By the end of the 19th century the West Indies trade was gone and most imported goods were being brought by rail. Only a few bulk cargoes were carried by ship to New Haven and hardly anything was leaving. However, these bulk cargoes, coal and lumber, were very much in demand, resulting in the harbor’s being filled with schooners, ranging in size from 2-4 masts. (The only instance when a 5 masted ship seems to have been in New Haven was during the 1930’s when the Cora Cressey was docked near the Tomlinson bridge. She was being used as a restaurant.) By 1920 the schooners disappeared and were replaced by steam vessels. While lumber continued to be a major New Haven import, coal was gradually replaced by oil. A large east shore coke manufacturer which went out of business in the early 60s was the last coal consumer in the area. Today, 50,000 ton tankers bring oil to New Haven which is distributed through out the state. Recently New Haven has become a major exporter of one product scrap metal which is sent to Japan to produce cars and televisions for possible use in New Haven.
Shipbuilding in New Haven
New Haven was never an important shipbuilding center like New York, Boston or almost any coastal community in Maine. The reasons seem apparent. Both New York and Boston were heavily engaged in world trade, being major funnels for American exports and imports. Local yards in both cities were not only encouraged to produce large numbers of ships, but competition pressured them to steadily improve their vessels. Great marine architects such as McKay in Boston and Webb in New York competed to produce the fastest and most beautiful clipper ships and packets for the California goldrush trade and the London/Liverpool passenger business. Coastal Maine, characterized by deep harbors and tremendous forests, quite naturally turned heavily to the sea and shipbuilding. While producing few of the glamour ships of the age of sail and incredible number of the large cargo ships, barks, schooners (2-6 masted), and sloops did come from Maine. They were certainly as well built as any produced in America, and what made them competitive was that they were cheap. During the 1890s Maine yards could produce a comparable vessel for 40% less than the best Fair Haven or West Haven yards.
New Haven did produce ships throughout its history and even developed its own class of working vessel, the New Haven Sharpie. The first known yard in the 18th century was located on Water Street at the corner of Olive. On the east side of the harbor there was another yard owned by Samuel Forbes located near the Tomlinson Bridge. Shipbuilding was centered around Water Street and the Tomlinson Bridge until the 19th century, when the railroad took over Water Street. It then moved to Grapevine Point, the land between the mouth of the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers. As the century progressed, yards opened on both sides of the Quinnipiac, moving up to Fair Haven. By the end of the 19th century most shipbuilding was done in Fair Haven, with the only important competition coming from the West Haven shipyard of Gesner and Mar. Shipbuilding reached its peak during the 1880s when more than twenty 3-4 masted schooners were launched. In addition, several steamboats were built for the New York to New Haven passenger trade, including the “New Haven” and “Northhampton”.
Throughout New Haven’s history oysters have been plentiful in the harbor and rivers which feed it. Centering in Fair Haven, the oyster business reached its peak in the early l900s, when a hepatitis scare injured the industry to such a degree that it never completely recovered. while oysters were available within the inner harbor, nothing more than log canoes were needed to harvest the crop. But as demand grew and the oyster beds spread miles beyond the breakwaters, a more sophisticated boat was needed. The New Haven sharpie was primarily an oyster tonging boat developed in hull (broad and flat) and rig (simple but fast) for this work. The boat was steady, had reasonable carrying space, had low building cost, rowed well, and had good sailing qualities. The sharpie’s graceful appearance and speed has led yachtsmen to continue to be interested in the model. Sharpies are occasionally built and are available through several brokers. (Cruising World, June 1979.)