Log In

Reset Password
  • MENU
    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Book recounts the glory days of Mystic shipbuilding

    The Marie Gilbert, a four-masted auxiliary schooner, is launched in 1906 at the Gilbert Transportation Co. yard, which was on the Groton side of Mystic near the bridge. (Mystic Seaport Museum)
    New edition of book about village's seafaring history is released

    The clipper ship Andrew Jackson sailed from New York in 1859 and reached San Francisco in 89 days, setting a record for speed.

    The screw steamer Varuna sank four Confederate vessels during the Civil War.

    The ship Caroline Tucker survived two collisions, a lightning storm, a hurricane and the loss of its captain, who was swept overboard.

    What do these vessels have in common? All were built in Mystic, where shipyards large and small bustled in the 19th century.

    The village's proud history is detailed in "Mystic Built" by William N. Peterson, curator emeritus of Mystic Seaport. An expanded edition of the book, first published in 1989, was recently released by the museum.

    For centuries, shipbuilding thrived along the Mystic River from Old Mystic to Noank. Collectively, the yards produced over 1,400 vessels.

    What made the local industry remarkable was its variety. Mystic River shipyards produced almost every kind of vessel imaginable: sloops, barges, side-wheel steamers, freighters, powerboats, ferries, gunboats and more.

    The builders' shared reputation was such that the phrase "Mystic built" became a stamp of approval from mariners.

    According to the Seaport, the new edition has 40 additional images, including a recently discovered daguerreotype that's the only known photo of a whaleship in Mystic.

    The text features more social history and continues the story into the 20th century with yacht and fishing vessel construction. The building of the schooner Amistad at the Seaport in 2000 is also noted. But the focus is on the peak years of 1784 to 1919.

    The first of the book's two parts chronicles that era, looking at each yard and tracing broader influences that shaped local shipbuilding.

    Merchants in the coastal trade turned to Mystic for small vessels like schooners and barques, as did the fishing, whaling and sealing industries.

    Later, southern cotton plantations that supplied New England textile mills needed larger ships. Mystic responded with transatlantic packets that carried exports to Europe.

    An 1850s golden age was spurred by the China tea trade and California gold rush. Mystic launched 21 clippers, narrow merchant vessels built for speed with less cargo capacity.

    Then the Civil War altered the maritime landscape, but Mystic adapted, shifting its output away from sailing vessels to meet changing demand. More steamers were built there than at any New England port during the war.

    Shipbuilding in Mystic didn't happen by itself. The industry was created by enterprising figures like Charles Mallory, who in 1816 left his native Waterford on foot, headed for Boston. Sidetracked by a temporary job repairing sails in Mystic, he kept finding more work and stayed.

    Eventually he founded Charles Mallory & Sons, one of the village's major yards, on land that today is part of Mystic Seaport. The austere, tophatted Mallory came to personify Mystic's vigorous maritime economy. During the war, he launched a steamer every other month, many of them destined for the Union Navy.

    Mallory's master carpenter, Mason Crary Hill, created Mystic's medium-clipper design, and his work influenced many other vessels.

    Mystic shipbuilding faded after the war, though it would enjoy an early 20th century revival. When the main yards closed in the 1880s, the action shifted to Noank, where the massive Robert Palmer & Son Shipyard was just coming into its own.

    Noank carried on Mystic's tradition without the romance. Rather than globe-spanning clippers, the Palmer yard turned out utilitarian vessels like barges and floats for railroad cars. It was also known for the "Noank smack," a common fishing boat.

    After the Palmers died, the site ended the era as part of Groton Iron Works, a World War I-era concern that built eight merchant ships there and a dozen more at its main site on the Thames River.

    The book, abundantly illustrated with photos from the museum, gives so much information in its captions that they serve as sidebars, appearing on almost every page. Photos of Mallory, Hill and others are accompanied by mini-biographies.

    A chapter on shipbuilding mechanics details such topics as the half-model, carved to scale to represent the design of a ship. Its layered pieces were separated, measured and scaled up to create corresponding sections of the hull.

    Mystic builders' trademark was the rounded stern, used on clippers and later vessels. Naval architects thought it a graceful and practical alternative to the more common straight stern.

    Also covered are tradesmen, from carpenters and shipwrights to fasteners and joiners, all of whom honed their craft in Mystic yards.

    But the industry also supported others not directly employed by the builders. The local maritime economy featured blacksmiths, sparyards, riggers, tugboats, sailmakers, ropewalks, shipcarvers and engine shops.

    The book's second part is about the ships themselves, with capsule portraits of hundreds that slid down the ways in Mystic. They range from the famed to the forgotten, with each of the 21 clippers getting extra attention.

    The careers of most ships were uneventful and ended with a grounding, fire or service as a barge. But some had Civil War adventures, like the Galena, one of the first ironclads, or the Owasco, which captured 12 blockade-runners. Practically every steamer built in Mystic seemed to take part in the 1865 capture of Fort Fisher in North Carolina.

    In peacetime, any number of vessels were wrecked or simply never heard from again. Some had a role in local history, like the Eliza S. Potter, in which a fugitive slave stowed away on a voyage to Noank. Others are the answer to a trivia question, like the Harriet Hoxie, the first ship to import brown Leghorn chickens to the U.S.

    Occasionally a good story lurks half-told behind an intriguing sentence: "When she finally reached Bermuda, most of the crew was badly frostbitten."

    If a ship had one notable moment like this, it was unusual; the sloop Hero had two. In 1820, its crew under Capt. Nathaniel Palmer discovered Antarctica. Seven years earlier, it sailed as a privateer to recapture another Mystic-built vessel, the Fox, which had been seized by the British in the War of 1812.

    Generations heard that tale of two ships, which became Mystic lore. But a better story is the one told by this book, about the shipbuilding village that gave birth to them both.


    "Mystic Built: Ships and Shipyards on the Mystic River, Connecticut"By William N. PetersonMystic Seaport Museum, 406 pages
    Groton Iron Works, a World War I-era shipyard, had locations on both the Thames and Mystic rivers. The latter was the former Robert Palmer & Son Shipyard in Noank, seen here. This 1,528-ton wooden steamship was one of three built there for the Emergency Fleet Corp. (Mystic Seaport Museum)
    Mystic yards launched 21 clipper ships in the 1850s, including the Haze, seen here, a product of Charles Mallory & Sons, one of the village's major builders. (Mystic Seaport Museum)
    The boatyard of Byron W. Church on Holmes Street built small craft, including surfboats, small pleasure sailboats and power launches. (Mystic Seaport Museum)
    The sloop yacht Richmond was once the fastest in its class on Long Island Sound. It was built in 1855, probably by Charles Mallory & Sons. (Mystic Seaport Museum)
    The screw steamer Owasco was built during the Civil War by Charles Mallory & Sons as a Navy gunboat. It was credited with capturing 12 Confederate blockade-runners. (Mystic Seaport Museum)

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.