Did you know that Madison was once a major shipbuilding center?
East Guilford, as it was known before becoming Madison in 1826, developed an economy based on farming, fishing and coastal trading. Together these industries and related commerce led to the building of boats and ships as an industry of importance to the townspeople of Madison. The growth of these efforts played a major role in establishing the town, expanding it from several dozen settlers to hundreds of families and many workers engaged in the shipbuilding trade.
Our town history includes records of shipbuilding dating from the late 1600s, with steady boat-building activity during the entire 18th century. The most significant activity was at the Hoyt Yard, located on the land where the Madison Beach Hotel is now situated at West Wharf, and in the Miner Yard, located near the place we now know as East Wharf. Both of these yards operated from the early 1800s through the 1890s. Before its demise due to a devastating fire and continued expansion of the railway system, this industry produced well more than 200 ships and boats.
During this time, Madison was one of the more active shipbuilding centers between New Haven and New London. Ships supported by massive wooden frames were built in the open air along the shore. Workers with specialized skills blended with general laborers, and, for the larger ships up to 200 feet in length, each crew averaged 70 to 90 men. Sawmills and blacksmith shops supported this work. It must have been quite a sight as each vessel took shape.
An early historical record from 1695 reports that a Mr. Joseph Hand requested the temporary removal of a bridge over the Hammonasset River, the boundary between present-day Madison and Clinton, so he could bring a completed ship down to the open waters of Long Island Sound. The request was granted on the condition that the bridge be fully replaced to its original condition!
Another interesting record describes the shipbuilding endeavors of Ichabod Scranton, who, during the War of 1812, moved the building of a ship from the waterfront at East Wharf to the Boston Post Road at a location near the Madison Historical Society’s Allis-Bushnell House. This move, precipitated by the threat of theft, was necessary because the British had taken ships from the East Wharf area. When his ship was complete, Scranton rounded up 100 oxen, who dragged the completed vessel down East Wharf Road to the water. Ichabod was a relation of Erastus Clark Scranton, the namesake of Madison’s E. C. Scranton Memorial Library.
In 1823, amidst the shipbuilding era, a dozen or so townspeople led by Curtis Wilcox and Frederick Lee built West Wharf, a local landing place for the coastal trade. This brought the town into routine maritime commerce where “vessels may with safety and dispatch lade and unlade” their goods. With its coastal proximity to Long Island Sound, Madison participated in trading with ports near and far for the better part of three centuries.
After 1900, as shipping activity migrated to New London and other areas, Madison gradually became known for recreation and leisure during the summertime. Later it evolved to its current state as a valued year-round residential community.
This month, at the second of the three annual Frederick Lee Lectures, come learn how Madison’s roots are grounded in maritime trade and shipping. Hear how shipbuilding prospered in Madison and impacted the growth and development of the town. Presenter Bob Kach brings his experience as a naval architect to his discussion of shipbuilding in Madison. Offered by the Madison Historical Society with support from the First Congregational Church of Madison and the Dalton Fund of the Madison Foundation, this vivid presentation will be on Sunday, Feb. 10, at 4 p.m. at the FCC’s Angela Hubley Hall. The suggested donation is $5 ($4 for MHS members; $2 for students 10 and older). For more information, visit www.madisonhistory.org.
Chip Adams is a Madison Historical Society Trustee and chairman of the Frederick Lee Lectures.