On April 8, 1945, a Sunday, Philip Ollweiler walked into the kitchen of his home in Pawtuxet, a village located in Warwick and Cranston in Rhode Island, opened all the jets of the gas range, and, as the medical examiner would surmise, waited there until he passed out and died. He was 78.
This was Capt. Philip Ollweiler, whose boyhood was in Stonington, who later built a substantial nine-room home there and who, with his older brother, George, distinguished themselves as legendary masters of great steamships — the Queens of Long Island Sound — that plied the waters between New York and Boston, and whose fate it was to watch as their profession died before they did, the passenger and cargo lines succumbing to the railroad companies that owned them and then the advent of the automobile.
Phil Ollweiler, besides his renown during his many years at the helm of the steamers, also looked skyward. He was an incorporator of the Stonington Airways Corp., which in May 1928, as I once reported in another publication, received approval from the Aviation Commission of Connecticut for development of land on West Farm in Wequetequock Cove for an airport.
Today, that property is the Saltwater Farm Vineyard, a winery and highly popular and serenely lovely venue for weddings and gatherings. But back in the day, as the Boston Globe said in a story about the brotherly rivalry of steamship masters Philip and George Ollweiler published in March of 1929, “Capt. Philip Olleweiler goes to his home in Stonington every day, journeying back and forth by rail. By boat or rail he is traveling 17 hours out of each 24. Not satisfied with all that, he frequently goes aloft in an airplane. He makes frequent flights from his Connecticut home town, where he is president of the Stonington Airways Corporation.”
A decade later, in the late 1930s, William Foster, a developer who operated a bus company in Westerly, leased the same farm property from Anna Chapman of Stonington for what became a small community airport known as Foster Field as well as Westone Airport.
Philip Ollweiler, born in New York, moved with his parents and siblings to Stonington in 1878, a time when the harbor and town were still the busy eastern terminus of the Stonington Line, as the Providence and Stonington Steamship Company, and also the New York, Providence and Boston Railroad, were known.
Ollweiler’s father, a shipbuilder, likely moved to Stonington in pursuit of work, and Philip, at age 11, started laboring for the Stonington (steamship) line. Though he would eventually settle in Rhode Island, following the steamships to Providence and Fall River, Philip owned a house and garage at 39 Cutler St. in Stonington. In the 1930s, the property was leased and then sold to Antone Bousa, who operated a Ford dealership. The Stonington Community Center Thrift Shop stands on the site today. The house owned by Ollweiler may well have been what was described by a story in The Day on Sept. 9, 1914: “Philip Ollweiler has begun work on the construction of a bungalow near the corner of Williams and North Main Streets, which he expects to be completed before cold weather sets in. Considerable of the material used in the sides is from the old steamer City of Worcester.”
He also owned a large estate on the shore of Lake Pemaquid in Maine.
Before the completion of the railroad bridge across the Thames River between New London and Groton in 1889, conveying people and cargo between New York and Boston involved a patchwork of transportation means, mainly steamers navigating through New York’s hazardous Hell Gate and up Long Island Sound to Stonington, where many a passenger would overnight at the Wadawanuck Hotel and then perhaps continue by rail to Providence and Boston.
During his lengthy career, Philip commanded at least 15 vessels owned by the Stonington, Providence and Fall River lines, including the liners Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Richard Peck, Mohawk, City of Lowell, Chester W. Chapin, New Haven, Pequonnock, Mohegan, Pilgrim, Puritan, Plymouth, Providence and Priscilla.
One steamship historian dubbed him “master of the tow-rope.” In his lively history of the steamship era, “Salts of the Sound,” Roger Williams McAdam wrote: “He towed in eight Sound liners but never had to be towed into port himself.”
But, as McAdam concluded, Ollweiler’s last years were sorry ones. “It is a pity that Captain Ollweiler’s valedictory was not happier,” wrote McAdam. “Early in 1937 the bankrupt New Haven Railroad, under the prod of bankers, was casting out its steamboats as though they had leprosy.” A year later, Ollweiler looked on as his last command, the Priscilla, made her final voyage. McAdam was there.
“This writer will never forget Captain Ollweiler on that January day in 1938 when he stood on the Fox Point Wharf … watching them chop the frozen hawsers which held New England to the great Priscilla. ‘This is breaking my heart,’ said Ollweiler.”
He retired later in 1938 after more than 60 years at sea. Seven years later he took his life.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.