I had occasion to be in New London, Connecticut early yesterday morning. I was early for a day sponsored by American Farmland Trust across the Sound on eastern Long Island - which I described to my children as like a field trip, with wine. It was a cool fall day on the banks of the Thames (pronounced in these parts with a regular "Th" and a long "A"), and the low angle light lit up the red brick train station and the wet pavement. I love having the time to walk around an unfamiliar city, and New London was only familiar to me in passing along I-95, but I did know some of its history and learned a good deal more before I took the 9 a.m. SeaJet to Orient Point on the North Fork.
This was Pequot country when the Dutch and English started poking upriver in the early 1600s. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to paddle one of the huge dugout ocean-going canoes - made from a massive pine or chestnut log - that the Pequots used to travel across the Sound and over to Block Island. Yesterday the wind was high and blew the tops off the waves, which certainly would have discouraged me from making the attempt. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum up at Foxwoods has two life size models of such canoes with a dozen or more passengers.
One often forgets, with so little of its shoreline accessible to the public, that Connecticut is a maritime state. New London was long a center for privateers and whalers, just as today the east bank of the Thames at Groton houses the Electric Boat shipyard. I saw a submarine enter the river as we were heading out into the Sound, its curved sides menacing like a fat-bodied rattlesnake. The Coast Guard Academy is in New London, and anchored at her berth is the barque-rigged USCGC Eagle (WIX-327). My cousin Robert is now in basic with the Coast Guard Reserves, but won't be training on this beauty. "America's Tall Ship" was previously a prize of war: the German "Horst Wessel" launched in 1936 and used as a training ship for the officers of the Reichsmarine. Today she serves the same purpose for Coast Guard cadets. At 90m long she is an impressive sight, even docked with her spars crossed rather than flying under a full spread of sail. Even more impressive, she is made of metal, and during WWII was credited with downing three Soviet Planes and one "friendly" Luftwaffe one.
I walked along the curve of Bank Street with its mix of gentrified 19th century chic and tawdry wharf rat storefronts. The old stone Customs House is associated with the saga of the slave ship "Amistad", which rode at anchor during the trial and ultimate acquittal of the slaves who had seized the ship from their Spanish captors. New London has wonderfully preserved historic houses alongside derelict buildings from the same era. Starr Street historic district was spared the ravages of 1970s urban renewal when it was reclaimed and restored, but I passed a portion of the old rope walk that is now a tenement just a block or two further on. It has tremendous character, but not everything can be fixed by a fresh coat of paint.
New London can lay claim to two bookends of our Revolutionary days, individuals who occupy the very zenith and nadir of the Patriot Pantheon. One of two schoolhouses associated with the martyred Nathan Hale is now on display right at the historic heart of the city (the other is in East Haddam). And then there was that first agent of New London's urban renewal, Benedict Arnold, who was born upriver in Norwich and who lead a devastating raid on his home ground in 1781 after joining the British. The imposing Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Monument next to the Nathan Hale schoolhouse pays particular notice to the naval service of the sons of the City, listing the names of famous vessels on which they served. Intriguingly, the monument's list of land engagements also includes Groton and Bunker Hill, which hearken back to older wars. Groton refers to the sharp engagement that took place across the river during Arnold's Raid. Some of the ships, too, may refer to famous Continental vessels such as the "Trumbull", which was both a Revolutionary-era frigate from Connecticut and also the name of one of Arnold's shoal-draft galleys on Lake Champlain. I am confident that it is not this particular "Trumbull" that the patrons of this monument had in mind.
It was a lot of history to take in during a short hour before my trip across the Sound, a fascinating glimpse and a fine diversion on a bright Autumn day with time to do as I pleased.