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    Wednesday, April 17, 2024

    History Revisited: Groton’s tie to Cleopatra’s Needle

    A special derrick lifting rig, designed by Capt. Henry Davis of Noank, is seen here erecting the Egyptian obelisk Cleopatra’s Needle in New York’s City’s Central Park in 1891. (photo courtesy of the Jim Streeter Collection)

    After hearing about the recent installation of a temporary field hospital [tent] facility in Central Park, New York, due to the coronavirus pandemic, I could not help but think about the many New Yorkers considering this new [temporary] facility at the park as being a most unusual or “out-of-the-ordinary” addition at this popular recreational setting.

    Almost immediately I recalled another unorthodox object: an Egyptian obelisk monument called “Cleopatra’s Needle” having its home in Central Park after it had been moved from Egypt to America with the assistance of a Groton mariner named Henry E. Davis.

    By way of historical background, in 1443 BC, two-point shaped pillars, called obelisks, were erected in the ancient city of Heliopolis in Egypt in honor of the ancient sun god named Ra. They were made of red granite, standing approximately 70 feet in height and weighing about 220 tons. The tops were covered in gold, and hieroglyphic etchings were inscribed on each side.

    In 12 BC, the obelisks were transported to the Caesarean, an ancient temple in Alexandria, Egypt, created by Cleopatra VII in honor of her lover Julius Caesar. Nothing could be found to determine when or why the obelisks were given the name “Cleopatra’s Needles”.

    Over the centuries, the temple and obelisks suffered from neglect and were covered in sand. In 1819, England was offered one of the obelisks as a gift for helping Egypt oust French General Napoleon Bonaparte during the French campaign in Egypt and Syria between 1798 and 1801.

    In 1865, the project of moving the obelisk to England began and, in 1878 it was finally erected on what is known as the Victoria Embankment on the banks of the River Thames in London.

    Egypt had first offered one of the “Cleopatra’s Needles” to America during the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; however, for reasons unknown, the offer was ignored.

    In 1877, officials in New York City, envious of the tremendous attention brought to the obelisk sight in London, asked the United States Department of State to formally ask Egypt if they could acquire one of the two remaining obelisks. Within a short period of time the request was granted.

    Moving “Cleopatra’s Needle” from Egypt to New York was a difficult and expensive endeavor. New York industrial magnate and philanthropist William H. Vanderbilt offered to provide the funding, approximately $116,000, for the project. Naval Commander Henry H. Gorringe was appointed by the U.S. government to oversee the expedition of moving of the 3,500-year-old obelisk from Alexandria to New York City.

    Early on in the operation, it was decided to procure and convert a decommissioned Egyptian mail freighter named Dessoug, which was large enough to accommodate the obelisk in its hold, to bring it across the Atlantic to New York.

    Now we get to the Groton connection.

    In August 1879, Groton mariner Henry E. Davis was appointed by the United States to supervise the building of launching ways and pontoons, excavating for piers and the construction of special derricks to move Cleopatra’s Needle. Davis oversaw modifications of the Dessoug deemed necessary to accommodate the obelisk and its 50-ton pedestal stone. He also supervised the complicated task of loading the Needle onto the freighter.

    Davis, who claimed Noank as his home, had for many years shipped aboard several local fishing smacks and also learned shipbuilding at the Palmer shipyard in Noank. He eventually gave up work associated with the sea and became involved in the building and construction trade.

    Although he built several houses in the area, two local structures are attributed to him including the Morgan Point Lighthouse and the Deacon Palmer House, often referred to as the “haunted house”, both in Noank.

    On June 12, 1880, the Dessoug, with Cleopatra’s Needles safely on board, left Alexandria on its travels across the Atlantic.

    On July 6, after passing Gibraltar and the Azores, the ship’s engines suddenly broke down. It hobbled along on the power of its sails for about a week. There was certainly some apprehension that the ship and its cargo might be lost should they encounter a storm during this time. The engines were subsequently repaired, and the obelisk and its 50-ton pedestal arrived at the Quarantine Station in New York on July 20.

    Upon arrival in New York there was still a debate as to where the obelisk should be located. Ultimately, it was decided that it be placed on a knoll near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park.

    Once the site selection was made, it took an additional five months to move the obelisk and its pedestal to Central Park. The move was no easy task and can best be described as a monumental engineering accomplishment.

    The obelisk’s 50-ton pedestal was dragged through the city using a special truck/wagon pulled by 32 horses hitched in pairs.

    It took an additional 112 days to move the monument, by a special rail system, over 16 city blocks, a total distance of approximately 2 miles, to Central Park.

    The project of erecting Cleopatra’s Needle was completed on Jan. 22, 1891.

    After his work involving the move of the Egyptian monument, Henry Davis returned to Noank. In 1885, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Life-Saving Service appointed him as Superintendent of Construction where he supervised the construction of many [marine] life-saving stations on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the northern Great Lakes.

    If Groton were to have a “Wall of Honor” to recognize those who have brought pride to the community through his or her talents, certainly Henry Davis would be so honored. Davis died in Noank in 1909, but his works live on.

    Jim Streeter is the Groton town historian.

    The Egyptian obelisk named “Cleopatra’s Needle” is shown here on display at New York City’s Central Park. Captain Henry Davis of Noank was instrumental in transporting the monument from Egypt to New York in 1890. (photo courtesy of the Jim Streeter Collection)

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