During the period from approximately 1790 to 1815 extraordinary profits were made by New Haven ships. This is the only period when New Haven ships worked the world market-places. Continuous warfare between Great Britain and France opened up opportunities for neutral shipping, While the risks were high of being seized by either nation, the profits were so great that marginal ports such as New Haven became involved. Goods that normally would be purchased from New York and Boston were now being imported directly into New Haven from Europe. Smaller vessels such as those owned in New Haven made a profit due to the high freight rates. With the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Paris in 1814, New Haven found that it again could not compete with New York and Boston.
The other exception to the normal marine business of New Haven was the Canton seal trade. Hearing Of the success of a Boston ship, New Haven’s Elijah Austin outfitted two ships for a sealing voyage to the Falkland Islands in 1790. During the next 27 years New Haven developed a fleet of twenty ships which sailed first to the South Pacific to catch and skin seals and then to Canton to sell the cargo. A return cargo of porcelain, teas, silk, spices, etc. was purchased and brought directly to New Haven. The most famous and profitable of these voyages was that of the “Neptune” owned by Ebenzer Townsend Sr. According to the Colony Historical Society’s publication
Shallops, Sloops and Sharpies.
the Neptune left New Haven in 1796 and proceeded to the seal islands where 80,000 seals were killed and later sold in Canton for $280,000. With the sale of the return cargo the profits were as follows: Ebenzer Townsend Sr. $100,000; Ebenzer Jr. $50,000; the captain and others $70,000; and the import duties $74,000. No wonder that the Townsends have been such an in influential family, with the profits of this voyage and considerable profits from other trades during the 19th century. The Canton trade died with the final extermination of the South Pacific seals by 1817. New Haven didn’t participate in the slaughter of the Alaskan seals and sea otters which followed.
Any discussion of New Haven’s maritime history is incomplete without at least a brief description of the development of Long Wharf. As mentioned before, New Haven’s harbor, while rather impressive to look at, is very shallow with the exception of a narrow channel running near the east shore. Three major steps were taken to improve the harbor: building Long Wharf, dredging and building breakwaters.
The first wharf was built in 1644 somewhere in the vicinity of State and Water Streets. By 1736 Long Wharf extended 400 feet into the harbor. In 1771 an eighty foot square pier was built in the harbor which allowed large vessels to dock even at low tide. (A pier similar in construction was recently completed at Mystic Seaport.) In 1810 Long Wharf connected with the pier and extended 2,000 feet into the harbor. During the 1820’s Long Wharf was completed and extended 3,500 feet. It was the center of New Haven’s commercial and maritime life and housed the business offices, sail lofts, ship chandlers, rope walks, blacksmith shops, bars and boarding houses, etc. which are unique to a seaport community.
In the 1880s the first breakwater was constructed, the remains of which can be seen running from Sandy Point. While it was not effective in protecting the harbor during heavy storms, it did reduce the build-up of sediment which flows toward the harbor along the West Haven shore. The current system of East, Middle, and West breakwaters was the design of Captain Charles Townsend and was completed shortly after the first effort. This system is very effective and makes New Haven a safe harbor in most circumstances, the major exception being hurricanes.
The harbor was dredged for the first time in 1887 and brought to a depth of twenty feet. This permitted all but a few ships to enter. The channel has periodically been dredged since and now is maintained at a level of approximately 45 feet.