“We’re Gonna Build Us A Big Ship; Down By The Riverside”

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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016


The Pawcatuck River - At approximately 30 miles, it forms the western boundary of Rhode Island and the eastern boundary of Connecticut. The river meanders between Westerly, RI and Pawcatuck, CT (which is located in the Town of Stonington) until it finds its outlet on into Little Narragansett Bay on Long Island Sound. The small town of Westerly is less than 10 miles from Mystic, CT, and the Westerly/Pawcatuck area was a shipbuilding “mini-hub” during the hey-day of the industry in the northeast.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would ever imagine this river would provide a ship that would serve in the Civil War - but it did. In 1903 the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers would write of this waterway - - -

“A 7.5-mile-long, 10-foot-deep channel extending easterly from Stonington Point in Connecticut, located on Little Narragansett Bay’s western end, through Little Narragansett Bay and then northerly up the Pawcatuck River to the upper wharves in Westerly. The channel is 100 feet wide from Stonington Point to the lower wharves at Westerly (about seven miles), then narrows to 40 feet for 0.5 mile to the upper wharves.” {1}

The ship I discuss today would have to travel those 7 miles for her journey to begin.

The Charles Phelps

This story begins with the Greenman family; ship builders located in Mystic, Ct. At one point, brother Silas left his family business to start his own shipyard in Westerly, RI. His company was on the east side of the river and George Sheffield & Sons in Pawcatuck, CT was on the west.

In 1842, Mr. Charles Williams Stonington Connecticut, placed an order for the future war ship what would become the most famous ship to ever sail on the Pawcatuck river. She was named “Charles Phelps” and was built to join the whaling fleet. She was a foot longer than the Charles Morgan (107.6’) and weighed in at 362 tons. Her cost was $3,258 (approximately $103,000.00) but she would bring in whale oil and bones valued at $315,000.00 (appxoimately over 9 million).


The Granite Marker where the Charles Phelps was constructed - Photo Westerly Life Style {2}

The Pawcatuck river, as rivers flow, is a narrow tricky channelled river, This article describes the process:

“The vessels were launched in the typical fashion of stern first into the river. The larger vessels were launched without the rudder to avoid ripping it off in the shallow water. After launching, the builders would wait for a high tide to float the vessels down river. The larger ships had barrels lashed along their sides to make them more buoyant. The float downstream could be a difficult process. A strong wind blowing up the river could delay the trip, which normally took a couple of days, but in bad conditions could take weeks. Once downstream the ships were rigged and ballasted for sea.” {2}

For 21 years the Charles Phelps was a working whaling ship and in time was sold as a merchant ship. On one voyage she carried cargo valued at $42,000.00 (approximately 1 million).

In 1861, she was sold to the U.S. Government. Her initial duty was to part of the “Stone Fleet (https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-unions-stone-fleet.18037/#post-211264) but she was "Yankee Built" and she was considered too good to be sunk.

The War Years

She became a reliable supply ship. She carried ammunition, coal, gun parts as she sailed in the Southern Atlantic. She also carried one 32 pounder cannon. Her proudest day of service was the most famous Naval battle in the war - the “Battle of the Ironclads” Hampton Road. The ship was listed in naval records as:

“Charles Phelps, armament - one gun”

There was no small job that a ship would play in helping the Union Navy blockade against the Confederates. The ship builders along the Pawcatuck river must have been filled with pride to see what had become of the Charles Phelps.

The Queen of the Pawcatuck River

Her story does not end after the war. She was purchased and sold to a Mr. Brightman for $3,600 and renamed the Progress.

She would make her final trip in 1893 to the Chicago World’s Fair. She was carefully sailed and towed through the Great Lakes. At the fair, she was transformed into a museum to honor the whaling industry and it was reported thousands of people walked her decks.


The Progress, X Charles Phelps, at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 Photo - Courtesy of Westerly Public Library {2}

All Things Must Come to Pass

The life of the Charles Phelps was slowly winding down. For 50 years she had served well, traveled through many seas, served in the U.S. Navy during the war yet in Chicago she would meet her demise. Sadly after the World’s Fair she was of no use to anyone so she was abandoned, stripped and eventually towed out and sunk.


Before her sinking - Photo Courtesy Westerly Public Library {2}

She would no longer "feel the wind at her back", nor would she have anymore “fair winds and following seas” for this once majestic ship, the watery grave of the "Queen of the Pawcatuck River" forever will rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

1. https://www.nae.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Navigation/Rhode-Island/Pawcatuck/
2. https://westerlylife.com/queen-of-the-pawcatuck-river/
3. New England Magazine, Volume 20, page 242.
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