Paying it forward on Library Street

I love libraries. One of my favorite destinations is the Waterford Public Library where I devour books like a starving woman at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

It's easy to take these wonderful resources for granted, but their establishment often took considerable community effort. For example, before they were in their present locations, Waterford's books were housed variously in a church, a carriage shed and a vacant post office, while the Groton Public Library began life in a basement.

In contrast, the New London and the Mystic & Noank libraries were built through the generosity of Henry Haven and Elihu Spicer, respectively. But these libraries didn't come easily either. They represent the life work of maritime men whose abbreviated childhoods featured little formal education and limited access to books.

This story is about Elihu, who was born in Noank in 1825. He went to sea when he was just 9 years old, and by age 14 he was a cabin boy, assuming increasing responsibility and learning the business of running a ship. By his early 20s Elihu was captain of the Fanny, a Mallory-owned merchant ship engaged in the New York to Savannah coastal trade. It was the beginning of a remarkable career.

Elihu went on to command several clipper ships including the Hound, the Mary L. Sutton and the Samuel Willets. The discovery of gold in California and the opening of Japan to the West afforded the opportunity for profit and world-wide travel to far-flung places like San Francisco, India and Hong Kong. But the Civil War changed everything, plunging the country into crisis and halting coastal trade. With normal business on hold, Elihu entered government service and commanded a steamship transporting Union troops.

When peace returned, Elihu joined his long-time friend, Charles Henry Mallory, in establishing the C.H. Mallory & Co., which began a profitable shipping line between New York and Galveston. They built vessels especially designed to navigate Galveston's shallow harbor and provided advice and financing for improving the port's infrastructure which had suffered during the war.

They amassed a fortune but not without challenges. They faced a fierce rival in Charles Morgan, a steamship and railroad man who was determined to undermine their business. (Not the same man who owned the Charles W. Morgan, although that would have been an ironic connection!) At one point, squeezed by a depressed economy and a rate war initiated by Morgan, Mallory complained, "We are just about paying expenses … and all this comes from … an old man of 82 years who, although reputed to be worth $20,000,000, is using every effort to crush me." Morgan died soon after this lament, leaving Elihu and Mallory to deal successfully with his less competitive son.

Elihu assumed the company's helm after Mallory's death, but he was fatally injured a few years later in a horse and buggy accident. His obituary, published in the New York Times, noted that ships off Manhattan flew their flags at half-mast to honor the "end of an eventful life."

Before his death Elihu founded a library at a Brooklyn college in memory of his only son, Uriah, who had predeceased him; unfortunately Elihu didn't live to see the completion of his other legacy on Library Street in Mystic.

The Mystic & Noank Library is breathtakingly lovely with marble, stained glass, cozy window seats, oriental carpets and a vaulted ceiling designed to resemble an inverted ship's hull. A plaque above the fireplace bears this tribute: "Elihu Spicer gave this library to the people. Large was his bounty and his soul sincere."

For more than a century, residents have enjoyed good books in a beautiful setting thanks to Elihu's vision. Elihu apparently agreed with another philanthropic bibliophile, Andrew Carnegie, who said, "A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert."

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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