Categories: Groton, Invention and Technology, Who Knew?

Cleopatra’s Needle and Groton’s Captain Davis – Who Knew?

Henry Davis
Henry Davis – Mystic Seaport and Connecticut History Illustrated

…that Cleopatra’s Needle, the Egyptian obelisk erected in Central Park across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arrived safely from Egypt due to the ingenuity of Noank’s Henry E. Davis.

In 1879, the Khedive of Egypt gave the United States an obelisk made of rose red granite. The gift came, in part, to commemorate the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, and to satisfy those in the U.S. fascinated by Egyptian antiquity.  This “Egypotomania” influenced U.S. architecture, art, literature, and collecting.

Cleopatra's Needle as it stood at Alexandria

Cleopatra’s Needle as it stood at Alexandria from Egypt and its Betrayal by Elbert Farman

Originally one of a pair built to honor the Pharaoh Thutmose III, the obelisk measured 69 feet long and weighed 240 tons, making it the heaviest single object to be transported across the ocean at the time. The U.S. Government hired Davis as Superintendent of Construction to oversee the building of derricks to lower, move, and load the huge stone. Davis had gained invaluable experience working at Noank’s Palmer Shipyard, one of the largest builders of wooden vessels on the East Coast in the late 1800s.

The safe lowering of the obelisk presented a difficult challenge, but moving it overland to the ship proved to be an even greater obstacle. A large truck had been brought over from America to transport the stone through Alexandria’s streets, but the Egyptians feared that the weight of the truck and its cargo would damage the city’s sewers.  Davis came up with a simple solution by designing a pontoon, essentially a floating box measuring 83 feet long by 23 feet wide and 6 feet deep, that could be used to avoid the city’s streets.  Cleopatra’s Needle sailed from Alexandria on June 12, 1880, and arrived in New York on July 20.

Davis went on to serve as the U.S. Assistant Superintendent of Lifesaving Stations and, in 1896, built a lifesaving station at the Palmer Shipyard.

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