© A Brief History of Essex, Connecticut by Donald Malcarne, Town Historian. Pictures were provided by the Essex Connecticut River Museum.
The Essex Village section of town grew in importance with the advent of shipping and ship construction. Although a wharf was established here as early as 1664, it was not until the latter part of the 18th century that Essex emerged as a maritime force. The construction in 1775 of the Oliver Cromwell, Connecticut's first "battleship", by Captain Uriah Hayden set the tone for future events. Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Essex built more than 500 sailing vessels. The British raid on the harbor in April, 1814, is testament to the importance of this area, as they destroyed 28 ships, including 5 being built as privateers. It was one of the worst losses the American side suffered in the War of 1812. The coming of the steamboat era locally in 1823, when these ships first stopped in town, may have initially seemed a blessing, but in the long run the steamboat symbolized a great change in the way people lived. The steamboats plied the Connecticut River for over 100 years.
THE GREAT ATTACK
Essex has a unique distinction among United States towns and cities: it is one of the few that was ever attacked by a foreign power. This occurred on April 8, 1814, and the results were disastrous for the American side. The economic losses incurred here were among the largest sustained by our nation during the War of 1812. Twenty eight vessels were burned and destroyed, with a value estimated to be close to $200,000.00. While this figure may seem a pittance by today's standards, it must ne noted that a very large two story home in Essex would have been worth no more than $1,000.00 at that time.
It was the English who inflicted this damage. Approximately 136 marines and sailors, under the command of Richard Coote, and apparently guided by an American, rowed past the unmanned fort in Old Saybrook, and arrived at the foot of Main Street in Essex close to 4 A.M. They quickly commandeered the town, getting a promise of no resistance from those in charge in return for promising not to harm the townspeople or burn their homes. Within six hours their mission was accomplished, and the British went downstream with two captured ships in tow, including the famous "Black Prince", a vessel that may well have been primarily responsible for this raid. Volunteers from the nearby town of Killingworth fired at the retreating Englishmen from shore positions as they headed back to their main ships, anchored in Long Island Sound. Both the captured ships had to be destroyed by the British, who sustained a loss of two men.
As one walks down Main Street in Essex village, and sees signs indicating what the British accomplished, the question might be raised as to why this happened. The answer is quite straight forward. Essex was a major ship building center and a British blockade was stifling business. A very famous local ship builder, Captain Richard Hayden, decided to advertise his newly constructed ship in a New York City newspaper: he referred to it as " a 315 ton sharp schooner that would make an ideal privateer". The English got wind of this, investigated Essex, and saw not only this ship being built as a privateer (this was the Black Prince), but at least four more. They quickly acted to quell this "beehive" of nautical activity, and did, at least temporarily. In retrospect, we can only imagine what it was like in Essex at the time of the British Raid 182 years ago, but this, in one aspect, is what history is all about.
© A Brief History of Essex, Connecticut by Donald Malcarne, Town Historian.
On the second Saturday of May each year, Essex town folk celebrate the "Burning of the Ships" with a parade down Main Street and ceremony at the steamboat dock:
2009 STEAMBOAT DOCK CEREMONY:
Meet Essex's Connecticut River Museum's: