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SALLY RYAN (New London Municipal Historian): This is Star Street in New London. This street is really built on land that at one time was a rope walk.  Being a seaport there was a great need for rope so this – this whole length of this street would be one long building like a shed where they would make rope by twisting hemp

The rope walk burned in the early part of the 19th Century and left this whole block here empty so instead of rebuilding the rope walk, they built this – these lovely houses.  I think it’s a good example to show you how New London was so prosperous in the first half of the 19th Century. That these were the homes of the middle-class merchants. And this is where they lived.


CRONKITE: Connecticut's people have always harvested the sea's resources for profit. 

In the early 19th Century, entrepreneurial New London investors even found a way to profit from South American bird droppings, known as guano. New Londoners introduced guano for use as agricultural fertilizer, and shipped it to farmers in New England, southern plantation owners and after the Civil War to Europe.

GADDIS SMITH (Larned Prof. of History, Yale University) Connecticut people were actively involved especially to the Chincha Islands which are islands off Peru and that trade peaked in the 1850’s. In those islands there were compacted bird droppings that were two to three hundred feet thick and it was extremely valuable.

What was really bad about the guano trade was digging the stuff on the islands because it ¾ when you broke up this ¾ this compacted bird droppings it was like talcum powder and would get into your lungs and it was lethal, quite literally lethal.

Chinese were used and they were virtually kidnapped. It’s kind of the other slave trade They were brought there and they worked almost for nothing, like 4-dollars a month, but they weren’t going to survive because they would die quickly.

The ships that came in also had their problems because this guano would be loaded on the ships, the dust of it would envelop the ship. It really stunk. I mean, awful stuff. Ship’s accounts record that approaching the guano island from downwind 100 miles away they could smell it, so it was a pretty, pretty dismal business but it helped grow food in the American south and in Europe.


CRONKITE: One of the first Connecticut maritime ventures was hunting fur seals in the South Atlantic for trade to China in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Most of the fur sealers sailed from New Haven or Stonington and traded fur skins for tea, chinaware and textiles. Vast fortunes were established through the fur seal trade, which lasted about 10 years.

The wealth amassed through fur sealing paled in comparison with the riches generated from whaling.

The Hempsted house, the oldest house in New London, was the home of Joshua Hempstead, a New London farmer and ship’s carpenter at Coit’s shipyard.

Hempstead’s journal provides the earliest surviving record of whaling in Connecticut -- in 1718.  Hempsted wrote of hiring out his whale boat to locals who pursued the whales then plentiful off Long Island.   It was a small harbinger of bigger things to come.

Dale Plummer (Norwich City Historian): One of the consequences of the Revolution was that New London really became cut out of the West Indies trade. The British controlled much of the West Indies.

But I think another factor in the early 1800’s was the rise of New York as ¾ as the great transatlantic shipping port.  Trading was not as feasible any more because, you know, much of the trade was really being drawn off elsewhere.

Whaling offered a ¾ a real alternative that was good because no longer did you have to depend on having something to ship out.  It just required what we had which was skilled sailors, ships, capital.   And after the War of 1812 New London went into whaling pretty whole hog. So much so that by the mid 1840’s New London becomes the second largest whaling port in the world after New Bedford. 78 vessels sailing out after whales, also seals, sea elephants.  This whole area was lined with wharves associated with the whaling industry.

WILLIAM PETERSON (Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport): There were other Connecticut ports that were involved from time to time: but it was New London that was the significant whaling port in the 19th Century.  The whale fishery was probably the most important fishery that ¾ that Connecticut’s ever had in terms of dollars.

One cargo of whale oil could be worth as much as a million and a half dollars in today’s money and so it was worth the risk to send a whale ship out for two or three years, sometimes longer.

An industry like whaling that was so important to places like New London also required a lot of supporting trades and industries.  It brought tremendous prosperity to the city.  Fortunes were made, you know, many of the leading families in New London became wealthy through the whaling industry.

CRONKITE: Another rather unique aspect of Connecticut whaling was elephant sealing, known locally as “elephanting.”

Dale Plummer (Norwich City Historian): New Londoners were known in the whaling trade as “underwater men” because they spent so much time in the far north, in the far south where the conditions were so extreme. One of their favorite ports of call -- if you could call it that, was Desolation Island in the very south of the Indian Ocean at the fringe of the Antarctic. Desolation was great because you had humpback whales that sported about in the bays of Desolation, you had huge sea elephants that would haul up on shore. You could kill them easily with clubs, spears, rifles …The blubber would yield an oil indistinguishable from whale oil. So a lot of the whale oil that was shipped into New London was actually from these giant seals some of them getting up to 20 feet long.

By the 1880’s the whaling fleet had really reduced to a few vessels.  People are starting to look at the industry with a lot of nostalgia


SALLY RYAN (New London Municipal Historian): This is what we call Whale Oil Row. These houses were built in 1834 by Ezrah Chapel on speculation to sell to people like whaling captains. These were expensive homes. These homes would have been for people like captains and whaling merchants who made money.  The ordinary seaman never could have afforded a home like this.  This would be a desirable place to live because they could walk downtown and be right where the docks were.

This is the home of Acors Barns and Acors Barns was what we call a whaling agent. The whaling agents were the ones who – they more often owned the whaling ships but they would hire the captain, they would hire the crew and they would get the supplies, and they are the ones who were in charge of the whaling voyages.

They not only got the profits from the whaling voyage itself but they owned the warehouses and when the whaling ship came back, if whale oil was not selling at a high enough profit they could store the oil and then sell it later. …And so they were the ones who became very wealthy.

This is the New London Public Library. This library was a gift from Henry P. Haven. Henry P. Haven was a whaling agent but he also was involved in the guano trade … There are many other public buildings in New London like our hospital and the Lyman Allyn Art Museum and some of the monuments, our sailors and soldiers monument.  That were gifts to the city from people who made their money from whaling and other maritime pursuits.


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Last modified: September 03, 2012