The Main Stream Of New England

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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.