The Main Stream Of New England

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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.”