Launching a new era

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It’s launch day in 1912 at the Dauntless Shipyard in Essex, Conn.

At left, a flushdeck power cruiser, built at the yard and appropriately dressed for the occasion, is about to move down the ways.

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(click here to see enlarged photo)

Launch day was a big event, an old tradition in a shipbuilding town, and that’s what Essex was for many years. In fact, the Colonial warship Oliver Cromwell slid down the ways early in the American Revolution, and a fleet of commercial vessels, including countless coastal and oceangoing schooners, followed, extending well into the 19th century.

Launching was usually arranged for a midday high tide in fair weather, and the event often brought out the citizenry in its finest. As one contemporary wrote,

“a holiday or carnival atmosphere grew up around the event, owners deck out their boats with strings of flags and bunting, and the crowds got bigger and bigger.”

But what’s really being launched here, early in the 20th century, is the future. The schooners were gone, and Essex was in transition. The older people in this picture could still recall the last big ship built in town, just 40 years earlier. And we can look ahead for the young people — the boys and girls in the center, standing on the deck of a catboat, for instance — and see a 1950s Essex waterfront lined with marinas rather than building yards, where sailboats and powerboats, rather than trading vessels, plied to and fro on waters used for fun.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.

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