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“Pushing Forward and Arching Back”

By David Wright
Town Historian

Pushing Forward and Arching Back

The Connecticut Post ran an article in the December 30, 2023 edition, with the headline “Boat repair shop plans Housatonic River shipyard.”  When reading that headline, I couldn’t help but reflect on an earlier Housatonic Shipyard. The Housatonic Shipbuilding Company was organized in 1917 to build war ships for World War I. Five ships were built in total, but none of them were ever put into service in the war.

The Housatonic Shipyards launched their first ship December 31, 1918, to great fanfare. World War I ended November 11, 1918, so war ships fell out of fashion pretty quickly. The Shipyards built a total of five wooden ships, but none of them saw any military action.

Perhaps the future of the Shipyard was foreshadowed when Grace Dietrich attempted to christen the first war ship to be launched, the Fairfield, with a bottle of champagne.  “…As the signal was given and the ship began its graceful slide, Miss Dietrich slammed the bottle with all her might because she did not want to “hoodoo” the vessel. But the bottle was entirely too much decorated to break even on the bow of the Fairfield, and Miss Dietrich, being nervous and disappointed with the refusal of the bottle to do its duty, said – but she threatened war if anyone told what she said, so we hasten to add that she was a little peeved. (The Bridgeport Herald, January 5, 1919)

Lew Knapp wrote about the shipbuilding activity in Stratford in 1917-1919 in his Stratford history, In Pursuit of Paradise.  “As part of the wartime shipbuilding program in 1917, the Housatonic Shipbuilding Company organized to build a series of wooden steam-powered freighters in Stratford.  Its president was Frederick E. Morgan, and its ways* were built on the river, directly north of the railroad, where later Bendix Helicopters, and then Dresser Industries, located. About four hundred ships of this design were being built across the nation, but very few were ever completed. The 267-foot freighter, Fairfield, was launched at Housatonic in 1919 and registered with Bridgeport as home port. She had a crew of forty-one men and her engine was pegged at 1400 horsepower. One of her sisters, the Portland, spent most of her life hauling bricks as a barge in the Hudson River, and reappeared in the Housatonic in 1957 to help raise the dredge, General, which had sunk and blocked the channel in the flood of 1955.”

The Fairfield

When Housatonic Shipyards ceased operations in 1920, many Stratford men were put out of work.  This began an uncomfortable era in town where many families were left without enough to eat.  Industries in Bridgeport and Stratford laid off dozens of Stratford workers at the conclusion of World War I. Many of the efforts of town leaders in the early 1920s were spent providing relief for the unfortunate, unemployed poor in Stratford.

Cooley Marine is locating further south on the Housatonic at Sniffens Lane. We wish them the very best, and are confident their efforts will be much more appreciated by our community.  Wooden, steam-powered warships were barely in vogue in 1919, and, fortunately, wooden war ships don’t appear to be part of Cooley Marine’s business model.

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