Early Movers and Shakers Promote New London's Harbor
New London became one of New England's busiest whaling centers during the phenomenal rise of that industry in the 19th century, but whaling's inevitable decline, and concern for what would replace it as an economic engine, prompted businessmen and politicians to consider other ways to take advantage of the natural resource lapping at the shoreline.
As early as 1862 John Rogers Bolles and Alfred Coit were among those who persuaded the Connecticut Legislature to support New London’s bid for a Naval station to serve the ironclads that were the wave of the future after the famous Civil War battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. Not much happened until 1898, when the Navy needed more coaling stations for its growing fleet of steam-powered ships, and the Groton installation on the banks of the Thames finally came into its own.
In 1877 Bolles, a businessman and chairman of the board of trade, published the pamphlet, “New London, A Seaport for the North and West...” describing the advantages of a smaller, well-situated port with the amenities cited fifteen years earlier for the Navy Yard: a “commodious” and deep harbor, security afforded by Fort Trumbull, “salubrious” climate, absence of winter ice, availability of coal and iron, and a population of “hardy seamen and skilled naval mechanics.” The pamphlet listed other advantages as well: “convenient, ample and cheap wharf room, manufacturing facilities, abundant supply of pure water, healthfulness, etc.”
Note: The Navy coaling station became a submarine base during World War I, a change that together with the growth of submarine construction at the Electric Boat Company arguably had the greatest economic impact on New London in its history.
The early promoters of New London as terminal for ocean shipping may have had something like California's Santa Monica Pier in mind. This 1890s view of the rails of the Southern Pacific Railroad meeting the sea is a clear - and startlingly nostalgic - depiction of the commercial relationship between railroads and waterborne shipping that took hold on the east, west, Gulf, and Great Lakes coasts of the United States.