Editor's note: The fall issue of Sound & Country went to press weeks before the passing of Sen. John McCain, hence the wording in our printed edition http://thedayimag.com/soundcountry/fall2018/ differs from the wording here:
There are plenty of well-known attractions and historical stories related to our region. It’s hard to visit New London without hearing about its whaling history or Benedict Arnold’s devastating attack on the city during the Revolutionary War. And few guidebooks for the region will neglect to mention popular sites such as the Mystic River Bascule Bridge or USS Nautilus Museum in Groton.
Other stories about the area aren’t quite as well-known. They may be commemorated by a faded roadside plaque, or not at all. Here are some such tales about the southeastern Connecticut region.
Senator's Family Car is Wrecked by a Submarine
John McCain, the late, distinguished Arizona senator and 2008 Republican nominee for President, spent some of his childhood in New London while his father was stationed at the submarine base in Groton. During this time, the family car was involved in a rather unusual accident.
In his memoir Faith of my Fathers, McCain recalls how John S. McCain Jr. frequently had junior officers bring the submarine he was commanding into port. In doing so, he hoped to let them gain valuable experience.
Unfortunately, on one of these occasions McCain’s father wasn’t paying close enough attention to the officer at the helm. As McCain and his family watched from ashore, the ensign wound up sending the boat straight into the pier. The collision knocked over a lamppost, which fell onto the family’s car.
McCain said his father directed the young ensign to bring the sub in again, then began “a long and difficult argument with his insurance company over the credibility of his insurance claim for a car destroyed by a submarine.”
The Buried Bridge of Colchester
A towering railroad bridge crosses Dickinson Creek in Colchester, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it today. Why? The entire span is buried beneath an earthen embankment.
The Boston and New York Air Line railroad, backed by business interests in Middletown, was completed in 1873. The line stretched into the eastern part of the state, where it had to overcome a variety of steep grades and ridges. Undeterred, the railroad’s promoters financed the construction of a number of stout bridges, including the Lyman Viaduct.
Contemporary photos and illustrations show just how impressive this bridge was. Iron columns supporting the railroad rose 137 feet over the creek, and the span extended for a length of 1,112 feet.
Unfortunately, the high costs of the railroad’s construction and competition from other companies led to the Air Line’s financial downfall. After 10 years, it was sold to the New York, New Haven and Hartford line.
In order to upgrade the viaduct to carry newer locomotives and rolling stock, the railroad opted to bury the bridge beneath a fill of sand and cinders between 1912 and 1913. The same treatment was given to the Rapallo Viaduct, a 1,380-foot-long Air Line span in East Hampton. The railroad was used for another 30 years until the line was abandoned.
Visitors who walk along the former railroad in what is now Air Line State Park might have no idea that a bridge is buried beneath them on one section of the trail. The bridges are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the only surviving examples of first generation iron viaduct construction.
No, Not THAT Saltonstall…
Even in death, a New London captain is intent on letting visitors know that he wasn’t to blame for a disastrous Revolutionary War naval expedition.
Nathaniel Saltonstall was the first commander of Fort Trumbull and served in the Battle of Groton Heights. It’s understandable that he could be confused with another member of the Saltonstall family, Dudley Saltonstall, who received one of the first commissions in the Continental Navy. Both men were involved in privateering and spent time in command of the Warren, one of the 13 frigates originally commissioned by the Continental Congress.
But Dudley’s reputation was severely tarnished in 1779 when he led an attack on a British fort in Penobscot Bay in what is now Maine. The Warren joined 41 other ships in an attack on the fort, but the American vessels were nearly wiped out by a reinforcing British fleet. Dudley was court-martialed and dismissed for this failure, although he was later able to rejoin the war effort by taking part in raids on British shipping.
Nathaniel moved to Ohio, and is buried in Marietta. His gravestone names two ships he commanded during the Revolutionary War, but stresses that he “was not Commodore of the fleet burned at Penobscott.”
The Nation’s First Conservatory, in the Hills of Salem
It might seem odd that a man whose family was in the business of making pianos would object to his three sons learning music. But the story goes that Rev. John Whittlesey disapproved of such a venture, forcing the boys to learn piano by quietly plinking away on the keys at night.
One of Whittlesey’s sons, Orramel, went on to establish what has often been credited as the first conservatory in the United States. The Music Vale Seminary in Salem started out with modest numbers, and its founding date has been given as anywhere from 1835 to 1839. But enrollment soon climbed to 80 students, with instruction in topics such as music theory, piano, and guitar.
The Connecticut Historical Society says there has been some debate on whether the Music Vale Seminary was truly the first conservatory in the nation, since its students may have received teaching certificates instead of official degrees. Still, the conservatory has been recognized as one of the earliest institutions in the U.S. to focus solely on music instruction.
The Music Vale Seminary suffered a significant drop in enrollment as a result of the Civil War, which saw many of its students from the South return home. In 1868, Orramel accidentally burned down the school when he lit a pan of gunpowder to create a thunder effect for the stage. The conservatory was rebuilt, but ceased operations after Orramel’s death in 1876. The building burned down again in 1897, but an original barn remains on the property.
Zippy the Pinhead Visits Southeastern Connecticut
Readers of the surreal comic strip Zippy the Pinhead might occasionally spot a familiar location. The title character is a frequent visitor of classic diners and strange roadside attractions, and he’s found several candidates in southeastern Connecticut.
In several strips, Zippy converses with the large bowling pin sign for Norwich Ten Pin Bowl. He also chats with the Civil War monument in Preston and frets about the leap year in Norm’s Diner in Groton.
Perhaps most notably, one strip has a character asking Zippy where he can find “eternal bliss and a complete awareness of life’s purpose.” He answers, “Route 82, two miles outside Norwich!”
It’s no wonder that Zippy showed up in the region a lot around the turn of the century. Zippy’s cartoonist, Bill Griffith, moved to East Haddam in 1998.
Connecticut’s First Railroad Makes Tracks in Stonington
Five years after the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first railway chartered in the United States, a line in Stonington became the first official railroad in Connecticut.
The New York and Stonington Rail Road Company was incorporated in May 1832, becoming the first railroad chartered in the state. It was quickly folded into the New York, Providence & Boston Railroad, but Stonington remained the site of the first Connecticut rails. In August 1832, this company broke ground on a line to bring passengers and cargo to the bustling industries and wharves of the peninsula.
Two historical markers commemorate the railroad today. One is located on Main Street near the Union Baptist Church, while the other preserves some of the old rail route in La Grua Park.
An Attempted Presidential Assassination in Norwich?
Southeastern Connecticut has proven to be quite the draw for U.S. Presidents, who have stopped by to give the commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy or attend the famous Independence Day parties at Roseland Cottage. But one story suggests that a Commander-in-Chief was targeted by an assassin here.
President William Howard Taft traveled to Norwich in July 1909 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding. Mel Ayton’s book Plotting to Kill the President says that Taft was greeting people in the crowd when a woman suddenly screamed and fainted. After she regained consciousness, she told the Secret Service and local police officers that she had seen a man concealing a revolver. The President’s guards searched for the would-be assailant, but failed to find him.
Gardner Lake, Home of Connecticut’s Smallest State Parks
There are more than 100 state parks in Connecticut, some encompassing thousands of acres of land. But the two smallest state parks in the state are both located on Gardner Lake.
Minnie Island State Park, the only island in the lake, is a mere 0.88 acres. Accessible only by boat, the island is named for a niece of Orramel Whittlesey, founder of the Music Vale Seminary (see below). The secluded state park is split between Montville and Salem.
Gardner Lake State Park in Salem is also miniscule, measuring only 9.75 acres. Located on the south shore, the state park was created in 2001 as a point of access to the lake. It includes a boat launch as well as a public beach.
The Marines Suffer their First Casualties off Block Island
The United States Marines lost their first men not on the shores of Tripoli, but just off the shore of Rhode Island.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy and Continental Marines launched a raid on Nassau in the British-held Bahamas. Returning to New London with supplies captured in the action, they encountered the HMS Glasgow off Block Island on April 6, 1776.
Although the Colonials met the Glasgow with a fleet of seven ships, their cannons were not as strong as the British ship. The Glasgow suffered considerable damage, but was able to escape.
Among the American losses were seven Marines killed and four wounded. These were considered the first casualties of the Corps.
The Invasion of New York, via New London
The islands on the eastern end of Long Island Sound are littered with the remnants of old fortifications, originally established and maintained as a way of countering enemy attacks on the vital waterway. Despite these precautions, the region’s history has been marked by occasional fears that a determined foe could target southeastern Connecticut as part of a broader attack on New York City.
One person to envision such a scenario was Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War under Presidents William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. In December 1914, Stimson wrote a “history” for Harper’s Weekly in which he imagined an attack on New York City.
Instead of making a direct attack on the city, the unnamed enemy in the piece lands 150,000 troops on the shores of New London, then marches through Connecticut to take Manhattan. The article was one of several at the time urging better homeland defense preparations, based on the argument that a large enemy force could easily occupy a large swath of the United States.