In Peace and War: The Long Stewardship of Waldo Clarke

The State Pier was taken over by the Navy after the U.S. entered the war in 1917 - a consequence of its location in a strategic harbor which had recently become the nexus of submarine operations. Groton's Naval coaling station farther up the river, due for closure because fuel oil had replaced coal, had been kept open at the urging of officials who recognized not only its economic value but its potential military importance. The Navy had actually brought the first submarines in 1915, and a year later the Naval station was renamed the "U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London," even though it was located in Groton. 

The war ended in 1918 but the Navy stayed until 1920, overlapping with the Coast Guard which had been tasked with intercepting liquor smugglers after Prohibition went into effect in 1919. As the smugglers grew more devious the Coast Guard used several obsolete but fast Navy destroyers for interdiction. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Pier was again available for commercial use.

Below: U.S. Navy subchasers at the Pier in 1920


Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library 

Below: Two photos of the Coast Guard presence at the Pier, 1922 and 1930


From "New London Connecticut - Utopia of the North Atlantic"

Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library


Part of an airplane retrieved from Long Island Sound

Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library Photo Collection


Waldo E. Clarke, from The Day Paper


The one person most responsible for operation of the State Pier, from its very beginning to the early 1950s, was Waldo E. Clarke, a New London engineer selected by the State in 1912 to oversee its construction. He was smart and persuasive, later becoming a trustee of The Day, whose editor, Theodore Bodenwein, was another outspoken supporter of the Pier as an engine of New London's economy. 

After the First World War Clarke tried to attract shipping to the Pier, now available for its original purpose. Gregory Stone mentions an agreement Clarke made with the U.S. Grain Corporation "to ship flour through New London on a trial basis," while the ca. 1920 photograph below shows the result of Clarke's effort to attract the Pacific coast lumber trade.



Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

This photograph appears in a well-illustrated 23-page booklet published by the Chamber of Commerce in 1922 for the purpose of attracting new residents, conventions, and manufacturing to the city. New London Connecticut - Utopia of the North Atlantic - The Ideal City Winter and Summer begins with these words:

"New London holds a wealth of interest to the historically inclined mind; a silver-lined future for the man of business and all those things which make a city ideal for the everyday man, woman and child."

Every feature of the city is described, from its desirable location and good transportation (streetcars, trains and steamboats) to its good water, five theaters, six social clubs, seven banks, many churches, fireproof schools, 4,384 houses, 8,969 telephones, and 4,363 automobiles. From its pleasing climate to excellent downtown shopping where "splendid up-to-the minute stores supply every want at fair prices."  

It does indeed sound like an ideal city.


Below: The centerfold is a remarkable aerial view of New London. The piers are prominent, and the description of State Pier - opened only six years before - is a glimpse of activity there when commercial shipping resumed after World War I:

"It is liberally used by freighters with consignments to Canadian points or points inland on the [New York, New Haven & Hartford], Central Vermont and Grand Trunk Railroads. Part of this pier is used as a section base for the ships of the Coast Guard; the balance is constantly in use for the purpose originally intended. During the past ten years [sic] shipments of west coast lumber, feldspar, cement, cotton linters*, shingles, cast iron pipe and general cargoes received and unloaded at the State Pier amounted to more than $3,847.000. Outgoing commodities consisting of flour, automobiles, and general cargoes amounted to $17,600,000." 

*residue from ginning, used for felt and paper



One of the most bizarre proposals to boost business at the State Pier was shipbuilding executive Lawrence Wilder's 1928 vision of four-day Atlantic crossings aboard luxurious airplane-carrying ships from which passengers would be flown to shore at either end, shortening the trip by a day or two. Waldo Clarke was among those who jumped at the possibility that New London, conveniently located beween New York and Boston, could be the U. S. terminal of this astonishing idea.

"The Blue Ribbon Line" never happened, despite the advocacy of Senator Hiram Bingham III and a visit to New London by Wilder aboard his yacht. The U.S. Shipping Board told Congress that "most travelers probably were not eager to cross the Atlantic in four days," and once again "a breakthrough at the ocean terminal remained an elusive dream." (Stone, 157) Of course it was a naive and implausible idea and Congress didn't need the Shipping Board to confirm the folly of it.


Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library


The story played out in the pages of The Day while New London was having its first experience with urban planning. The City Council had commissioned a study by Herbert S. Swan, a professional planner whose 1928 recommendations were largely devoted to improving traffic flow as "automobiles" increasingly clogged the horse-and-buggy streets.

But he also addressed the natural asset John Winthrop was attracted to in 1645: the harbor. Swan urged the city to buy the long strip of waterfront land between Pequot Avenue and the harbor to preserve the view for the public.  He also proporsed that the area around the State Pier should be developed for manufacturing which could take advantage of proximity to the Pier.

He observed that "there is room for another pier of about the same size as the present State Pier, immediately to the east of it. It can easily be provided with the same railway facilities...Until the State Pier is, however, more fully utilized, there does not seem to be any occasion for such a pier." 

Below: The upper part of Swan's map shows the rail yard and pier trackage of the Central Vermont Railroad and the relationship of the State Pier to the enclave of East New London. (One wonders what the remaining East New Londoners thought about the prospect of losing their homes for yet another pier.)


Swan's most revolutionary suggestion was to fill in Green's Harbor (below) and build piers into the Thames "available for the largest ocean vessels." The close proximity of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad at that point (now Amtrak's Northeast Corridor), away from the congestion and tight clearances downtown, made this "an inviting location for a terminus for large ocean craft." 



All such ideas evaporated after the Stock Market crashed in 1929, and the operations of the State Pier would soon be impaired by yet another outside force. The Coast Guard was already using it as a base for smuggling interdiction, and the economic downturn of the emerging Depression would certainly dilute if not kill New London's hope for commercial growth through revived waterborne shipping.



The 1931 visit of the USS Constitution was a once-in-a-lifetime event for New Londoners and everyone else within driving distance or within walking distance of a streetcar line. Following a major rebuild, "Old Ironsides" went on a three-year National Tour, tying up at the State Pier on August 12. As Rebecca Parmer explains in another online exhibition*, interest in the historic ship was high due to the "Save Old Ironsides" fundraising program, begun when Congress stipulated her rebuild should be funded by popular subscription. Nearly one million dollars were raised.

*Click on "Browse exhibits" at the top of any page and scroll down to view "Old Ironsides - New London."

Note: A century before, oak timbers removed from Constitution during a refit were fashioned into the entry doors of New London's custom house, where they remain to this day.

Old I. screenshot

The visit of such a historic ship was also a historic occasion and The Day provided detailed coverage - but was unable to get a photograph of the visitor tied up at the end of the State Pier, her bow pointing to Groton Bank.  

Some excerpts:

August 14 headline: Thousands Visit Old Ironsides at State Pier on First Day; Inspires Awe and Admiration

“A pier crew under Waldo Clarke did yeoman work in making the lines fast at the pier.

“The historic old ship, originally launched in 1797 and reconstructed during the past four years, made a profound impression on her visitors here and the word quickly spread that a visit to the vessel should not be missed.

[Most] of the visitors stand in awe as they cast their eyes along the substantial sides of the craft and then crane their necks aloft to look over the maze of lines that appear to be the most complicated arrangement in the world to the landlubber."

August 20: "Yesterday, the final day for visitors, 6,530 persons went aboard. Included among this number [was] a large number of children from the Seaside Sanitorium, who were brought over to the pier in buses.

"Two tugs made quick work of moving the...ship away from the end of the state pier and turning her bow downstream, and as the famous frigate went down the harbor crowds of people lined...the shore at vantage points and other vessels sounded their whistles in a parting salute."

Photograph of USS Constitution during the National Cruise, 1931

Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library Photograph Collection

Gift of Bill LaRoue


Shipping at both Piers came back in the Thirties as the country emerged from the Depression, only to fade again as war clouds gathered - a storm which broke in 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland. As Gregory Stone wrote, "World War II transformed New London and its surroundings from a stagnant victim of the Great Depression into a busy hub of military activity." (Stone, 210)  

Of course that transformation was due to neighboring Groton's importance as the home of both the nation's largest East Coast Submarine Base and Electric Boat Company's submarine-building shipyard. As before, the State Pier was commandeered by the Navy to augment its Base upriver. 

Cachet 2

Souvenir submarine launch cachet, 1943

Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library

Once victory was no longer in question, Waldo Clarke renewed his efforts to drum up business. There was talk of a "port authority" to mount a concerted approach, but perhaps the most consequential of his efforts was to talk with a small Brooklyn company that needed space for expansion. As Gregory Stone reports in The Day Paper, Clarke showed EB's unused south yard to a delegation from Charles Pfizer & Company, they bought the land and the rest is history. (This would have little effect on the State Pier, but the future benefit of Waldo Clarke's endeavors to the economy of the region would be incalculable.)

Clarke's worries about the fate of New London after the artificial economic boom caused by the war convinced him that the only way to prevent the flight of industry and business from cities was regional cooperation. As Gregory Stone writes in The Day Paper:

"He knew the New England communities around New London would never buy the idea of political consolidation. But he felt it would be practical to create a metropolitan council encompassing New London, Groton, and Waterford that would plan for their mutual needs, mainly to develop the Port of New London with shipping and manufacturing....He was one of the first to advance the idea of regional cooperation in this New England bastion of small-town parochialism." (p. 225)


Postcard view ca. 1950 of Groton, New London and Waterford, with the two piers at left center (and the railroad bridge airbrushed out) - Frank L.McGuire Maritime Library Collection

Despite his diligent efforts, Waldo Clarke would be criticized by a state senator from New London for failing to promote the State Pier, renewing an old argument that it was a white elephant - a feeling shared by those who resented the Pier's tax-exempt status and demanded financial compensation from the coffers of the State. 


Below: Two photographs from the Waldo Clarke years, ca. 1945, show New London and the pier area in high aerial views.  The ship on the north side of the State Pier is probably the submarine tender USS Fulton.

A 45-degree right turn off State Pier Road leads to the Pier; the road which continues straight to the river was once the approach to New London's first road bridge (adapted from the 1889 railroad bridge), in use until the Gold Star Bridge opened in 1943.

In the lower picture the Gold Star Bridge and pre-urban renewal streets are prominent, as is the bright white City Pier at the foot of State Street.

Aerial-Piers  ca.1945
Distant aerial 1945?
In Peace and War: The Long Stewardship of Waldo Clarke