New London Harbor has been the primary driver for the region’s economy since the town was first established by English settlers. With its deep wide channel large ships can safely approach the wharfs and the river hardly ever freezes over. It is sheltered from the Atlantic by Long Island Sound, but close to the end of the Sound it has easy access to the ocean just beyond.
Connecticut’s only deep-water port, New London became an important colonial port known primarily for the “West Indies trade.” Plantations on the islands of the Caribbean were growing sugar cane to the exclusion of everything else, and imported food for enslaved workers, and supplies for processing the sugar cane. Farm products, salted cod, and barrel staves, to name just a few, were all imports coming from New England. New London was particularly known for shipments of live animals – in particular, horses for operating the sugar mills. Brought back in exchange were sugar, molasses and rum.
During the Revolution, trade to the West Indies became impossible – the British navy became a threat rather than protection – so merchants used their vessels for privateering. This war-time commerce-raiding by commissioned privately owned ships was a common element of warfare at the time. With New York City serving as British headquarters, the Thames River was a perfect place from which to launch attacks on British commerce. During the War of 1812 the harbor and the Sound just beyond was again the scene of naval battles and a British blockade that lasted until the war ended in 1815.
As economies grew after these wars New London became an important whaling port, the second largest in the country by the middle of the nineteenth century. Sperm whale oil – the most sought after product of whaling – was an essential commodity for the industrial revolution. The enterprise required shipbuilders, coopers, blacksmiths, bakers, and entrepreneurs, and created a great deal of wealth in the city. Much of the architectural richness of the city, as well as many social service organizations, can be traced back to whaling money.
After the Civil War the city grew as a transportation hub with the Thames River as the common link between trains, steamboats and a growing center for recreation with resorts built right on the water. Industry also grew, with access to the water being aided by the construction of State Pier in 1918. The creation of the first submarine base in the country that same year on the Thames River is testament to the value of this excellent port.
Almost at the same time, the newly formed United States Coast Guard established their training center – becoming the Coast Guard Academy – at Fort Trumbull, and later moved to their present campus in 1931 on land offered by the city. While this is a rich heritage, even today, shipbuilding, ferries, the State Pier, the Navy, and the Coast Guard – as well as recreational boaters – make New London Harbor an active port.