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Era ends for oyster dragger

Flora was a well-known sight along the Connecticut River, but she couldn’t be saved

Flora was a well-known sight along the Connecticut River, but she couldn’t be saved

A chapter of Connecticut River history was ushered to a close in January when the nearly 100-year-old oyster dragger Flora was demolished. The boat, salvaged once after her workboat career came to an end and converted into a pleasure boat, for decades was a popular attraction along the lower Connecticut River. But in recent years Flora had been rotting away at Essex Boat Works.

“It’s a very sad thing,” says former owner Stu Ingersoll. “It was very disappointing.”

Ingersoll, who owned Essex Boat Works until he sold the yard in 1997, found Flora in 1967 in a ship graveyard in Massachusetts and was instantly attracted to the vessel’s lines.

“She had a certain grace,” says Ingersoll, 73. “I’ve never seen another oyster boat like her.”

He hauled her home and lovingly restored the wooden vessel. Flora was built in 1906 by the Green Brothers shipyard in Bridgeport, Conn. She worked the waters of Narragansett Bay area until 1919, then served in Long Island Sound, and Gardner and Peconic bays before tackling new tours of duty as a workboat for a fishery and a building contractor in 1963.

Her original steam engine was replaced with a 75-hp 1920 Wolverine diesel.

Ingersoll, a tuba and banjo player in jazz bands, invited his musician friends aboard to jam. A piano was mounted on the foredeck. Ingersoll says Flora went through a half-dozen pianos over the years as the dampness took its toll.

“We had one time I’ll never forget. We were at an America’s Cup race and we had a piano player and he was playing, and the spray was coming over the boat and falling on the piano. And he went and took his fingers and did a trail up the black keys … they all came off,” he said in a previous interview.

With her bright red wheelhouse, Flora was on hand to help celebrate a host of events, including antique boat shows, tall-ship festivals, America’s Cup races and the unveiling of the newly restored Statue of Liberty.

“She traveled all over the place,” says Ingersoll. “She had a lot of miles on her.”

Flora also served as a fund-raising boat, ferrying groups of up to 50 people in return for donations to local museums, theaters, clubs and civic organizations.

One day Flora took on water and sank at her mooring. Unable to pay for the repairs himself, Ingersoll donated Flora to a private foundation that promised to renovate her as a living museum. There were hopes that Flora would be displayed at Mystic Seaport as an example of Long Island Sound’s oyster industry. But the work was never done and the derelict Flora continued to fall into disrepair. Her hull rotted, planks separated, and metal rusted.

“You can’t save them all,” says Ginger Marshall Martus, editor of Bone Yard Boats, a newsletter devoted to saving derelict vessels. Through her newsletter, Martus has helped save dozens of old vessels. She says she has seen absolute wrecks that have found new homes. She says it’s a shame more couldn’t be done for Flora.

An auction was held but no one ponied up the $30,000 for her — the amount of the overdue storage bill — so the yard hired a crew to tear Flora apart. A piece of Flora will live on, however. Her pilothouse was removed and taken to a Mystic yard, where it will be preserved.