As I was driving away from the Connecticut River Museum a few weeks ago, I spied something few people see when visiting Essex – available parking spaces on Main St. Essex is a small, mostly residential community with ample attractions to bring a crowd of visitors to Main St. The street is lined with restaurants and shops and it ends at one of the most famous waterfronts in Connecticut, and in some remarkable way, US history.
Essex was part of the original Saybrook Colony which was settled at Saybrook Point in 1635, where the Connecticut River empties into Long Island Sound. Connecticut was just starting to be settled at that time, and The Saybrok Colony wasn’t considered to be part of Connecticut until around 1640. Fast forward 130 years or so, and Essex started to assume its historic identity.
Around the time of the US Revolution, Captain Uriah Hayden was commissioned by the Colony of Connecticut to build the “Oliver Cromwell,” the largest ship ever constructed in the Connecticut River Valley. Captain Hayden lived on the waterfront at the end of Main Street, next to where the Connecticut River Museum stands today. I’ve shared that door before, but it’s the featured door today. Given the nature of the river near Essex, with many coves and islands, Essex was an ideal location to build ships.
In 1807, President Jefferson implemented an embargo to prohibit American ships from trading in foreign ports. This was designed to prevent American ships, and goods from being seized during the ongoing war between England and France. As any student of history would be asking, I’ll wrap up the preliminary history and get to the action. The embargo had limited effect, but it damaged the economy of the eastern states and crippled the ship-building dependent economy of Connecticut. Congress ended the embargo in 1809, in typical Congress fashion, i.e. by replacing it with something equally as bad – the Non-Intercourse Act, which prohibited trade with Britain and France.
During the war of 1812, Essex shipbuilders were building privateers to prey on the relatively slow-moving British warships. In response, the British Navy established a blockade at the mouth of the Connecticut river. The British discovered the work being done in Essex, and in the morning of April 8, 1814, the British attacked and destroyed 28 ships worth about $200,000 (about $4 million in 2020). This attack was one of the great financial losses during that war.
OK, end of history lesson. Essex today is not so different from Essex of 1812. Ironically, the fact that Essex clung to shipbuilding and a couple unique manufacturing industries (piano parts, for example) Essex was bypassed by large manufacturing growth in CT. This left the area predominantly residential and rural. When the “business” of the Connecticut River shifted from transportation to leisure, Essex was in an ideal position to support boating, instead of shipping. As a result, Main St. in Essex has changed very little over the past 200 years.
Note: Through the efforts of the Connecticut River Museum, the area around Essex has been established as an Historic Battle Site (I think it’s the only one in CT).
This post, is part of Norm Frampton’s fun blogfest called Thursday Doors. Each week, Norm puts out a worldwide call for photos, history and stories involving or featuring doors. If you have doors to share, head up to Norm’s place and join the party. Since it’s January, I am also submitting this as part of Linda G. Hill’s Just Jot January blog series. That prompt is “Drive” offered by Janet at Janet’s Smiles.
I hope you enjoy my walk up Main St. in Essex (after I drove there).