Construction Begins as War Breaks out in Europe
The contract to build the State Pier was awarded to New London’s T. A. Scott & Company, a prominent marine construction and salvage outfit. After excavation and grading for the railroad tracks, the first step was a massive pile-driving project that got under way just eight months before the “guns of August” signaled the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914. The Pier was completed in 1916, including its most visible part, the long three-story warehouse.
The photographs below, taken in 1914 and 1915 by Waldo Clarke as he supervised construction, are from the McGuire Library's Harold Cone Collection.
Although war was raging in France, the isolationist segment of American society wanted no part of the conflict. Indeed, many New Londoners were excited about the plan by a German shipping company to make State Pier the American terminal for its cargo submarines. These innovative long-range vessels could transport high-value, low-volume materials and avoid the prowling surface ships of the Royal Navy. The first boat of the fleet was the North German Lloyd Line's Deutschland.
Perhaps the strangest turn of events in the story of the State Pier is that its first customer was this hitherto unknown type of ship, operating privately but almost certainly with the knowledge of the German government, whose armies had devastated Belgium and the Netherlands and was now at war with France and Britain. In May, 1915, as construction of the State Pier was progressing, a U-Boat had torpedoed the Cunard liner Lusitania off Ireland with a loss of nearly 1,200 lives. For the present, however, economic and business concerns took precedence in New London and elsewhere.
The Deutschland tied up at the new Pier -- still missing its warehouse -- on November 1, 1916. Moored close by was the S. S. Willehad, also of the North German Lloyd Line, said to be the support ship for the submarine fleet. The Deutschland and the Willehad were shrouded in mystery, however, for startling reasons that would be revealed later.
The innocuously named Eastern Forwarding Company (below) had been set up by the Germans to administer the program. Its building and high fencing shielded the Deutschland and Willehad from view, not only on the landward side but also in the water between the bow of the ship and the tip of the pier. Curious New Londoners tried to peer into the fenced-off area to see what was going on.
Above: The Willehad was a small cargo liner that earlier served as an emigrant ship bringing Norwegians to America, giving her some prominence in the website Norway Heritage - Hands Across the Sea, the source of these photographs.
The promoters of the State Pier were so excited about the expected economic benefits that they eagerly accepted the German lease of the Pier as a step toward making the city "a hub of trans-Atlantic trade," as John Ruddy put it in his April 7, 2019 article in The Day. The German partnership foundered as the war intensified, and only a few months after the mysterious activities at State Pier, on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.
"This undersea exploit, disguised as civilian commerce, was a military operation, its only purpose to procure supplies for the German war machine." (John Ruddy, The Day, April 7, 2019)
A Tragic End to the Deutschland Saga
When the Deutschland was departing New London during the night of November 17-18, continuing her policy of secrecy, she accidentally rammed T.A. Scott's piloting tug near Race Rock Light, the captain and crew of which were lost. The submarine went back to New London for repairs and after returning to Germany was converted to an armed U-Boat responsible for sinking 42 Allied ships.