The Pier in Jeopardy
When Waldo Clarke, manager of the State Pier since its inception, died unexpectedly in 1953 the Pier lost its most energetic and knowledgeable advocate. Shipping continued, but the political appointees who ran the Pier seemed less fully engaged than Clarke.
Military competition between the Soviet Union and the West was intensifying by 1950 and the Navy's need to use the north side of the Pier for Squadron 10 during the Cold War meant that tension between civilian and military interests would continue. The submarine tender U.S.S. Fulton arrived in 1951 (visible in the photo above) and was a harbor fixture for forty years.
Shipping at the State Pier never seemed to reach a critical mass that could be described as "busy" or "successful." A city official described the piers as "in a state of limbo," and a State official agreed that despite New London having the best deep water harbor in the State "it is woefully underdeveloped considering its potential." (The Day, May 10, 1974) The claim had been made for years, and would continue.
A bold new idea generated much discussion that year. Capt. Joel Sears of Noank acted as spokesman for a group of local businessmen and bankers who, recognizing the significance of the container revolution well under way, proposed that the State Pier area be turned into a containerport.
Containerized shipping was upending time-honored methods in favor of putting refrigerators, cell phones, computers, wine, beer and everything else we imported into standardized containers. These rugged boxes could be stacked in (and on) ships and quickly offloaded to trains or trucks for transport to final destinations.
Drastically reduced shipping costs fostered the exponential growth of "consumerism:" things made inexpensively in Asia could be imported cheaply and sold for lower prices than domestic equivalents. It turned out to be a double-edged sword, of course: consumers enjoyed the luxury of an unprecedented abundance of affordable, well made goods, from cars to tee shirts, but the steady decline in domestic manufacturing was devastating to those whose livelihood depended on it.
Below: The proposed containerport was pictured in The Day
Below: Images of two containerports give a sense of what they look like and how they operate. At Prince Rupert, BC, a town roughly half the size of New London, a conventional wharf converted to a containerport opened in 2007. The Canadian National Railway (once the owner of New London's pier railroad, the Central Vermont) runs container trains from here to the heart of Canada and the U.S. Midwest.
Below: At the much larger port of Savannah, Georgia (from which in 1819 New London's Capt. Moses Rogers made the first Atlantic crossing using steam power) a train of double-stacked containers is shown leaving the waterfront. Giant cranes, many of them built in China, are the dominant feature of all containerports.
(Our exhibition about Capt. Rogers's transatlantic crossing may be viewed by clicking "Browse exhibits" at the top of any page and scrolling down.)
The containerport idea never gained traction, and we shall always wonder what the future might have held if the piers and their hinterland had been reconfigured for container handling. Was there enough acreage to accomodate stacks of them before they could be transhipped on trains or trucks? Could the railroad infrastructure have been rebuilt to allow containers to move out expeditiously on the New England Central (the former Central Vermont) or the Providence & Worcester on the other side of the river? Would New London have become a thriving shipping hub?
Another revitalization proposal was announced in The Day later that year: the pier area would be developed as "a major port of entry for raw agricultural products from Southeast Asia." A six month study of the State Pier by a New York engineering firm was called "the last best chance to convert the pier's dwindling operations into an economic energizer for Southeastern Connecticut." The new program would triple the tonnage handled, raise wages and salaries of pier employees, reduce importing and exporting costs for Connecticut firms, attract industry, and cost $5 million.
The engineering consultants recommended against making New London a containerport "because of the difficulty in competing with established ports in New York and Boston." Such a proposal for New London "would get laughed out of business," said one of them.
As part of the plan, the city asked for a commitment from the State for "annual payments in lieu of taxes to compensate for the use of prime waterfront land," a request that would be loudly repeated in 2021, nearly half a century later, in a similar situation.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the end of Cold War. After the Fulton and her squadron left in 1991 a structural (and political) problem complicated matters when a section of the Pier collapsed into the Thames in 1993. The Pier's lackluster economic return, tax-exempt status, and a general recognition that military and civilian activities didn't mesh well, fueled arguments from city officials and others that it was a waste of money, a commercial failure, and the area should be given over to industry.
But the naysayers didn't reckon with the persuasive power of two forceful voices: the editorial page of The Day, on which Morgan McGinley chastised them for shortsightedness, and the return of Admiral Harold E. Shear after a stellar Navy career and five years as head of the U.S. Maritime Administration.
Wrote McGinley: "Countless military battles have been fought over keeping deep-water ports open. But in New London the local pols have learned nothing from history and are trying to give away one of the city's and region's finest assets, a port of entry at State Pier."