I’ve never been one of those people who spend a lot of time researching their own family history. I’m intrigued by it, but it seems like such a huge undertaking: so many migrations to track, revolutions and wars to study, multiple surnames imposed by others or changed for reasons that have become murky over time. And so many photos, boxes of photos, their backs covered with a mishmash of Hebrew characters, Yiddish words, and curlicues of Cyrillic to decipher. I look at them and I think, "Someday..."
But last week I came across a very short paragraph in brief chapter of my family history, that was also a bit of New London history. That was something I could think about - and write about, even - right now.
I don’t know why it came up, but I was surprised to hear my parents claim that long ago, in the stone-washed and shoulder-padded days of the early ‘80s, they (and I) ate at a restaurant in the while waiting for the . They described the restaurant, which they remembered being either in the station itself or in a building that was once a train station. It was not far from the ferry terminal, and had a view of the train tracks, which they thought were right outside the window.
This seemed unlikely to me. The train station has been where it is since 1889, and it was hard to picture a restaurant inside it. Though there was talk of demolishing it in the 1970s, and several renovations have been carried out since, it seemed unlikely to me that anyone would rip up the inside of the last Henry Hobson Richardson-designed railroad station enough to install a proper restaurant kitchen. I could imagine there having been some kind of snack bar at some point, but the mystery restaurant had table service.
The historic building across from the station, 2 State Street, was my next guess; though my memory of a restaurant in that space only goes as far back as . For that matter, any of the buildings on Bank Street with decks overlooking Water Street and the tracks could fit this hazy recollection of a place that was dark inside, and possibly sunken, with a historic feel and photographs on the wall. But those restaurants are farther from the ferry terminal, and this place had no deck.
As it turns out, my guesses were wrong, and their memories were right. “In 1976,” according to a Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation article about New London Union Station, “the northern portion of the original lobby had been partitioned off to create a restaurant with a mezzanine overlooking the waiting area.” In an effort to restore the building to its original state and reverse such modern additions as the restaurant and the “large hole…in the floor of the remaining lobby” that was dug to create a “basement-level waiting area,” renovators studied the initial design of the terminal and replaced most of the features that had been changed.
It would be silly or pretentious - or both - to make too much of a restaurant that I went to once, as the world’s dorkiest 6-year-old, and can’t even remember now. But so much of what we think of as “history” is just someone’s foggy memory, passed down through the generations and later countered by someone else’s well-reasoned common sense. I knew, but it’s always worth learning again, that sometimes the sense and reason are wrong, and the old story – even if it’s about something that seems peculiar, like putting a restaurant in a historic train station and then removing it - contains the truth.