Ferry Tales: 400 years of ferry boats on the Connecticut River
Wick Griswold
Assoc. Professor of Sociology, University of Hartford
Nov. 6, 2018

So where would you find the oldest continuously operating ferry in America? That would be the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry across the Connecticut River, put into service in 1655, as related to 66 Y’s Men of Meriden on Nov. 6 by Wick Griswold, co-author of “Connecticut River Ferries”.

Griswold, associate professor of sociology at the University of Hartford, traces his passion for the CT River to the 1970s when he came upon a book titled “Drifting”, noting “I’ve been a professional drifter ever since.” Ferries date to early times, and indeed early Greek mythology describes the River Styx (flowing between Earth and the Underworld) and navigated by the ferryman Charon. In another legend, the Viking deity Thor, exhausted from fighting in the Land of the Frost Giants, is refused ferry passage and is forced to walk to the headwaters and back the other side.  In actuality, ferries have been used world-wide for thousands of years.

Bissell’s Ferry at Windsor CT was built in 1648, transporting people and carts in 15-minute crossings; this was a cable ferry, with the cable attached upstream on the opposite shore and the current then swinging the boat across the river, aided by a steering oar. On one occasion with the river running fast, an East Windsor farmer bribed the reluctant ferryman with a silver dollar to set out, only to have the cable snap and barely recovering the ferry and themselves the next morning by kedging to the shoreline.

Bissell's Ferry (Windsor)

Descriptive Sign

Propulsion with time evolved into oars, sails (prone to capsize with wind gusts), propellers driven by on-board horse-driven treadmills, and eventually steamboats (prior to Robert Fulton’s invention) with boilers and paddlewheels fired by wood or coal. At its peak, more than 100 ferries were operational on the river, but eventually forced to close due to bridge construction. Only two remain today: the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury and Chester-Hadlyme ferries.

Operating budget for the CT ferries is about $3 million, with a net loss of about $400 thousand annually, making them a prime target for legislators looking for cost savings in the state budget. But they remain a significant part of our state’s heritage, having served Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Marshall Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau whose 5000 troops were ferried across the Connecticut River in support of the American Revolution.

An Insider's Look at Nigeria: Past and Present
Catherine Onyemelukwe
Author and Speaker
Oct. 30, 2018

Nigeria, bordering on the Atlantic Ocean in western Africa, is referred to as the “Giant of Africa” and is the seventh most populous country in the world with over 186 million inhabitants. Speaking to 66 Y’s Men of Meriden on Oct. 30, Catherine Onyemelukwe, author and speaker, presented a program detailing her experiences in this oft-troubled land.

She first reviewed the area’s history, which from 1000 B.C. to 300 A.D. was the Nok culture, trading in gold, salt, ornate bronze figurines and slavery (preceding slave trade with the West). The Atlantic slave trade, with heavy traffic from Nigeria, flourished during the 16th – 18th centuries, but then waned during the following century. Nigeria remained a British protectorate until 1960, when independence produced a country with a northern Muslim and a southern Christian population.

Onyemelukwe first came to this land in 1962 at age 21 as a German language teacher in Lagos with the nascent Peace Corps. She married a Nigerian man during her second year, and subsequently had three children (one today a Harvard Medical School graduate). After two years, she returned to America, but then returned once again as an independent teacher.

But all has not been well with Nigeria since independence. The discovery and recovery of oil off the coast has brought wealth but also divisions among its population. Frequent military coups and civilian massacres ensued; the 1967 three-year secession of eastern Nigerian to form Biafra was eventually crushed by Nigerian forces, but the faces of starving Biafran children became etched into the memories of Western people. During that conflict, Onyemelukwe’s family needed some overnight emergency moves to protect itself from danger. Military coups and counter-coups continued, corruption abounded, and the country’s agriculture became neglected. 

Muslim Sharia Law became instituted in 1999 in most of the country’s north, and in 2009 Boko Haram became active, a jihadist militant group notorious for the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok. Today, Nigeria faces high unemployment, oil price instability and continuing religious conflicts. But Onyemelukwe maintains an ongoing bond with this land which she visits every Christmas, albeit requiring armed guards when she travels. She concluded by reading a charming passage from her book “Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad” recounting a valiant attempt to bribe the spirits into allowing one dry day during the rainy season for a funeral.

Asians and Pacific Islanders During the Civil War
Irving Moy
Civil War historian
Oct. 23, 2018

Wearing a traditional woolen shirt and kepi (cap), a standard outfit for Union soldiers during the American Civil War, and a typical Chinese queue (ponytail), historian Irving Moy provided a unique PowerPoint program to 69 Y’s Men of Meriden on Oct. 23 regarding the little-known involvement of Asians in the Union Army.  Moy, a retired Public Health Services Manager with the CT Dept. of Public Health, developed this interest as an outgrowth of his fascination with the life of Abraham Lincoln.

He first reviewed the Civil War itself which ultimately freed four million slaves and granted them citizenship, but at a cost of 600,000 casualties (2% of the entire country’s population). The years following the war included the chaos of the Reconstruction Period and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan (eventually suppressed by public outcry).

But this program chiefly concentrated on the life of Joseph Pierce, a Chinese boy who was sold to American sea captain Amos Peck for six silver dollars in 1852 at age 10 by his father to let him escape civil war and famine. Pierce’s transport to America on the ship “Hound of Stonington” was part of the little-known coolie trade, which brought 600,000 workers to America, in large part to replace the declining import of slave workers from Africa. It is thought that his chosen name as a Chinese immigrant derived from “Joe”, a common name on shipboard, and “Pierce” derived from then U.S. President Franklin Pierce. 

Joseph Pierce - during Civil War and after interment

Peck incorporated him into his family homestead at 1857 Chamberlain Highway, Berlin CT until Pierce enlisted on July 26, 1862 into Co. F, 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, the most famous of the state’s 29 regiments. At one point, more than one of every 10 Connecticut residents served in the Union Army. After the 14th was mustered into the U.S. Army, it went on to engage in many of the war’s most savage battles including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg (where he and 99 others from his regiment defended against Pickett’s Charge).

Pierce was promoted to the rank of Corporal, the highest rank among about 50 Chinese who served in the Union Army. He subsequently lived in Meriden, CT, working as an engraver in the city’s silver industry, and married at age 34, producing two sons and two daughters. Following his death at age 73, he was interred at Walnut Grove Cemetery, having previously received numerous honors for his service.

Traveling by Houseboat in Colorful Kerala
Dick Boynton
Club member
Oct. 16, 2018

Remarkably, this was his 31st presentation to the Y’s Men of Meriden as Dick Boynton, club member, spoke to 68 fellow members on Oct. 16. And he didn’t disappoint, as he used a PowerPoint presentation complete with videos to illustrate a Road Scholar trip, taken last year with his wife Layne, to southern India.

The country, one-third the land mass of the United States, is home to 1.35 billion people, soon to outpace China as the world’s most populous country. It is often described as the world’s largest democracy, sporting 29 states and seven territories, with English as the predominant language (along with Hindustani). But the Boyntons’ trip was confined to the southern state of Kerala; once one of the poorest states, but due to its introduction of free food, free health care and free education, it today is teeming with educated engineers (adding an additional 1.5 million each year) and resulting in a severe income disparity among its citizens.

Colorful images depicted meat markets (with items hanging unrefrigerated in the open air, covered with flies), fish markets (also unrefrigerated in the 100-degree heat), and vegetable markets where barefooted merchants walked atop much of their produce.  Other slides showed moving railroad cars, barely visible due to the mass of humanity clinging to the outside (and thereby avoiding paying the fare), as well as diamond polishing (with India polishing 90% of the world’s diamonds) and a McDonald’s Restaurant which carefully let customers know that no beef would be served (cows are sacred in this country, wandering unimpeded everywhere).


Hindu temple in Kerala

Drumming demonstration

The colorful hues and vibrancy of this land are tempered by the presence of heaps of uncollected garbage and air pollution (even worse than in China). But rising above this are elaborately painted Hindu temples, some dating to 700 A.D. and still being excavated. The Hindu religion has numerous gods, the people’s favorite being the elephant god Ganesha (god of wealth); when entering the temple, those in the know cross their arms and pull down their ear lobes three times, thus ensuring that they will become smart.

A highlight was a cruise on a beautifully converted work boat, complete with luxurious airconditioned cabins, along waterways that went deep into the back country. Visual treats included kids swimming (no bathing suits), clamming (sometimes requiring deep diving), laundering clothes along the banks, ferry boats propelled by long poles and women in beautifully colored saris.