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The Coast Guard began here

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published April 10. 2013 4:00AM

Why build a Coast Guard museum in New London?

Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the locally raised Coast Guard commandant, posed that question and then answered it Friday, at the announcement of plans for a downtown New London Coast Guard museum.

Papp told the story of visiting the National Archives about a year ago and how he was shown, by a team of archivists in white gloves, a copy of the Tariff Act of 1790, signed into law by George Washington.

About midway through the document is a provision that 10 revenue cutters be built and commissioned to enforce the country's laws at sea, the ships that would become the start of today's Coast Guard.

One of the 10 cutters was built and then stationed in New London, patrolling the waters of Long Island Sound, Fishers Island Sound, Block Island Sound, Buzzards Bay and Narragansett Bay.

"It's a direct connection to the beginnings of our service in 1790, in New London," Papp said Friday. "Of course, we have been here, inextricably linked to New London, ever since."

The commandant, a history buff who is responsible for a new course being taught at the Coast Guard Academy on the history of the service, also said he is going to suggest that the class do some research on New London's original cutter.

The cutter was the Argus, and it most likely was berthed on the Thames River behind Bank Street, where the U.S. Custom House Maritime Museum is located, Papp said.

But there are some blanks in what is known today about the Argus. And the admiral suggested he is going to assign academy cadets in that new history course to learn more about it.

I didn't mean to get ahead of the cadets and their assignment from on high.

But, my curiosity raised, I poked around a bit this week to see what I could learn about the Argus. A quick check with some local historians didn't turn up much.

William Peterson, curator emeritus of Mystic Seaport, ran the Argus through his database of news accounts of Connecticut ships and turned up some trivia about the 40-ton ship.

For instance, it was under the command for some time of Elisha Hinman, a famous privateer who is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Peterson said. Hinman had once been offered the command of the USS Constitution.

Peterson said his review of the newspaper archives from the time indicated the Argus was built in 1791, but there is no reference to the name of the yard that built it.

Adm. Papp also said it's not clear who built the Argus.

The Coast Guard's own history site refers to the generally vague history of the first 10 revenue cutters, because so many records of that era were destroyed by fires set by the British in the War of 1812.

I will give academy cadets who want to impress the commandant a hint: There was actually a book written about the Argus.

The Day wrote a story about the book in 1976, describing how it was written by a woman who got smitten with the story of the original 10 revenue cutters after sailing aboard a windjammer out of Martha's Vineyard that was reportedly patterned after one of them.

I couldn't track down a copy of the book about the Argus. But I trust an enterprising class of cadets might find one.

The newspaper story of 1976 did quote the author of the Argus book as saying that New London should be proud, since the ship stayed in service 13 years, longer than any of the other first revenue cutters commissioned by Washington.

New London should also be proud today that the Coast Guard has a commandant who is so interested in the history of his service and the way it intersects with the history of New London.

As Adm. Papp said in answer to his own question about why a Coast Guard museum should be built here: "I say why not New London?"

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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