Quick History

The Steamer Bristol

These stereograph cards show the exterior and interior of the steamer Bristol, built in 1867, one the largest wooden hull steamboats on Long Island Sound.  Bristol and a sister steamer, Providence, ran between New York and Rhode Island for over twenty years. The interiors of these steamboats were  extravagantly appointed with carpets, chandeliers, and ornate furniture. Wowed by these impressive vessels, middle class passengers would buy stereograph cards for viewing in a stereoscope. Mounted on cards, two identical photographs paired next to each other appeared as a single, three-dimensional image.  

“Yacht Race, Deering Harbor, Shelter Island”

Reynolds Beal (1866-1951) was a marine artist who traveled extensively and probably painted every harbor he visited. This watercolor on paper is entitled “Yacht Race, Deering Harbor, Shelter Island” and dates to 1923. Beal loved bright color and used impressionistic techniques to create movement in the water, sky, and sails. The Connecticut River Museum owns a small collection of thirteen paintings by Beal that showcase his love of sailing. 

“Yacht Race, Deering Harbor, Shelter Island” by Reynolds Beal (1866-1951)

Essex shipbuilder Nehemiah Hayden built the Vulture in 1853

Essex shipbuilder Nehemiah Hayden built the Vulture in 1853. It was built for the Post, Smith & Co. packet line in New York. Hayden kept drawings and descriptions of some of his vessels including these for Vulture. These pages show a list of clinch rings (metal fasteners), a drawing of a windlass (winch) and a deck plan for the Vulture. The ship was commanded by Gurdon L. Smith (1801-1882) of Essex. Maritime historian Thomas A. Stevens kept notecards on all the ships built along the Connecticut River.

“Lee Rail Awash, N.Y. 32”

Yngve Soderberg (1896-1972) lived and worked in Mystic, Connecticut and was known for his watercolors and etchings. This watercolor was housed in an old acidic mat that we removed – revealing faded colors in the water and sky, probably from exposure from the damaging rays of sunlight over time. Also revealed was the original title and cost of the artwork – “Lee Rail Awash, N.Y. 32” and the price was $75. The title tells the story of this atmospheric view of a sailboat’s lee rail skimming the wave-crested water as it leans hard against the wind to round a buoy. The “N.Y. 32” refers to the 1935 Sparkman and Stephens designed sailboat which was often seen racing in Long Island Sound.

“Lee Rail Awash, N.Y. 32” by Yngve Soderberg (1896-1972)

Shipwreck of the brig Commerce

One of the most dramatic accounts of a voyage from the Connecticut River has to be the shipwreck of the brig Commerce, commanded by James Riley of Middletown. The vessel traded goods in Gibraltar and was heading to the Cape Verde Islands when it shipwrecked off the African coast in 1815. Once ashore the crew were abducted by Arab nomads and forced into slavery.  The crew members were split up and taken by various nomadic bands. After months of starvation and servitude, the six foot tall, two hundred and forty pound James Riley was reduced to a mere 90 pounds.  Incredibly, all but three survived their ordeal and were eventually ransomed and returned home. Riley published his account of the ordeal  in 1817 and it became a bestseller. 

Vanitie by artist John Dary Aiken (1908-1999)

This lovely watercolor is of the America’s Cup contender Vanitie by artist John Dary Aiken (1908-1999). Vanitie was designed by William Gardner and built for industrialist Alexander Smith Cochran. She was built by George Lawley & Sons of East Boston in 1914. Her perennial rival was the Herreshoff designed Resolute also built in 1914. Vanitie changed owners, was refitted several times (in 1932 was given the tallest mast ever stepped in a sailing vessel) and competed in the America’s Cup three times, but never won. John Dary Aiken, a Boston area artist, probably painted her in the early 1930s before she was scrapped in 1939.

Vanitie by artist John Dary Aiken (1908-1999)

The Schooner Robert Center

The Schooner Robert Center was built in Essex in 1830. In 1854 it went on a voyage to the port of Callao, in Lima, Peru.  There it received tons and tons of a precious commodity called guano. The nearby Chincha Islands was the location of huge guano deposits that were harvested and traded all over the world for fertilizer. The chart markings show a route traced by someone aboard the Robert Center – perhaps by Joseph H. Arnold of Deep River (1821-1869) who commanded the vessel for many years.  

Hartford merchant George Pierce

Hartford merchant George Pierce owned the Schooner Lydia which in 1805 was returning from Grenada with a cargo of rum and molasses. The vessel was required to stop at the Custom House in Middletown where the cargo was inspected for tax purposes. Barrels of goods were inspected by a Gauger, an agent who measured the contents of the barrels and casks to determine the exact quantity of liquids inside. Stephen Rainey was the Gauger, Weigher, and Measurer (official title) at the Middletown Custom House and the second document pictured here is his report of Lydia’s cargo.

Burning of the Ships

Two hundred and six years ago today (April 8, 1814), the village of Pettipaug (Essex, CT) woke up to discover that 136 British sailors and marines had rowed up from the mouth of the River with the purpose of burning the vessels harbored there. Before they escaped back down the River to the safety of their larger ships anchored in Long Island Sound, they had destroyed 28 vessels – a devastating blow to local economy and national pride during the War of 1812. 

In 2013, the Connecticut River Museum commissioned artist Victor Mays (1927-2015) to create a painting that would help visually tell the story. Mr. Mays researched the event and painted several studies (seen here) before completing the final scene.

Creating “studies” is part of the process an artist goes through to determine which composition works best. Some are very different from the finished product.

Chauncey B. Whitmore (1829-1905)

Chauncey B. Whitmore (1829-1905) owned a quarry in the Maromas section of Middletown, Connecticut. This image of him is a daguerreotype, probably taken around 1850 when he was about 21 years old. Daguerreotypes are the earliest form of photographs, named after the inventor of the medium, Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in 1839. They are housed in molded (out of wood and shellac) “Union cases” that protect the fragile plate and keep out the light which can fade the image. Whitmore’s hairstyle and clothing are great examples of the mid-19th century dapper look for young men!

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