oxbow bend at Wethersfield, with its 180 degree turns, which forced river captains to anchor below Hartford for days and weeks at a time—and, incidentally, made Wethersfield the leading port of the period. Nature solved this problem in 1698, when a spring flood almost straightened the course of the river.
The colonists’ dependence upon the river as the main artery of trade and travel for two centuries stimulated the growth of a prosperous shipbuilding industry. The first ship was launched at Wethersfield in 1649. She was the Tryall, built by Thomas Deming, whose yard was to keep busy until the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1700 small shipyards from Saybrook to Windsor were turning out vessels up to 100 tons. They started by copying the chunky, high-pooped English design, but soon turned to building the distinctive river sloops with their sharply raked masts and long bowsprits set at a sharp angle. Sometimes they were rigged with a square topsail and topgallant and carried an enormous square foresail to run before the wind.
While their sloops were venturing to distant horizons, the colonists had to find ways of crossing the river itself in order to carry on their daily tasks. There was no bridge until 1808. Cable-operated ferries quickly appeared. The first was Bissell’s at Windsor in 1648; it was operated by the family for three generations. For a while the Hartford ferry used a horse on a treadmill—enclosed in a cage to prevent contact with passengers—which turned a paddlewheel amidships. On a 1794 map of the state six ferries appear; as many as fifteen existed from time to time, including private ones like that of gunmaker Sam Colt (the largest employer on the river), which transported employees from the Colt armory across to East Hartford. (There are still two ferries in operation.) The Chester-to-Hadlyme ferry was originally a sailboat belonging to a man named Warner, who presented it to his son as a wedding present with the stipulation that if he earned more than thirty dollars a year in tolls, the excess must be returned to his father. When a traveller wished to cross there, he blew on a tin horn attached to a large maple tree near the landing.
By the middle of the eighteenth century shipbuilding on the river had reached its peak, and it continued to prosper almost without interruption for another hundred years, despite two wars and the introduction of competing forms of transportation. Over seventy vessels, locally built and owned, and employing nearly 500 men in their crews, were in service in the mid-seventeen-hundreds. Haddam had “nine great shippes” on her ways at one time, Essex thirty. At this time the sloops were giving way to larger craft like the new schooners and brigs. An English officer visiting Hartford in 1764 wrote in his journal: “Here they build vessels, for the Lumber Trade to the West Indies, from 100 to 150 tons, and float them down in Freshes, in Spring and Fall.” When the Revolution came, the town of Essex gave the colonies their first homemade warship, the 24-gun Oliver Cromwell, built by Uriah Hayden. Her twelve-foot draft made her the largest craft to cross the Saybrook bar, and before being captured by the British three years later she succeeded in taking nine prizes. In the course of the war, the Connecticut navy comprised thirteen vessels, in addition to nearly three hundred commissioned privateers. The river itself was defended by the fort at Old Saybrook, with a battery of six guns and a twenty-man garrison.
After the victory of the colonies, river commerce revived. The increasingly larger and heavier ships plying the Connecticut forced merchants to do something about the main obstacle to more profitable cargoes—the lack of a dependable channel from Hartford to the mouth. In 1773 the first real move to improve navigation had been made by the assembly when, goaded by the Hartford merchant Jeremiah Wadsworth, it had voted to raise money by lottery for marking the Saybrook bar. Still, the average depth was less than six feet. In 1784 one of Wadsworth’s captains advised him that he had brought a load of salt to New London and there engaged two small craft to carry about a thousand bushels to Hartford, and he hoped this action would “lighten ship so she will go over Saybrook Bar with a common Tide.” Even at high tide loaded sloops and schooners could not reach Hartford under sail. At great expense and delay it was often necessary to warp them across the sand bars or unload their cargoes into lighters below Middletown. As a result of Wadsworth’s petition to the legislature, the Union Company was chartered in 1800 to deepen the river bed below Hartford, to construct wharves, and to collect tolls to pay for the improvements.
The War of 1812, highly unpopular in New England, brought about a coastal blockade and caused the Connecticut River merchants severe hardships. During the conflict English men-of-war boldly invaded the river, set fire to Essex, and burned twenty-three ships. To reduce their risks, the Hartford merchants entered into partnerships, taking shares in various vessels and adventures. There was even joint underwriting of ship insurance, at 5 1/2 or 6 per cent interest, with individual liability commonly limited to 100 pounds. These experiences were an important factor in making Hartford a world insurance capital.
The river merchants were the center of the power structure of this period; they made up what Vernon Parrington called “a small, interlocking directorate [that] controlled religion, business, and politics.” Staunch Federalists, good Congregationalists, they were the bulwark of a social system that did not change until the Industrial Revolution. Their fortunes, based in most instances on smaller ships, were not as impressive as those of the great Massachusetts shipping moguls with their ocean ports; but in proportion to the total population of the colony there were more shipping fortunes. Called the “river gods,” these shipowners and merchants supplied the American armies of several wars, helping to make Connecticut famous as the arsenal of the nation.
A new era arrived suddenly for the Connecticut in 1815, when the steamboat Fulton churned upriver between the scows and sloops cluttering the channel and docked in Hartford for thousands to see. Rigged as a sloop, in case sails were needed—as indeed they often were—she made a dreadful din with her wood-fired engine, which gave off sharp, staccato blasts of steam. The Courant enthused: “Indeed it is hardly possible to conceive that anything of its Kind can exceed her, in elegance and convenience.” She was designed by Robert Fulton, the man popularly acknowledged to be the inventor of the steamboat, despite the fact that John Fitch, a native of Windsor who died by his own hand in penury, had successfully used steam to propel vessels seventeen years before Fulton. “The day will come,” Fitch had prophesied, “when some more powerful man will get fame and riches from my invention; but nobody will believe that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of attention.”
Four years after the Fulton’s debut a steamboat was launched at Hartford and functioned as a towboat along the river. There quickly followed regular steamboat service thrice weekly on the Enterprize of Captain James Pitkin, who advertised that passengers could be landed “at any place on the river at their pleasure.” The Oliver Ellsworth, in 1824, was the first of a long line of “floating palaces” that cruised the river in the next half century. Built by the Connecticut Steam Boat Company, she was 112 feet long, 24 feet in beam, had an eight-foot draft, and weighed nearly 230 tons. Her 44-horsepower engine enabled her to average eight knots. Sleeping 62 persons and carrying 400 passengers, at five dollars apiece, she made three trips a week between Hartford and New York, the approximately 140-mile voyage sometimes taking as little as eighteen hours. This same year, “amidst the salute of cannon and the shouts of thousands of gratified and grateful spectators,” the aged Marquis de Lafayette left Hartford aboard her during his last, triumphal visit to America.
Travel on the early side-wheelers, with their crude cross-head engines and undependable copper boilers, was at best a hazardous undertaking. Three years later, when in the sound about four miles from Saybrook light at seven thirty in the evening, the Oliver Ellsworth’s boiler exploded, and the steam injured several persons and killed a fireman. She managed to sail into Saybrook, whence an excited postrider galloped to Hartford, burst in upon the legislature sitting in the old statehouse, and shouted: “The Eliver Ollsworth … biled her buster!” Not long after, the New England blew up at Essex, killing or maiming fifteen out of seventy people aboard. Despite these disasters, the number of steamboats on the river increased sharply after 1840. River traffic, although the railroad whistle was already sounding its death knell, was then at its peak, and three competing steamboat lines served New York. In 1846 there were over 2,000 arrivals and departures of sail and steam vessels at Hartford’s twenty-odd wharves, even though the town’s population was barely 13,000.
Thus encouraged, the merchants proceeded with the building of the Enfield canal, a six-mile-long, seventyfoot-wide ditch to get around those rapids, deep enough to accommodate large flatboats and steamboats up to seventy-five tons. (In 1795, with the construction of the canal at South Hadley, Massachusetts, to bypass the Hadley Falls, the Connecticut had become the first river in the United States to be so improved.) Four hundred Irishmen arrived as workmen, their worldly goods tied in red bandannas, and in 1829 the Enfield canal opened to traffic. Fifteen boats passed through the first day, including Thomas Blanchard’s new stern-wheeler Vermont. Soon stern-wheelers were chugging daily between Hartford and Springfield, going up through the canal and down over the rapids. Tolls were one dollar per passenger and fifty cents per ton of freight. In February of 1842, Charles Dickens made a downstream trip in the Massachusetts , which he described as having “about half a pony power.” Actually, it was nearly twenty. In his American Notes, he wrote:
Fortunately, however, the winter having been unusually mild, the Connecticut River was “open,” or, in other words, not frozen. The captain of a small steamboat was going to make his first trip for the season that day (the second February trip, I believe, within the memory of man). … Mr. Paap, the celebrated Dwarf, might have lived and died happily in the cabin, which was filled with common sashwindows like an ordinary dwelling-house. … But even in this chamber there was a rocking-chair. It would be impossible to get on anywhere, in America, without a rocking-chair. … I may state that we all kept the middle of the deck, lest the boat should unexpectedly tip over. … The river was full of floating blocks of ice, which were constantly crunching and cracking under us; and the depth of water … did not exceed a few inches. … The Connecticut River is a fine stream; and the banks in summer-time are, I have no doubt, beautiful.…
Dickens was less enamored of the leading citizens of Hartford whom he met upon arrival: “Too much of the old Puritan spirit exists in these parts to the present hour; but its influence has not tended, that I know, to make the people less hard in their bargains, or more equal in their dealings.”
Two years after his voyage the completion of the railroad between Hartford and Springfield signalled the eventual end of the boom days for both the upper river and the steamboats which used it. But the Enfield canal still had its uses; it was converted to a source of power for the paper and textile companies springing up along the river. Even today its four locks are operable, and powerboats go through them to return to the mouth of the Connecticut at the start of each yachting season. On the lower river, between Hartford and the sound, however, travel only increased.
In the years before the Civil War river steamers were transporting more than ordinary passengers and goods. With abolitionist sentiment strong in New England, many a shipowner, like Jesse G. Baldwin of Middletown, Connecticut, found room on his vessel for runaway slaves and thereby made the river a link in the underground railroad. Steamboats bringing southern cotton to Connecticut mills not infrequently carried fugitives, and Old Lyme was an active underground railroad center. In Hartford the most prominent abolitionist was Francis Gillette, a United States senator and father of the famous actor William Gillette. At his Nook Farm, which later became the focus of the city’s intellectual life and where Charles Dudley Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Joseph Hawley, and Mark Twain were to live, Gillette gave food and shelter to dark-skinned travellers who came and went in secrecy. The slave trade never played a significant role in Connecticut’s economy. In 1784 the legislature had provided for gradual emancipation of the 6,500 slaves then in the state; by 1830, there were only 23 slaves left out of a Negro population of some 8,000, and in 1848 the legislature abolished slavery.
After the Civil War, thanks to the excellent steamboat service, the river developed into a popular resort area for the carriage trade of New York City. The Haddams in particular attracted summer visitors. At East Haddam was Goodspeed’s Hotel, one of the many enterprises of an unusual Yankee fireball by the name of William Goodspeed, who was, besides being a hotelkeeper, a successful shipbuilder, merchant, and banker. To capture and hold the tourists arriving by steamboat at his hotel, he conceived the idea of an opera house ornately decorated in the manner of a steamer saloon. Finished in 1877, Goodspeed’s Opera House was an instant success. Entire shows were brought from Broadway, often for a one-night stand. Josh Billings, Bloodgood’s Minstrels, and orators of note, such as Henry Ward Beecher, all played Goodspeed’s. The large drop curtain depicted the steamer State of New York—the last and most elegant of the side-wheelers—passing below East Haddam. Ironically, in 1881 the State of New York struck a hidden snag and was beached with a big hole in her bottom at almost the identical spot shown on the curtain. A promoter at heart, Goodspeed was more than equal to the occasion. He raced to the balcony of the Opera House which overlooked the river and instructed the captain of the ferryboat Goodspeed to bring the 150 passengers to see the show at his expense and to spend the night at his hotel. It is said that the next day he offered a twin bill: Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Opera House and a visit to the wrecked steamer. Her wreck forced the Hartford & New York Steamboat Company into receivership, and from then on, in diminishing numbers and elegance, the steamboat continued to fight a losing battle against the railroad and the highway, until the Hartford made its last trip during the early 1930s. Goodspeed’s Opera House has recently been beautifully restored, and operates as a theatre, but the great passenger steamers whistle up no more.
The first half of the twentieth century on the Connecticut, as on many American rivers, was memorable mainly for a series of disastrous floods. In November, 1927, a great flood swept down the Connecticut Valley from Vermont, killing some twenty-one people and causing a property loss estimated at fifteen million dollars. Another terrible flood hit the valley in March of 1936, when eleven lives were lost and more than thirty-five million dollars in property was destroyed. This finally led to a public outcry for flood-control dams on the tributaries of the Connecticut, and many of these have now been constructed. The hurricane of 1938 struck the valley particularly hard. New England had not had a hurricane since 1815, and advance warnings were few. The river rose, covering highways and railroads, and the high winds denuded the towns of the valley of most of their trees.
Today, beneath the fine new skyline at Hartford and through a maze of superhighways, the river runs almost forgotten. Here no docks remain, only a few old pilings and bulkheads that give mute testimony to what used to be, and the dikes shut out any view of the stream itself. Worse than man’s neglect of the river has been his abuse of it, especially of this upper section, where the tide is almost imperceptible, and where no cleansing salt water sweeps in from ocean and sound. The Connecticut has earned the unsavory reputation of being dirty, smelly, and unfit for man, fish, or bird. Concern over the river’s condition was expressed as early as 1884 by J. B. Olcott of South Manchester, who wrote: “A land with its rivers running filth instead of pure water, is like a body with its veins running filth instead of pure blood ... Hartford sits nervously in the lap of what was once one of the fairest and sweetest, and is now one of the filthiest valleys in the world.” Nevertheless the Connecticut is still vital to agriculture, industry, and power. Along its banks Yankee farmers produce thirty million dollars’ worth of shade-grown and broadleaf cigar tobacco annually, while factories use millions of gallons of the river daily for cooling and processing.
Surprisingly, the old Valley Railroad still serves river industry also; twice a week it runs from Middletown to Essex though the bed of the single track has become so bumpy that the maximum speed limit has been cut to twenty miles per hour. But the panorama from the diesel cab of the little freight train, as it rumbles along close to the river, is breathtaking. Below a feldspar quarry and a power station is a lonely stretch of woodland and hills that seems to have changed little since Block sailed by. The train cuts its way through the branches and brush on either side, occasionally scaring a partridge or rabbit, whistles by the deserted private crossings, and passes summer cottages facing the river, marinas, and boat-launching ramps. At the stops there are none to greet the train, there is no bustle of activity, only a car or two to drop off or pick up. The ride seems to lead one right back into the past.
More essential to Connecticut industry than the railroad is the river highway itself, and the tugboats, barges, and tankers that ply it year round, carrying three million tons of cargo upriver annually, more than half of it oil. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a fifteen-foot channel from Old Saybrook to Hartford, and the Coast Guard sees to it that over 100 navigation lights are kept in working order, including—since 1839—the sentinel guarding the mouth. In winter, the Coast Guard also keeps the channel open, using 100-foot tugs that can easily slice through two feet of ice.
With tens of thousands of pleasure craft now registered, and boating recognized as the Number One family sport, the river is fast becoming a great and noisy recreation highway. Numerous public launching sites, yacht clubs, marinas, small shipyards, and state parks dot the lower river, mostly below Middletown, where the water is saltier and a little cleaner. Army engineers are debating opening up the Connecticut above Hartford by dredging a channel for small boats all the way to Holyoke. At the same time, the water resources of the entire basin are being studied by the federal government to consider its recreational future and the possibility of preserving it as a unique kind of national park. Thus, despite the pollution and other changes, in many ways the river is being used for the sports and pleasures of yesteryear. Over 100,000 shad a year are still caught in the Connecticut, college crews race at Hartford, and diesel excursion boats cruise daily in good weather between Hartford and Middletown or give sightseers a peek at the lotus lilies of Selden’s Creek just above Brockway’s Landing and at the bygone splendor of the Haddams, where the picturesque castle of William Gillette sits atop the hill known as the Seventh Sister. Gliding past, one can almost hear again the cry of the bosun on the steamboat creeping upriver, calling out the landings: “Hadlyme, Haddam, North Haddam, East Haddam, Middle Haddam, Wish the devil had ’em!”
Between Essex and the entrance the marshes remain a naturalist’s paradise, even though the onslaught of civilization has reduced them to two thirds of their former size. Here, on land washed twice a day by salty tides, muskrats scamper through waist-high grasses and bulrushes; sandpipers poke about in search of insects; and wild duck and heron and osprey make their seasonal visits. Slip down in a sailboat past the marshes, the little towns, and the neat lighthouses, and you are in Long Island Sound, still pulsing with the same currents that carried in Adriaen Block over three and a half centuries ago. What vast changes all that time has seen!