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Too many thousands of great words

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published 12/04/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 12/03/2013 11:55 PM

It's hard to choose a favorite picture from "Looking Back - A Photo Retrospective of New London County" because there are so many wonderful choices.

The most striking is perhaps the panoramic photograph of the Parade in downtown New London, taken May 6, 1896, the day the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated.

It looks like it was taken from the roof of one of the lower State Street buildings, looking down and across a vast sea of people, literally shoulder to shoulder, surrounding the tall stone monument, a crowd stretching uninterrupted all the way from the monumental red brick train station, where horses and carriages are lined up in front, to what is now Eugene O'Neill Drive.

The facades of all the buildings surrounding the Parade are festooned with bunting. If you look closely and scrutinize the crowd you see that everyone is dressed up, befitting an important occasion in a bustling city.

Young men are perched on some of the surrounding rooftops, enjoying the same view of the spectacle the photographer brings us, these many decades later.

Still, it's hard to make this a favorite, when there are so many engaging pictures in this new book presented by The Day, in cooperation with a consortium of museums and historical societies in the region.

The photographs are sweeping and personal, telling the history of the region in both historic or iconic images and close up, friends strolling the beach at Ocean Beach Park, young women in long white smocks lined up in front of gas burners in a test kitchen laboratory at the Manual Training and Industrial School of New London.

In all of them, you can't help but feel the future we know that lies ahead, as history and current events are about to unfold.

Even as we watch a nurses' strike and lockout at today's Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, there is a reminder here of a long tradition of city nurses, with a 1914 photograph of two student nurses from Joseph Lawrence Free Public Hospital, covered in long black bathing garb and perched casually on some rocks on a Pequot Avenue beach in New London.

Like many of the characters in these pictures, taken at a time when cameras were still rare, they are posed and looking right at you, smiling, almost about to speak, as if to tell their story from the past.

For that matter, looking at the great crowd on the Parade for the dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, you have to wonder if they will be able to top that spectacle, more than 120 years later, if a National Coast Guard Museum is finally built and dedicated downtown.

Of course there are lots of images to tell the big stories of the development of the region, pictures of the great ships built in Mystic, of the Naval ships sailing out of New London Harbor, of the old shipyard that preceded Electric Boat in Groton, of the stores and factories that made New London a center of industry and commerce, even sheep shearing in Lyme.

One of the things that stands out in comparing photographs of the entire region is the way the distinction between urban and rural was so much more stark, before a suburban landscape evolved.

There are many photographs, for instance, looking from the bustle of New London to the unpopulated landscape of Groton, with its wide open fields above the Thames River.

There are familiar scenes and buildings that are part of what we value today as our legacy. But one of the surprises of this collection is that it brings forth so many unfamiliar scenes, of landscapes and architecture that have long been lost.

It is this blending of the familiar with the unexpected, the grand with the ordinary, that is such a pleasure in browsing these photos.

For this region, the book offers the kind of satisfaction a family might take in pulling an old box of photographs down from the attic, for a look at where they've been and where they're going.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

ABOUT THE BOOK

The Day's "Looking Back - A Photo Retrospective of New London County" is at the printer and will ship on Dec. 13. Orders are being accepted at The Day offices or online at www.newlondon.pictorialbook.com. Cost is $29.95 per copy.

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