By Jennifer McDermott
NEW LONDON, Conn. – Before it was a “Google barge,” it was New London’s mystery barge. Construction on the four-story structure began in the late spring at the Admiral Harold E. Shear State Pier near downtown New London.
One of the early theories among staff at The Day and the readers who called us asking about the construction was that the building was a facility for Defense Department research. Groton, which is next to New London, is known as the “Submarine Capital of the World” because it is home to a Naval Submarine Base and submarine manufacturer Electric Boat. Others believed it was a movie set, floating prison, condominiums or office space. Proponents of the jail theory even jokingly suggested it could house supervillains.
As the paper’s defense reporter, I was asked to figure it out.
I first e-mailed a source at the state Department of Transportation, since that department is responsible for the pier. I expected a quick reply explaining the nature of the project.
Instead I was told there was “vertical construction” being added to a barge by “a company” leasing dock space. He acknowledged his response was “a bit vague” but said that was all he could provide, “at the request of the Lessee.”
Over the next month I contacted every agency and individual I could think of that could have anything to do with the construction at State Pier – the state Department of Transportation; state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration offices; local politicians, business executives and military spokesmen; Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs, Office of Film, Television and Digital Media, and Department of Energy & Environmental Protection; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Coast Guard; Department of Defense; city of New London; Logistec USA, which leases pier space from the DOT; and others.
I was told over and over again that either they were not involved, or could not talk about it.
A marine inspector at Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound reviewed the plans but told the sector spokesman he could not discuss them “for proprietary reasons.” I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the Coast Guard documents related to the construction.
Turner Construction leased space from Logistec to build the structure. The job superintendent for Turner Construction did not return calls for comment and security guards at the site said the only thing they were told was to watch the building until it was taken away.
After I learned the barge would be towed to Maine in early October, I wrote a story on Sept. 28 describing the speculation and quoting the various agencies and individuals on why they could not explain the mysterious structure’s purpose.
I wrote a second story on Oct. 9 when the barge left New London for Portland, Maine, and an editor alerted the Portland Press Herald that our mystery barge was headed their way. The photos published with that story helped generate more interest in the matching barge in San Francisco Bay because reporters there saw the strong resemblance to their barge.
On Halloween, the Coast Guard responded to my FOIA request with a four-page “activity summary report” that described the oversight of the construction. Google was named as a project manager and specifically, Michael Tierney, of GoogleGlass, was said to have reviewed the plans.
The report revealed a plan to operate the vessel in various ports, the first being New York Harbor, and showed that the New London barge was the sister to the barge in San Francisco Bay.
My story was published online that night. The Day promoted the story using social media and text alerts.
After weeks of speculation, the mystery was finally solved.