The Main Stream Of New England


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.

Although seaworthy, the river sloops were hard to handle. Even so, often sailed by only a man and a boy, and with livestock on deck, they made regular trips to the Caribbean, where they cruised from island to island, bartering Connecticut produce. They then returned to river wharves, where they became floating stores. Advertising their wares in the Courant, the owners offered to exchange them for salt pork, wheat, lumber, tobacco, onions, horses, and cloth, which they carried south on their next voyage. Rum was by far their leading import, and tippling was so prevalent that an early almanac contained this ditty:

Ill husbands now in taverns sit
And spend more money than they git.
Calling for drink, and drinking greedy
Tho many of them poor and needy—

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.