History Revisited: Ships aground on Groton’s Black Rock
When you stop to think about it, the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut is probably one of the busiest ports for marine traffic between New York and Massachusetts.
Having grown up close to the shore of the river, I can honestly say the variety of vessels I have seen traveling up and down — large and small, military, commercial, pleasure craft, houseboats; you name it — is endless. If someone were to take the time, especially during the summer months, and photograph the different types of ships and boats traversing the river, he or she could compile one heck of a book within the span of one or two weeks.
Over the years, the boats and ships that garner the attention have been the larger ones, such as submarines, military craft, steam ferries, freighters, tankers and cruise ships. For the most part, taking into consideration the number and size of many of these vessels, the number of accidents involving them has, especially on the Groton shoreline, been minimal.
Recently I came into possession of a photograph that I am sure will be of interest to many readers. The photograph shows a submarine grounded on some rocks near the shoreline, and the handwritten caption on the back reads: “R-6 on rocks New London Conn.” Upon closer examination I thought I recognized a large house on the shore in the background as possibly being the Tyler House at Eastern Point Beach in Groton. I also thought I recognized the rocks in which the submarine was grounded as being a rock ledge called “Black Rock,” located approximately 200 yards south of the beach.
Subsequent research revealed that I was correct in my belief that the submarine had indeed gone aground on the small Black Rock island at the entrance to New London Harbor, off of what is now known as the City of Groton’s Eastern Point Beach.
According to various news reports, in the early morning hours of Nov. 30, 2019, the Submarine R-6 (SS-83) had gone aground during a gale windstorm while she was heading in from Long Island Sound to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. From all reports, the ship had been blown into the rocks. Several attempts to pull her off by various ships and tugs were unsuccessful, and it was necessary to remove supplies of fuel and other vessel contents to make it lighter. On Dec. 2, when the tide was at its highest point, the submarine was pulled off the rocks by two Naval wrecking vessels from New York, after the removal of store and fuel from the submarine.
It is interesting to note that damage to the submarine was evidently little to none as it departed the Submarine Base on Dec. 4 for Norfolk, Va., and participated in exercises in the
Gulf of Mexico shortly thereafter.
Further research revealed that the R-6 submarine grounding was not the first such incident to have occurred at or on Black Rock off of Eastern Point.
On July 2, 1907, the steamer City of Lawrence, traveling on its daily scheduled run from New London to Watch Hill and Block Island, had also run aground on Black Rock at the mouth of the New London Harbor.
The steamer, which was owned by the Norwich Consolidated Railway Company, had departed her wharf at New London at approximately 10 a.m. with approximately 100 passengers on board, and was traveling south on the Thames River in one of the densest fogs experienced that year.
As the steamer neared Long Island Sound, at the entrance to the Thames River harbor, the boat turned to the east towards Pine Island, which would place them in what they believed to be the narrow channel they normally followed to enter safer waters. Unfortunately, with the visibility so poor, and, without the aid of today’s radar and navigational systems, the ship’s pilot took the turn too soon, and thus placed the ship on a path dangerously close to the rock reef located just off Eastern Point.
Within moments a member of the crew observed Black Rock directly in the path of the steamer and immediately shouted out the warning of the approaching obstruction. The warning came too late, though, and the 245-foot, steel-hulled steamer City of Lawrence was aground on the rocks.
Although the ship was not in imminent danger of sinking, she did have a large hole in her bottom and was taking on water. Distress signals were immediately blown, and within moments the steamer Griswold, which was used exclusively by guests of Groton’s Griswold Hotel, took all the passengers safely off of the Lawrence and brought them to the hotel.
The passengers’ baggage was also removed from the ship and brought to the Griswold.
Several local shipwreck and salvage companies responded and began pumping out water from the ship. Divers discovered three large holes in the hull and applied patches. It was hoped that, with the holes patched, most of the water could be pumped from the ship, then it would be pulled off the rocks when the tide was full.
Unfortunately, even after the patches were applied, the boat was still taking on a great deal of water. Further inspection revealed that the hull was damaged badly and the boat was split amidships. Refloating and repairing the vessel would be impractical.
The decision was then made by the ship’s owners and insurance company to abandon the ship and to sell what was left of it for scrap.
It is interesting to note that the salvage operation took close to four years to complete. There were many companies and individuals quite interested in salvaging materials from the vessel.
One individual purchased the right to all the lumber on the ship to build riverfront summer cottages in Middle Haddam. A second person bought all of the elaborate and ornate iron work throughout the ship. A Norwich company used dynamite to break up several large pieces of iron to sell for scrap.
By July 2011, the T.A. Schott Wreckage Company of New London reported that most of wreckage of the City of Lawrence had been removed from Black Rock.
This concludes the story concerning shipwrecks at Groton’s Black Rock; however, I would like to pass along a few unrelated and personal tid-bits about Rock Island.
On a personal note, I recall as a teenager going to Eastern Point Beach and swimming out to that rock ledge. I also recall reading about members of the local Knights of Columbus youth group organizing an event to burn a large pile of spent Christmas trees on Black Rock to show their support for troops serving in the Vietnam War.
While conducting the research for this article, several other incidents involving maritime accidents and shipwrecks happening on the Thames River directly involving Groton came to light and will be the subject of a future article.
Ledyard resident William Fossum, a steamship enthusiast, contributed to this article.
Jim Streeter is Groton Town historian.
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