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Promising ventures, frustrating setbacks have marked State Pier’s recent years

April 8, 2019

Editor’s note: This two-part account of State Pier’s history was drawn mostly from the archives of The Day and the New London Telegraph. Sunday’s installment looked at the pier’s creation and early years. Today’s takes the story from World War II to the present.

The most ardent supporter of State Pier, and its champion from the beginning, was growing increasingly frustrated.

Waldo Clarke, who supervised the building of the pier and devoted much of his career to developing it, caused outrage in November 1945 when he reportedly told a committee in Washington that development of New London’s port was “dead” and “hopeless.”

The city council in New London called a special meeting and demanded that Clarke explain himself. Clarke said he was misquoted and that he told the committee the port situation in all of New England was “desperate.”

“We need a survey on the conditions, possibilities, and ailments of our ports, but we need a true one,” Clarke said. “It would be foolish to say everything is rosy when there are so many things against us.”

Clarke’s frustration wasn’t unfounded. He’d seen New London’s port besieged by one setback after another, including the Navy’s takeover of the pier during both world wars.

His remarks came just months after World War II ended. While an economic boon for other industries, the war was a detriment to the shipping industry in New London. The number of cargo ships coming into the pier dropped from 58 in 1939 to 33 a year later and then dwindled to a handful after that. Much of the local shipping business moved to other seaports during the war and didn’t come back after it was over.

Clarke had worried about what would happen to New London after the industrial demands from the war went away. He felt there should be a concentrated effort to promote the development of New London’s port post-war and floated the idea of a port authority to carry that out.

Expanding businesses and industries were expected to flee cities for cheaper land and lower taxes in the suburbs, and Clarke knew that posed a threat to New London. He persuaded city officials to make another attempt at establishing the port as a shipping center. He also proposed the idea of creating a regional council to develop the port with shipping and manufacturing.

* * *

When the war ended, New London went to the state legislature in an attempt to recoup tax losses from the pier. Edward R. Henkle, the city manager, argued the city should get some of the money he thought was coming into the pier.

Clarke’s response: “What money?” The pier had never been a moneymaker, despite a 30-year effort by Clarke to attract major business. The Navy’s takeover of the pier during both world wars didn’t help.

State Sen. Perry Shafner took Clarke’s response to mean the pier was a failure, and he demanded Clarke produce results or be replaced by someone “who would take steps to put New London back on the map.”

Flurries of activity happened at the pier in the ensuing years. The first freighter to arrive since before the war docked on Feb. 8, 1946, to load crated pre-fabricated homes for shipment to France. An unusually busy day was observed in January 1951 with one ocean-going ship leaving, another docking and a third being shifted from its berth to make room for the incoming ship. A month prior, an Italian ship discharged 1 million board feet of West Coast lumber.

But the USS Fulton, a 531-foot submarine tender docked at the pier starting in 1951, was a sign of an ongoing issue. The Navy’s control of one side of the pier left little space for commercial ships to dock and unload, and there wasn’t enough room around the pier for storing cargo. The Fulton was the mother ship for Squadron Ten, which soon included the first nuclear submarines.

When Clarke died suddenly of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 71, the pier lost one of its most ardent supporters. After his death, State Pier closed for a day in his honor. Some political appointees who ran the pier didn’t share Clarke’s enthusiasm, and that didn’t help matters.

***

In June 1960, the Navy signed a 50-year lease at the pier, which took effect in 1963. This caused tension with the tax-poor, small city that heralded similar disputes with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in the 1990s and the Coast Guard Academy in 2011.

An expansion was planned at the pier amid an increase of activity there due to scheduled stops by steamship lines operating from the Pacific Ocean. More enclosed space was needed for storage of goods such as wood pulp fibers, newsprint and mahogany wood products. The Navy, which had been storing materials in the so-called German Shed, a relic of the 1916 visit of the cargo U-boat Deutschland just after the pier opened, also wanted an enclosed space for storage. The shed soon was torn down to make way for a new warehouse.

Business had steadily been picking up when, in the 1970s, New London was eyed for a rapidly increasing type of port: one where goods in containers could be shipped and stored. But it wasn’t long before the large-scale pitch transformed into the idea of a small container-type operation, and then faded away completely.

By the 1980s, both state and port officials were admitting publicly that military and commercial operations didn’t mix. The pier was making money, but the state wasn’t seeing much in return. While there was acknowledgment that revenues would greatly increase if the full pier were open to commercial activity, the state seemed set on maintaining the status quo.

“Currently the pier is operating at a reasonable profit,” said J. William Burns, the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. “The state is really not in the business to make a profit. If there was a reasonable promise that the pier could be developed with private venture capital, then we would consider it.”

***

The Navy left early when the Fulton was decommissioned in 1991. But any hope for new development came crashing down when in a span of a few days in 1993, two large sections of the pier collapsed into the Thames River.

State officials were reluctant to fix the damage because they saw little future for the pier. That sentiment was shared by New London officials, including City Manager Richard Brown, who thought the nearby land should be marketed for industrial development, which would bring in tax revenue.

Retired Navy admiral and former chief of naval operations Harold E. Shear became the next champion of the pier, promoting its reconstruction long before the idea was popular. Shear used his Navy and commercial shipping contacts to attract interest in the pier.

“If I hadn’t started this in 1991 when the Navy left, there’d be nothing there today,” Shear told The Day in December 1997 in response to a campaign to name the pier after him (today it is known as the Admiral Harold E. Shear State Pier). “Now it’s going to be the biggest thing to hit eastern Connecticut in 50 years. You’ll see that in years to come.”

Two major landmarks at the pier came down in the fall of 1995 in a move seen as a way to revive New London as a working port: a huge, two-story warehouse completed in 1917, and a 170-foot-tall water tower, built in 1923.

Montreal-based Logistec was selected in July 1996 to run the rebuilt pier. The company planned to ship forest products, small container cargoes and general cargoes in and out of the pier.

Logistec has run the pier for more than two decades. But its time is expected to end May 1, when Gateway New London LLC, the new operator selected by the state, takes over.

Since Logistec’s arrival at State Pier, lumber and steel have been the port’s main cargoes. In 2014, salt shipments started coming in again after many years.

***

“You know how they say your ship has come in? This is southeastern Connecticut’s ship.”

Those were the words of George Cassidy, a member of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, upon looking up at the blue and white hull of the 612-foot cruise ship Regal Empress docked at State Pier. It was the first time a cruise ship of that size had tied up in New London.

The Empress was saluted by the harbor tug Swift and by the Submarine Base Supply Facility Armory, which fired off 14 rounds from Fort Trumbull State Park, as it sailed into New London’s harbor in 2002.

Cassidy was part of an ad-hoc group started that year to promote New London as a stop for cruise ships. In its heyday, the Connecticut Cruise Ship Task Force brought nine cruise ships in one year to the city. But as with other novel ventures that sailed away, the group dissolved in November 2014, citing the need for more stable funding.

Now blowing in New London’s direction is the prospect of transforming State Pier into a hub for offshore wind development. Representatives from Gateway, with its track record of operating New Haven’s port, the highest-volume commercial shipping port on Long Island Sound, have said they share that vision. Whether this is a transformative moment for the pier, or another false promise, remains to be seen.

j.bergman@theday.com