Speech presented by Robert Novak Jr.
Executive Director of Derby Historical Society
While Presenting the SS Ansonia painting to the City of Ansonia
Board of Aldermen Meeting – December 12, 2000
As part of the Valley-wide River Festival celebrated last October, Ansonia resident Dr. Margaret Gibbs and I began researching the early steamboats which plied the Housatonic river in the 19th century. Among other things, we were searching for any steamboats which bore names of Lower Naugatuck Valley cities and towns. After a wide search, which enlisted the aid of Mystic Seaport, we found the only ship which fit that category was the SS Ansonia.
Mystic also revealed the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Virginia, had an original painting of the ship by noted maritime watercolor artist J.F. Huge of Bridgeport in 1850. After some negotiations with the Museum, the Derby Historical Society obtained permission to have two copies of Huge’s paintings made. One now hangs at the General David Humphreys House on Elm Street, commemorating the maritime career of Humphreys business partner, and later owner of the Humphreys House, Thomas Vose, who sailed the very first steamboat up the Housatonic River in 1824. We eventually plan to make it part of a transportation exhibit at the Howe House Industrial Museum.
The second painting is the one I shall unveil before you now. We based the frame upon those already hanging in the portrait gallery in the City Hall corridor.
Ansonia was a side wheeled steamboat built in Brooklyn, New York, in 1848 for the Naugatuck Transportation Company. She was 412 tons, 188 feet long, 27 feet wide, one of the largest boats on the Housatonic River. Her first captain was George Denning. At the time of her completion, the Naugatuck Transportation Company was in direct competition with the steamboats from Bridgeport.
Ansonia’s original normal ports of call were Derby (at the bottom of Commerce Street), Stratford, and Bridgeport, where she carried freight and passengers. The Commerce Street docks were connected to Ansonia factories via an electric locomotive. In 1851, one year after Huge painted her, she added New York to her itinerary, which she could reach in six hours. A period advertisement called her “beautiful as a duck and can give entire satisfaction to all who may have the occasion to embark on board of her for the great metropolis”. A strange agreement in 1852 saw Ansonia and the a Bridgeport line boat named Cataline, and later SS Bridgeport, running between New York and Bridgeport on opposite days, carrying freight only.
She was later bought by the Hudson River’s Saugerties Line and renamed Ulster, and in 1920 was enlarged, rebuilt, and named Robert A. Snyder. The last word we have on the boat is that it was still in service as of 1923, making it likely that she served at least until the Great Depression. The steamboat was one of the longest serving steamboats in American history.
While we were previously aware of the existence of a steamboat named Ansonia, we were not aware that such a fine portrait of it had been painted 150 years ago, or that it was the only town in our Valley to have a steamer named after it. We have visited Government Centers in larger cities, and admired namesake ship paintings or models in their corridors, and also noting the portrait gallery hanging in this building. Not every city is lucky enough to have a ship named after it. Although copying and framing the portrait was done at considerable expense, we feel it will be a worthy addition to the portrait gallery, and its presence will inspire pride and the imagination of present and future Ansonia residents.