Peconic: City Point’s Last Oyster Boat
A Personal Reflection by former City Point resident Tom Hines
I look at the picture above and it brings back a lot of childhood memories. But before I babble on about them just take a good look at this picture, it says a lot about the state of the oyster business in City Point when it was taken in 1962, mainly, it was over. The old Smith Brothers office in the background is starting to show its age. It is now the office of the Seacoast Oyster Company, and it soon will become the office of the new Claud-Ann Marina. To the right, on the beach you can see the remains of the pilings of Lanes dock, another oyster company now long gone. The Peconic herself is getting up in years. Built in Tottonville, New York in 1912, she came to New Haven in the 1920’s, when the Seacoast Oyster Company bought out the Peconic Bay Oyster Company on Long Island, and although still very sea worthy, her system for hauling up her oyster dredges is now outdated.
In a way, the Peconic helped to seal her own fate. When the new owner first took over, he had plans of trying his hand in the oyster business. The Peconic was the boat that was used to check the oyster beds. The results were not good, so by the time this picture was taken, the new owner of the Sea Coast Oyster Company had decided to make it a marina, and in doing so ended the oyster industry at City point. The Peconic was City Point’s last oyster boat. Yes other boats still work the harbor, but none of them call City Point their homeport.
The rest of the story cannot be told without knowing one other person, Thomas (Tommy) Whelan. Tommy had worked at the West Haven Shipyard for over 35 years. When the Seacoast Oyster Company was bought sometime in 1960 or 61 the new owner also bought the Beacon Oyster Co. and a small section of land between the two that belonged to someone named Utz. The new owner needed someone who knew about boats and boatyards, (he owned a rug company) so he hired Tommy Whelan. Tommy met the new owner when he took his yacht to the shipyard for repairs. It was Tommy who ran the Peconic on her last trip out to check out the oyster beds.
The other two boats, the Beacon and the Resolute were sold off, but Tommy kept the Peconic as a work-boat for the marina, and at just over 64 ft long, she was more then enough work-boat, maybe even to much. But Tommy could handle her, so it was no problem. I don’t know why the Peconic was picked as the one to keep. But anyone who knew Tommy knew that the Peconic was his baby, and he took his fair share of ribbing about it. He would start her up once every week or two, and kept a coal fire burning in an old Shipmate stove in her engine room all winter long.
I lived with my older brother Charlie on the second floor of 60 Sea St. Tommy Whelan was Charlie’s father-in-law, and lived on the first floor. As a kid I spent all my free time down at the marina. When I was ten or eleven years old Tommy gave me the job to make sure the Peconic was pumped out every night, and also to make sure everything looked OK. The pay was $3.00 a week. I was in my glory. I had three people whose grass I cut, and only got a dollar per lawn, and that was work! All I had to do for the Peconic was plug the pump in for five or ten minutes. I could only do it in the summer, when school was out, and the days longer. He (Tommy) didn’t want me down there by myself in the dark, but I often went with him.
I think back now of what a responsibility this was for a young kid. I mean If I missed cutting somebody’s grass, or didn’t take out the trash, so what. But forget to pump out the Peconic and there could be hell to pay. But Tommy kept a watchful eye on me, and made sure I never forgot. But more then once I was awakened from a sound sleep by my brother, only to be asked, “Tommy wants to know if you remembered to pump out the Peconic?” It seemed that every once and a while Tommy would wake up from having a nightmare that the water was up over the engine room floor and take it as an omen that the Peconic needed to be checked. Lucky for me these late night runs went to my brother Charlie. I can still hear him now as he got dressed, “ Its two o’clock in the god damn morning, and I gotta go check some god damn old oyster boat” But there was never a problem.
But the Peconic began to grow on me too. It was a history lesson and a museum all rolled into one. Unlike an old empty building, the Peconic was more like an old machine that you could go inside, and that I did often.
My routine went something like this. Everyday about 4:30 I would head down to the Peconic and plug the pump in to an outlet on the dock. Automatic bilge pumps were for yachts and not to be trusted. Then I would climb on board in order to check for excess water in her bilge, which was always OK, and then do some exploring. If the tide was high, boarding her was easy, just step off the dock onto the deck. Low tide required climbing down a slimy ladder which was a little scary. Next, walk to back of the engine room, take the skeleton key from its hiding place and un-lock the engine room door, which, by the way, was a Dutch door.
Once the door was open you would descend down about four steps to the upper engine room floor. Just to the right of the stairs was the “shipmate” stove. A shipmate stove looks just like an old iron kitchen stove, the only difference being a four inch high railing around the top to keep the pots and pans from sliding off when the boat rolled in rough seas. This is where at age eleven I learned how to “bank” a coal fire.
On each side of the engine room under the deck were two bunks, then as you went forward, you stepped down one step and you were next to the engine. On the Starboard (right) side was a small door in the forward bulkhead that went to the winch room under the forward deck. This was her dark and scary section. Even being ten years old I couldn’t stand up in there. If followed through you could get to the forecastle, where the crew would sleep and exit through a hatch onto the deck at the bow.
High up on the forward engine room wall, above the engine was a brass gong. This was from the Peconic’s earlier days when she was a “bell boat”. Her first and maybe second engine required an engineer in order to control the engine. The captain could ring this gong via a rope in the pilothouse to signal the engineer for forward and reverse along with engine speed. But now all her engine controls were in the pilothouse.
If you went to the port (left) side of the engine there was a steel ladder that went straight up the wall to a hatch that opened up in the pilothouse floor. The pilothouse had a door on each side, but they were kept locked, so this was my only way in. Once inside you could not help but notice her classic “ships wheel”: it was a good four feet across. The view from the pilothouse was great, and you could see why it was built the way it was. All the windows in the front of the pilothouse opened by sliding them down into the wall. In the picture you can see that two of the windows are just opened a few inches to let the air blow through. Between the windows and the wheel there were four or five ropes that came up through the floor to pulleys in the ceiling. The ropes came back down about two feet and had pull handles on the ends of them. The captain would use these ropes to operate the winch for the dredges. Across the back of the pilothouse was a bunk, no doubt for the captain. On the left wall, just above the hatch in the floor and right behind the pilothouse door, were all her engine gauges. On the right side, just above the bunk were shelves that held her logbooks. These books were full of drawings by her past captains that showed how to find certain oyster grounds using a system called triangulation. This system uses landmarks like church steeples or other identifiable buildings or objects. I still have some of her logbooks.
There were a lot of things that as a kid I found “cool” about the Peconic, but her engine was Number One! By the time I met the Peconic she had already worn out two other engines and was now on what would be her last. It was a five cylinder, 175-horse power Wolverine diesel. This thing was huge! It was all of six or seven feet tall, and that’s only what was above the engine room floor, I don’t know how much was below the floor. Unlike a modern engine, each cylinder was cast individually, it was painted gray and each cylinder had an aluminum valve cover with the name “Wolverine” on it. The only way you could even read this was standing in the engine room doorway, looking down at it, or looking through one of her engine room windows from outside.
This engine was no spring chicken: Wolverine went out of business sometime in the 1940s, and this was one of their last and perhaps biggest engines. And if I thought the engine was cool, then starting it was pure bliss. It’s probably the reason I still have a fondness for old engines and machines today.
One person who knew what he was doing could start the Peconic, but two made the job a little easier, that’s where I came in. You didn’t just turn a key and off you go, you had to do a few things first. The engine was started with compressed air, which was also used to shift from neutral to either forward or reverse. It also was used for the air horn on the pilothouse roof. So the first thing you did was to check to see just how much air you had. If you had less then 150 pounds you had to start a gas powered air compressor that was just to the left of the ladder that went up to the pilothouse.
Next you had to open a few valves. One for fuel oil, another for lubricating oil and then the seacock. Then you had to prepare the wicks. The Peconic’s engine was what is known as a “wick start engine”. In warmer weather and /or if she was run everyday you might be able to skip this step. But because she was only run once and awhile we always had to do it. Every now and then Tommy would make up a batch of these wicks. He would start by cutting up cotton sash cord or clothesline into pieces about an inch and half long. Then he would soak them in a mixture of potassium nitrate and water overnight, and then let them dry, then repeat the process two or three times.
To wick the engine required a good size wrench. What looked like a long bolt about six or seven inches long and an inch in diameter was removed from each of the five cylinders. There was a hole in the end of these that you stuffed a wick about halfway into. Once they were all prepared, the fun started. I would light each wick with a match, and hand it to Tommy. The wicks, now loaded with potassium nitrite would sputter like a fuse on a firecracker. Tommy would screw them back into each cylinder and tighten them as fast as he could, as the engine had to be started before they went out,
Once they were all in, a lever was pulled that let the compressed air turn the engine over. Sometimes the engine would have a cylinder at what was called “top dead center”, and it would not turn over. This usually stepped things up to a frantic pace, remember the wicks usually burn just so long. Tommy would grab a long pry bar, which was kept close by just for such an occasion, and shove it into one of several holes in the engines huge flywheel and pull with all his might to get it to move. Then back to the air, and if all went well you would hear a VUM………VUM……VUM …VUM…VUM, and she was running. A thermometer located in each cylinders exhaust port let you know if she was firing on all five cylinders. Unlike modern engines, the old wolverine was not overly loud; the closest sounding thing I have ever heard to it was a freight engine idling in a rail yard.
In the summer of 1967 the Peconic was hauled out at the old West Haven Shipyard. The Shipyard had been closed for some time now and the property was sold to the Bilco Company next door. One of the owners of Bilco used to store his boat at the marina in the winter, and let Tommy use the shipyards railway to haul out the Peconic for some much needed paint and repairs. I rode on the Peconic on it’s trip to the shipyard, and was on her when she was hauled. In the week or two that followed I learned a lot more about her. Her hull planking was oak and two inches thick. This was covered about a foot and a half above and below the waterline with another layer of one inch thick oak Ice sheathing. Her engine swung a fifty-four inch, four-blade propeller, and she got three coats of bottom paint, which I helped do a lot of.
So the Peconic goes down in history as the last oyster boat to be hauled out at the West Haven Shipyard. I can’t say she was the last boat, because Tommy used the railway to haul out New Haven’s fireboat, the Sally Lee, when he finished the Peconic.
In the summer of 1968 Tommy Whelan came home for lunch and collapsed in his kitchen. He would never see the marina or the Peconic again. He died February 15th, 1969. The Peconic had lost her best friend.
The new manager of the marina was a former customer who knew Tommy, but things were about to change. The owner of the marina was now also getting on in years and let his two son-in-laws take over. These two guys had married his two daughters, Claudia and Ann, after whom the marina was named. Thus, the Claud-Ann Marina. They had some big ideas, one of which was to start selling boats. This how the addition got built onto the [right side of the] old Smith Brothers Office: it was their showroom.
The decision was made to get rid of the Peconic. One thing that I can never forgive Mystic Seaport for is the fact that the Peconic was offered to them for free, just come and get her. They had more lame excuses then you could ever imagine. This is the same Mystic Seaport that a few years later would go through great pains to come and take one of the Thomas Oyster Company buildings away on a barge. Just for the record, the frame of that building is all they used; they could have hauled it to mystic on a truck. Also for the record the building was originally painted red with white lettering. Not the muted green that it is now. And last, it would look real good if the Peconic were tied up next to it, but that never happened.
After Mystic seaport refused the Peconic, the marina made plans to sell her to Cecil Smith for $1,500.00. Smitty as he was known was from New Bedford and was in the salvage business. Smitty was raising three sunken dredges left by the New England Dredge & Dock Company, located on South Water Street next to Buddy Emerson’s boatyard.
But things didn’t go as planned. When an oyster boat is working every day, her deck and hull are constantly being washed with water, both from the oysters being hauled aboard and from a hose that is left running on the deck to wash it off. This constant flow of water also keeps the hull and deck planking swelled up, which in turn keeps it watertight. The Peconic’s deck hadn’t seen an oyster now in seven years and her hull and deck seams were dry and open. To make matters worse the new manager moved her from a rather sheltered mooring to a location on an outer dock. This location left her broadside un- protected. Then one night in late April 1969 the wind kicked up from the south, the waves slapped against the Peconics dried out seams, and by daybreak she was on the bottom. I remember looking at her after school; she was listing into the channel with just her pilothouse and masts showing.
So now the Peconic was given to Smitty for salvage. Smitty was a character to say the least, and while he was very good at raising wrecks, he was not noted for fine craftsmanship and pristine equipment. I remember when he was raising the dredge Bristol; he needed an engine for a huge pump he made. When he couldn’t find one, he preceded to flip his car on its side and cut the engine out with a torch. The pump worked great, and the Bristol was soon floating.
Smitty raised the Peconic and then the carnage began. He needed a new tugboat, and the Peconic was it–after a few modifications, that is. First he cut off the back half of the engine room with a chain saw. He planked over the hole with heavy timbers and installed a towing bit. He then reinforced her bow by bolting steel plates on each side of her stem. Later on, one of his workers started the engine and didn’t open an oil line and burned out a bearing in the engine. Soon after the engine was repaired the Peconic made her only towing trip.
If you hang around the water long enough, you will notice that with boats, form follows function, and that they are build for their intended purpose. The Peconic was an oyster boat and no tugboat. I remember watching her leave for New Bedford with a barge in tow. The barge had a crane on one end and a huge “A” frame at the other, and the deck was littered with pumps and other salvage equipment. This was the very barge that had raised the Peconic just a few months earlier. I watched he going out of the harbor at maybe only two or three knots! It was as if she just didn’t want to leave.
I talked to Smitty when he came back, and he told me it was some trip. He said that sometimes he didn’t think they were moving at all. They had left New Haven around mid morning, and by the time they got to New London it was dark! Then while going through a stretch of the Sound called the “Race”, just off of New London, Smitty looked out of the back pilot house window just in time to see the barge rolling over. He said that he had just enough time to cut the tow line, or they all would have went to the bottom. But with Smitty, it was just another day at the office.
I never saw the Peconic again, although I wonder what ever did actually happen to her. But given her poor performance as a tugboat, and knowing Smitty, she’s probably resting quietly on the bottom someplace. Good night old girl, wherever you are.