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State Pier, New London's 'ocean terminal,' never lived up to expectations

Editor's note: This two-part account of State Pier’s history was drawn mostly from the archives of The Day and the New London Telegraph. Today’s installment looks at the pier’s creation and early years. Monday’s will take the story from World War II to the present.

 

A big corporation is planning a major venture off the East Coast using cutting-edge, ocean-based technology.

New London, with its excellent harbor and capacity to berth large vessels, has caught the company’s eye as a possible base of operations. Excitement builds as the city and State Pier seem on the verge of something big.

Are we talking offshore wind power here in 2019? Or a proposed steamship line with ultra-fast Atlantic crossings in 1927?

Well, both.

The optimism over Ørsted’s plan for an installation site is real. But New London and State Pier have been down this road before.

This year marks a century since the beginning of commercial shipping at the pier, which at times has been a busy place. But overall, it’s been a mild disappointment, never justifying the soaring hopes that attended its creation. Touted as a world-class facility, it has not been home to any world-class enterprises.

That could be about to change. But a review of the pier’s middling history should help keep expectations in perspective.

* * *

March 1, 1911, was a day for New London to celebrate. Led by its visionary mayor, Bryan F. Mahan, the city successfully wrapped up a 10-day public campaign to raise $100,000. The money ensured that the city would land the institution now known as Connecticut College.

That evening, as residents held a parade to exult in New London’s progress, the seeds of the city’s next great undertaking were being planted.

In New York, two great steamship lines, Cunard and White Star, were pushing back against government bureaucracy. Both had been denied permission to lengthen their Hudson River piers to accommodate a new generation of ships. Managers had taken to musing aloud about where the lines might relocate if forced to leave Manhattan. The short list included Boston and Montauk Point.

“But I believe that New London, Conn., offers the best harbor,” a Cunard official said. “New London is an admirable place for docking the big ships.”

The day after that hit the newspapers, Mahan, still flush from his college-campaign triumph, was in New York talking to Cunard and White Star. Their flirtation with another port produced a predictable result: Permission was quickly granted to extend the piers.

But Mahan, who doubled as a state senator, had tasted possibility. Within days he submitted a bill to appropriate $500,000 for improvements to New London Harbor. That soon doubled to $1 million to create an “ocean terminal.”

With the rest of the state on board thanks to Mahan’s persuasion, the bill sailed through the legislature. The day the governor signed it into law, Mahan was lifted onto the shoulders of his fellow Thames Club picnickers while a band played “Hail to the Chief.”

A year later, the project became official when the state’s Rivers, Harbors and Bridges Commission authorized it unanimously. “Red Letter Day for New London,” crowed the headline in The Day, printed on pink paper for the occasion.

After 18 months of planning, surveys and site selection, the start of construction arrived as a Christmas present. On Dec. 24, 1913, a crowd watching from Central Vermont Pier in East New London noted the time — 11:50 a.m. — as the first test pile was driven into the river bottom.

Eventually, so many piles dotted the pier’s 1,000-by-200-foot outline that, laid end-to-end, they would stretch past Willimantic. Enclosed by granite, the space was filled with a cascade of mud and gravel pumped in by a hydraulic dredge working around the clock.

Two years of construction changed the East New London shore as tons of earth and mud were scooped up here and deposited there to create new land. A steam shovel took huge bites out of a bluff overlooking the pier till all that remained was 8 acres of flat industrial space. A dozen homes were razed or floated downriver. Train tracks were rerouted through a freshly dug tunnel.

By summer 1916, the project was nearly complete. All that was needed was a customer.

* * *

The pier hadn’t even been paved when a German firm making national headlines arrived as if by magic. The Eastern Forwarding Co. had just sent the first in a planned fleet of cargo-carrying submarines across the Atlantic to great acclaim. After the trip, the company closed its U.S. headquarters in Baltimore and leased State Pier so suddenly that hordes of carpenters were summoned to build two large warehouses in a matter of days.

Anticipation gripped New London for months as all awaited the arrival of the submarine Bremen. An ocean liner, the Willehad, arrived in August to serve as Bremen’s mother ship, but its presence carried its own significance. The Willehad was the first vessel to dock at the pier.

“She is the beginning of great things,” The Day said in an emotional editorial.

The city was so swept up in its imagined future as a hub of trans-Atlantic trade that it seemed barely aware Germany was engaged in a world war and might soon be fighting the United States. This undersea exploit, disguised as civilian commerce, was a military operation, its only purpose to procure supplies for the German war machine.

The Bremen never arrived, and its fate remains unknown. Its sister ship, the Deutschland, eventually tied up at the pier, sending New London into euphoria. A few months later, the U.S. declared war on Germany.

* * *

World War I was a double setback for State Pier. In addition to creating the false hope of trade with Germany, it stalled other possibilities. The Navy took over the site, and it wasn’t until the last days of 1919, when two freighters arrived from Seattle, that business began.

In the early days, pier manager Waldo Clarke advertised for stevedores as needed and could summon 250 men on a day’s notice. But midway through the prosperous first year, 150 went on strike for better wages with three ships in port. When Clarke sternly insisted labor strife could put the pier out of business, they relented.

Cargoes of flour, bananas and lumber soon came in increasing numbers. For a couple of years, Canada sent automobiles south on the Central Vermont Railway to be loaded on ships bound for Australia and New Zealand. But Canadian ports successfully lobbied against this, costing the pier much of its economic strength, since its only rail link was with another country prioritizing its own interests.

With maritime trade sluggish after the war, a fleet of government-owned merchant ships sat in storage at the pier, some of them new and never used. They brought in rent but used up valuable space.

By 1924 they were gone but immediately replaced by a noncommercial tenant. The Coast Guard was late in mobilizing to enforce Prohibition, but with new funding it established a force of ex-Navy destroyers and based them on the pier’s east side.

In two years, State Pier was the largest Coast Guard base in the country, its 42 vessels making countless liquor seizures. But one night in 1928, the base’s buildings went up in flames, killing a sailor and threatening the entire pier.

Meanwhile, business on the pier’s west side was steady but unspectacular. Lumber emerged as the main import, though there was also wood pulp, newsprint and canned goods. Despite the Depression, things picked up after the Coast Guard left in 1933, though the relative lack of exports was a continuing drawback.

The mix of humdrum progress and military activity was not what the state had expected from its $1 million investment. The pier was still waiting for its ship to come in.

* * *

Big dreams of trans-Atlantic travel had clung to State Pier since it was conceived. But for sheer audacity, nothing came close to the scheme unveiled in 1927.

A group representing shipbuilding and railroad interests announced plans for the Blue Ribbon Line, whose vessels, faster than anything afloat, would cross the Atlantic in four days. Time would be shaved off the trip by basing the line in New England or Long Island, a day closer to Europe than New York. The main contenders were Montauk and State Pier.

The six ships, not yet built, were to be fuel-efficient and luxurious, serving only first-class passengers, with daily sailings on both sides of the ocean. Customs officers would be on board to expedite baggage checks.

Best of all, the ships’ superstructures would be off to the side, leaving the top deck free for planes to take off and land, making them virtual aircraft carriers.

A prominent liner captain linked with the effort visited State Pier and toured New London Harbor, pronouncing it “mighty fine.”

“What I have seen this morning was far beyond my expectations,” he told a cheering group of civic leaders, who gave him a wristwatch as a token of their enthusiasm.

“Deep down in its heart,” The Day editorialized, “New London too has always had the belief that its magnificent harbor would someday come into its own.”

The pier operator stood ready to open the entire facility to the Blue Ribbon Line, which stayed in the headlines for months as backers sought a $100 million government loan. But it was just a pipe dream that eventually faded away.

For a while, at least, State Pier’s future would involve not high-end travel, but wood pulp and canned goods.

j.ruddy@theday.com 

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