A Connecticut seafaring town has held off all challenges to its essential character for three centuries
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Stonington, Connecticut, is that it ought to be so easy to get to and yet is so hard to find. If that geographical paradox didn’t shape its history (after all, the Pequot Indians found it easily enough to set up a fort and trading house in the early 160Os, to be followed by English settlers in 1649), it did shelter and preserve that history for today’s traveler. Stonington is located near the Rhode Island border, just a few miles off the main Miami-to-Canada artery, 1-95. It lies four miles south of Mystic on a narrow point of land that faces directly out to the Atlantic Ocean, unprotected by the numerous islands that dot most of Long Island Sound.
Stonington, the town, is a large sweep of land and a governing entity that takes in much of Mystic as well as some communities to the north. It is the borough of Stonington (an archaic designation), also signposted as the Village, that the driver must keep an eye out for after exiting the interstate and following the pleasantly and instantly rural Route 1 for a couple of miles.
My first visit was on an autumn weekend, a Saturday of surpassing splendor, and the highway was filled with leaf seekers. Since Mystic Seaport looked mobbed, I decided to put that off for a less popular time and drove on to Stonington Village.
Water Street, the center of commerce in this place of about three thousand inhabitants, holds some impressive antiques shops, a few boutiques and crafts stores, and a couple of restaurants in wooden two- and three-story buildings of Greek Revival and later nineteenth-century styles. No modern intrusions disturb the streetscape; even the tangle of electrical wires overhead seems perfectly compatible. On that glorious afternoon, I headed down the nearly empty Water Street toward the smell of the sea.
The street turns more residential nearer the rocky Point, which is fringed by a small beach and guarded by an old lighthouse, now the village historical society. The houses here, many of them dating back to the 1700s, are the smaller, more modest dwellings of craftsmen and fishermen who populated the town at its mercantile height. The grander houses on Main Street belonged to the bankers, shipowners, and prosperous merchants. Water Street, from the viaduct to the Point, is about three-quarters of a mile long, and on a forty-minute stroll down it and up Main you can absorb the salty essence of Stonington.
A glance over the fences and past mostly small gardens and lawns bounded by the stony walls that give the place its name will reveal spectacular water views at every turn. However you found this place, through the word of a friend, or as a footnote in a guide-book, you are smugly certain that the discovery is yours alone and that you have stumbled upon the traveler’s grail, a thoroughly unselfconscious seaside town. So the forty-minute tour isn’t enough. You must find the one place here that advertises for overnight guests (Lasbury’s) and stay longer.
Stonington’s citizens have voted more than once against a historic-district designation, wary of the restrictions that might impose. Still, there is a lot of history to be found in the borough’s few acres. The native son Nathaniel Fanning served under John Paul Jones in the 1779 battle between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis , and Nathaniel Palmer, a twenty-one-year-old sea captain, discovered Antarctica on a sealing expedition in the winter of 1820-21. Later, when whaling became more profitable than sealing, Stonington was home port for many of the great nineteenth-century whalers.
The overarching moment of drama in the town’s history took place late in the War of 1812. Early on August 9, 1814, four British vessels under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy, protégé of Lord Nelson, appeared offshore. They sent a delegation into the town, which was suspected of harboring torpedoes, to demand immediate surrender and evacuation within an hour. Two of Stonington’s leading citizens spoke for all with a note that stated, “We shall defend the place to the last extremity; should it be destroyed, we shall perish in its ruins.” Their entire arsenal consisted of two 18-pound cannons and one 6-pounder, set up on a hastily dug earthwork not far from the Point.
For three days 158 Royal Navy guns pounded the town, destroying as many as forty buildings, but causing few casualties. The only death was that of an elderly woman who was being tended in her last illness by her daughter and who refused to move inland with the other noncombatants. The British, by contrast, suffered many dead and wounded, although the exact total is still undetermined, and on the afternoon of August 14, the battered fleet sailed off.
There is something inexpressibly moving about that plainspoken “We shall defend,” something comparable in its resonance to the action at Concord Bridge but far less well known, probably because the Battle of Stonington occurred in a war “that has been treated by historians … as though it were something to be forgotten,” writes the former Navy captain Frank R. Lynch in a 1964 article that is available in reprint at the Historical Society. Lynch claims that the militia’s stand at Stonington was the decisive point of the war, after which the blockade began to lose its force. The heart of the matter most likely lies in Lynch’s observation that “wars are about people, not things … not in how much was destroyed, not in the ground won or lost, nor in how many were killed, but rather in the way people react to threats and their willingness to sacrifice things for principles.”
Signs of battle show up all over town, from the marker that simply states, “This Is to Remember,” down at the farthest edge of the Point, to the wall of the 1860s factory (now abandoned) on Water Street where the earthwork stood. There, a plaque recalls, “the defenders of Stonington, Connecticut, bravely battled and drove the British Squadron from our Shores.” A huge old flag that was nailed to the battery mast, restored from its near-shredded state, now hangs in the fine little Greek Revival bank building on Water Street. British cannonballs, retrieved from the woods and excavated from local walls, sit in an almost sprightly fashion atop hitching posts and other stone columns. The two 18-pounders are, of course, the central feature of Cannon Square.
In the 1800s Stonington went on from war to its busiest time, as the harbor filled with fishing vessels and coastal traders. Steamboats carried passengers between Stonington and Boston, while the railroad, its terminus located in the heart of the village, brought them to and from New York.
In those years Stonington was an industrial center, attracting a more heterogeneous population than it has now, as the author Anthony Bailey notes in his book In the Village . The brick factory buildings that occupy prime territory on lower Water Street closed down a few years ago, and no one is certain what their future will be.
One survivor that continues to thrive is the American Velvet Company, which celebrated its hundredth year in Stonington in 1992. When the Wimpfheimer family, who still owns it, first relocated here from Long Island to escape a malaria epidemic, they took advantage of President McKinley’s new tariff laws to switch from importing to manufacturing.
The factory is housed north of the railroad tracks in its original 1892 building, which was raised by energetic town fathers in hopes of attracting business. The company has grown since then and added buildings, but undisturbed directly across the road in a tiny cemetery, edged by a low stone wall, lie the descendants of William Chesebrough, the first white man to settle in the area. Every one of the dozen or so worn old gravestones marks the burial place of a Chesebrough.
Stonington is also home to Connecticut’s only active fishing fleet and, by contrast, to a harpsichord factory whose owner is busy filling orders from orchestras and concert halls in response to the music world’s recent interest in period instruments. Another international company based in Stonington, the Quimper Faïence shop, on Water Street, is owned by Paul and Sarah Janssens, who were inspired to buy the French manufactory of this ancient form of pottery in 1984 when it threatened to shut down. Last fall the Janssenses invited their French workers to Stonington on an expense-paid week-long visit. Of the hundred and fifty who made the trip, half were housed in a Mystic hotel and the others lodged with Stonington families.
One can only imagine the quiet back streets and silent old houses brought to vibrant Gallic life that week, as golden October cast its mild light on the hidden-away village whose defenders have kept it going these nearly three hundred and fifty years.