Essex: A Town of the River

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on November 12, 2000
Boating Local

When author Norman Crampton named Essex, Conn., The Best Small Town in America (in his 1999 book on the 100 best towns), he used eight criteria, from population through income and schools. What he didn’t mention is the town’s relationship to the Connecticut River, designated by the Nature Conservancy as “One of the last great places on earth.” Nor did he mention that Essex is the only town in America with its own submarine.

In 1968, Milon Barnes visited here for a day and stayed, opening his antique shop off the town square. “I think it was the sense of history, and the river, which hasn’t been commercialized,” he says of what attracted him. “And there was that spectacular waterfront.”

First Selectman Pete Webster, 51, knows the river firsthand. “I grew up on it, fishing, crabbing, and digging for clams,” he says. “It’s the only major river that’s never been industrialized at its mouth. It looks today like it probably did 300 years ago.”

The natural harbor, forming a spit of land jutting from the west side of the river, brought the first settlers in 1648. Since then, Essex (pop. 5,800) has maintained its ties to the sea. Its location at the mouth of the 410-mile river made it appealing and gave rise to the shipbuilding industry.

“Shipbuilding began here in 1775,” says Don Mulcarne, the town’s historian. “There may have been some small boats being built,” he says, “but the first ships built for profit began with the Oliver Cromwell.”

The Cromwell was commissioned by the colony to harass British shipping during the Revolutionary War. Not to be outdone, Essex-born David Bushnell built America’s first submarine, known as the Turtle, here. It failed at its first mission, to attach a torpedo to the hull of a British warship. The British eventually captured both vessels.

Two hundred years later, writer Joseph Leary, armed only with a detailed four-page description Bushnell had written for Thomas Jefferson, suggested to mechanic/carpenter Fred Freze that they build the Turtle again. “It seemed like an exciting opportunity,” Leary says. “I was as surprised as the next guy when Fred took me seriously.”

That project is a part of Essex tradition. For 75 years, until the advent of steel ships, Essex reigned supreme as a shipbuilding port. Its shipwrights built more than 500 ships, from schooners to privateers. The latter so threatened the British Navy blockading the East Coast during the war of 1812 that the British landed a raiding party and burned 28 ships to their waterlines. “The Burning of the Ships” is now an annual festival held each May on the waterfront.

Riding a wave of prosperity, captains, merchants, and others built federal-style homes within walking distance of the shipyards. Many stand today, six on the National Historical Register.

It was a busy port, with ships dropping anchor from all points of the globe. The most valued cargo was ivory, and when steel ended Essex’s shipbuilding era, Ivoryton one of three villages in the townbecame the center of the ivory industry in the United States.

“I daresay there was hardly a piano that didn’t have an action from Ivoryton in it,” Mulcarne says. “The lower valley produced more than 90 percent of the ivory products in this country.”

Today, the last vestiges of the shipbuilding and ivory eras exist only in the Connecticut River Museum, where 18th-century shipwright tools and two tusks frame a cabinet of ivory trinkets.

Webster moved here 16 years ago. “I’ve always known about Essex,” he says of his relocation from Hartford, and “Essex had everything we wanted.” As selectman, he’s wrestling with the same issues and problems any city mayor would deal with. Tourism is booming and new families are moving in, creating growth issues that must be addressed without destroying the fabric of what attracts them. “We’d like to keep a good secret quiet, but we can’t,” he says.

Doug Paul, born and raised in Essex, is the owner of the Griswold Inn, the center of the town’s social life since 1776. “It’s still very much small town living,” he says. “My kids do a lot of the same things I did.”

And the town’s submarine? Two years after they began, Leary and Freze launched the Turtle, with Leary taking it for its sea-trial in front of the town, the fife and drum corps, the U.S. Navy and the governor of Connecticut. Bushnell’s plans worked. “It performed extremely well,” Leary said of his 35-minute subsurface sojourn. “It’s very forgiving, very responsive.”

But then everything seems to work in Essex.