Noank man meets Cleopatra’s Needle

On July 27, 1896, The Day reported with some excitement that a funny looking boat was being constructed in Noank. It was the very first floating lifesaving station, and it looked like a cross between a houseboat and a flatiron. But this maneuverable vessel would make it safer and quicker to launch rescue missions during storms.

The innovative designer was Henry Davis, who lived on Prospect Hill Road in Noank in a home overlooking Fishers Island Sound. As far as I know, none of the many Davis roads in Connecticut are named for Henry, but the story of a local man who built lighthouses, relocated a 240-ton obelisk, and climbed a pyramid is too entertaining to pass up on a technicality.

Henry worked at the Palmer Shipyard and had supervised the construction of lighthouses at Morgan Point in Noank, Watch Hill and Fishers Island. In 1885 he was appointed assistant superintendent of the Life Saving Service, an agency that merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to become the U.S. Coast Guard. In that capacity, Henry inspected lighthouses and oversaw construction plans on sites along the Eastern Seaboard, the Great Lakes and the Pacific Coast.

These activities are noteworthy enough, but in 1879 the government gave Henry a dream job: responsibility for preparing the Egyptian obelisk, known as Cleopatra's Needle, for transportation to New York City. There would be days when the job was more like a nightmare, but it was an exotic opportunity.

The granite obelisk, covered with hieroglyphics, was a gift to the United States from the khedive of Egypt in appreciation for help with the construction of the Suez Canal. The monument had been built in Heliopolis for Pharaoh Thutmose III around 1450 BC, and was moved to Alexandria by the Romans about 12 BC. Thutmose reigned more than 1,000 years before Cleopatra's time, so the needle's name is romantic but misleading.

Paris and London already had their very own obelisks, and there was strong public sentiment that the growing power and prestige of the United States required a monument of matching gravitas. Also fueling the enthusiasm was "Egyptomania," the craze started by Napoleon for all things Egyptian.

Henry arrived in Alexandria in September 1879 and began scouring the city for the materials to build the scaffolding, sheathing and derricks that were required to move the obelisk. Henry encountered bureaucratic delays and thinly veiled hostility from Alexandrians who resented seeing part of their heritage carted away. The stumbling blocks were especially frustrating because the rainy season would start soon, bringing months of miserable working conditions.

Among the many challenges Henry and his workmen faced was moving the obelisk into a horizontal position. That maneuver was a near-disaster when the needle broke free from the workmen's control, crashing and bouncing on a wooden structure nearby. Fortunately the needle wasn't damaged and no one was hurt. Some of the project's details are outlined in one of Henry's letters held at the Noank Historical Society and described in their publication "Noank: Celebrating a Maritime Heritage."

By June 1880 the needle was ready for its ocean voyage and Henry's portion of the project was done. Taking the opportunity to sightsee before leaving Egypt, Henry toured the original location of the obelisk, visited the Sphinx and climbed Cheops Pyramid.

Cleopatra's Needle arrived safely in New York and was hauled through Manhattan to Central Park, covering a distance of two miles at the excruciatingly slow pace of 99 feet per day. She finally arrived at her destination in January 1881.

The installation ceremony was held that February. We don't know if Henry was in the crowd who witnessed the event, but he seems to have liked dramatic spectacles, so perhaps he was. Today the obelisk stands near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a tribute to human achievements, both ancient and modern.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.

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