Steamboats, Ferries and the Jibboom Club
From an early age Ellery observed his father's piloting assignments on steamboats and the Thames ferries, Governor Winthrop and Colonel Ledyard. Coastal steamboats traveled between Norwich, New London, and Long Island Sound ports; ferries connected Groton and New London before the first road bridge opened in 1919. Ellery experienced all of it first hand, learned a lot about navigation, and at the tender age of 16 (he claimed he was 17) was hired by The New England Steamship Co. as a bow watchman and assistant quartermaster on the City of Lowell, a large vessel on the overnight run between New London and New York.
His experiences aboard the Lowell are narrated in detail in a chapter of his unpublished book, Draggerman's Loot. Three excerpts:
"After one year of fishing on my father's Florence II, learning the ways of a draggerman towing trawl-nets over local bottoms, my father agreed with my desires to become a steamboatman on Long Island Sound.
"Confidence was something I had aplenty. Only a year and a half out of first year high school, seldom seeing my old school mates as they struggled with latin and algebra and what not, I felt far above them as if I'd graduated from one school of boating and fishing and was going on to higher learning in the pilothouse of a New York bound Sound steamer.
"Going down Sound toward the Big City on such twin propeller steamers as the City of Lowell, the Chester W. Chapin, or the Richard Peck, whether on business, pleasure or honeymooning, was a thrill never to be enjoyed by the present generation."
As an experienced mariner Frank Thompson was a member of New London's unique Jibboom Club, founded circa 1870 in upper rooms on Bank Street near the Custom House. Membership was originally restricted to whaling captains and other “deepwater” mariners who, as Ellery wrote in a typescript, sought to preserve “the old traditions and material things vital to a ship at sea.”
The impetus to honor the traditions and culture of the sailing era was likely sparked by the maritime evolution New Londoners were witnessing: the end of the whaling era and the flowering of the age of steam power.
Ellery joined the Club in 1917, age 18: “The Jibboom Club in upper rooms of the Lawrence Building was a great foul-weather hangout for Pop and me, and one rule was strictly enforced: no liquor, excepting when a plum-duff supper was served with hard sauce — well spiked with rum.
“I listened to tales never recorded in ship’s logbooks or Custom House records, or told to women folk at home."
It evolved into a men-and-boys organization when, as Ellery wrote,”a morning gargle with salt water would get you in.” A scaled-down flying jib boom was at the entrance, artifacts were displayed, the walls were covered with mementoes, and meetings were known as voyages.
“All too soon, the ladies demanded to be allowed in to attend Club suppers served from our own Galley.”
An annual highlight was the Washington’s Birthday parade up State Street with costumes and floats, ending with a banquet and dance at the Mohican Hotel. Membership was as high as 400 in the Club's heyday, but declined during the Teens and Twenties. Ellery was one of the few remaining members when the Jibboom Club officially disbanded in 1959.
Ellery's steamboating career was short lived. After a year or so, when the minimum age for maritime employment was suddenly legislated at 18, the Company was forced to lay him off and he returned to the more lucrative business of fishing with his father. That it was a memorable experience is clear from the unpublished reminiscences he set down years later about life aboard the City of Lowell in 1915 and the hours he spent taking in the sights of Manhattan.
Curator's Note: The New London Maritime Society has revived the storied Jibboom Club in the form of free monthly talks on maritime topics at the Custom House Maritime Museum, followed by discussion and refreshments. The new Club is supported by the Maco Family Fund.