A Connecticut photographer’s record of life in a shipbuilding town
In the mid-nineteenth century, Mystic, Connecticut, was at once identical to all the small seafaring communities that stood on the Eastern seaboard and unique in that it turned out a greater tonnage of sturdy ships than any town of its size in America. It also bred more than its share of great seamen: Dick Brown, who sailed the America when she took the Queen’s cup; Henry Holdredge, who skippered the Black Ball Packets; Joseph Warren Holmes, who rounded the Horn eighty-three times.
The town and its people early drew the attention of the photographer Everett A. Scholf ield, and he spent most of his long life recording them. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1843, Scholf ield learned his trade from his father and settled in Mystic in 1865. He worked there until 1894, when he set up a studio in New London, but he lived in the town until his death in 1930.
The pictures on these pages are from the collections of the Mystic Seaport Museum, which has some six thousand of Scholf ield’s glass negatives; the information was provided by William N. Peterson, a supervisor of exhibits at the museum who is currently working on a photographic history of Mystic.
The photographs convey something of the energy that brought the town to its maritime supremacy; and something, too, of the hold it exerted on the men who were raised there. One of them, Dr. William Wilbur, himself the son of one of Mystic’s celebrated captains, wrote during the port’s decline: “I have had a dream of the home-coming of the ships, for this at last was their desired haven—from all the paths of the sea, from the wars of the world. … And the shadow of the ships was heavy on the river, and it oppressed me with the weight of years. Then the moon rose, and it was crossed and barred with masts and yards, and the edge of the sky was set with funnels and fretted with innumerable spars.”