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Monday, February 17, 2014

History of Mystic, Connecticut--Clipper Ship Days

Photo caption:  The final resting place of Captain Charles Sisson in Lower Mystic Cemetery, Conn. His quest for gold during the California Gold Rush ended tragically, and later, his wife died at sea. His headstone is etched with a ship
and states, his "VOYAGE IS ENDED.”

National Geographic named Mystic, Conn., one of the top "100 Adventure Towns."
Straddling both sides of the Mystic River in the towns of Groton and Stonington, the village of Mystic takes its name from an Indian word, “river running to the sea.” With its scenic views of tall ships, islands, lighthouses, and secluded
coves, it has attracted such legendary honeymooners as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It is a place where those who cross the oceans gather to swap stories and repair their boats. It is where famous explorers are born, visit,
get married, or sadly, embark from on their way to becoming lost at sea.

Those who have come to the Mystic area include Amelia Earhart, who got married
in nearby Noank;  Dr. Robert Ballard, the discoverer of Titanic ’s watery grave,
who keeps an office in Mystic; Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the first aviator
to fly over the South Pole; and Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer, who accidentally
discovered Antarctica.

After the American Revolution, ship building grew as a major industry along
Mystic River because there was plenty of wood, the river is deep enough, its
banks slope gently to the water, and the area is protected from the worst of
Atlantic Ocean storms by Fishers Island. According to a plaque in Mystic
Seaport’s Mystic River Scale Model exhibit, which represents one mile along the
River from the 1850s through the 1870s, Mystic “produced a greater tonnage of
ships and steamers than any place its size in America.”

One of Mystic’s famous ships was the sloop Hero  built in 1800 as a coastal
trader. After a busy career during the War of 1812, the 47.5 foot Hero was
re-outfitted as a sealer (a ship used for hunting seals). On November 17, 1820,
when the Hero  pressed further south in search of new seal breeding grounds, her
commander, Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer, discovered Antarctica. The Nathanial B.
Palmer House is now a museum in nearby Stonington.

When the California Gold Rush became headline news, attracting the likes of
Mystic's Captain Charles Sisson (whose journey there ended in disaster), Mystic
shipbuilders worked to meet the demand for clipper ships. Clippers, with their
hulls designed to slice through water and abundance of sails, “clipped” more
than a month off the time it took to get from the northeast to California. The
13,000-mile trip from New York to San Francisco, by way of Cape Horn off South
America, normally took more than four months. On a clipper, the trip could be
made in as little as three months. (Those Gold Fever folks didn’t have the
Panama Canal to speed their trip—it wasn’t completed until 1914.)

Mystic became noted for their “half clippers” or “medium clippers,” which
incorporated a hull design by an orphan from Stonington (Mason C. Hill) that
allowed for greater storage space while still meeting the need for speed . One
of the most celebrated and profitable Mystic-built clippers was the David
Crockett , named after America's famous pioneer. Built in 1853, it was
immortalized in a sailor song describing life on board as a “floating Hell.”
Called the “Leaving of Liverpool,” the song portrays a sailor’s dread of leaving
his lady and the notoriously tough working conditions under Captain John
Burgess. Captain Burgess’ reign of terror finally ended on his 1874 trip from
San Francisco to Liverpool, England, to deliver a cargo of wheat. His departure
was delayed five days because of a mutiny, and once at sea, he was washed
overboard and drowned in a gale off South America.

Rounding South America, particularly the island of Cape Horn, was the dread of
every sailor—and still is. The waterway between South America and the ice off
Antarctica is one of the most hazardous in the world to navigate. Known as the
“sailors’ graveyard,” the waters are fraught with strong winds and currents,
large waves, and icebergs.

The David Crockett  herself never succumbed to Cape Horn and was consistently
fast, making the trip between San Francisco and New York in as little as 93 days
in 1860 (the captain of her on that trip, Peter E. Rowland, lived next door to
Captain Sisson at #10 West Mystic Ave.). The David Crockett made a lot of money
in its 46-year career, netting more than a half-million dollars in the first
half of it. The shipyard where the David Crockett was built is now the site of
Mystic Seaport, and the spot where her keel was laid is marked by a large rock
and plaque. Mystic Seaport’s historic diorama features her near-completed
construction on land and highlights how enormous she was compared to the other
ships being built at that time—including Captain Charles Sisson's ship, the
Elizabeth F. Willets , shown in its early stages.

There are many Mystic-built ships that have simply disappeared without a trace.
Mystic cemeteries are full of markers engraved with anchors and “Lost at Sea.”
One in the Lower Mystic Cemetery, for example, was the stone placed as a
memorial to Captain Charles H. Gates and his 18-year-old son. It stated that
father and son were last seen on the Cremorne  leaving San Francisco on June 1,
1870, bound for Liverpool, England, and that they “were never heard from.” In
addition to them, 22 other crew members were lost at sea.

Before Captain Charles H. Gates went missing, he had lived at 48 New London Road
(U.S. Route 1) in Mystic. His wife, Jane E. (Latham) Gates, sold their home 12
years after his disappearance. Never remarrying, she was finally reunited with
her husband and son upon her death 53 long years later.

Although Cape Horn is the final resting place for many captains, there was a
Mystic captain who lived on 77 High Street, Mystic, who defied the odds.
According to Bill Peterson, Mystic historian, “Joseph Warren Holmes has the
distinction of rounding Cape Horn safely 84 times as a sailing ship master. This
is a record that still stands.”

Mystic’s shipbuilding industry grew to an all-time high during the Civil War
with the construction of 57 steamships—the largest output in New England apart
from Boston. Purchased or chartered by the government, the ships were used as
gunboats and troop transports. After the Southern states rejoined the Union,
Mystic shipbuilding eventually gave way to the production of wool, velvet, and
tar soap. Those industries have since given way to tourism, award-winning
restaurants, trendy shops and museums.

The above was an excerpt from the book, Mystic Seafarer's Trail  by Lisa Saunders (used with permission).Mystic Seafarer's Trail  is available online (Amazon and Barnes & Noble), in Mystic information centers, and at Monte  Cristo Bookshop in New London  and  Bank Square Books in Mystic. 

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