McNeil Survived Shipwreck, Revolutionary War


October 1, 2023
The Alexander McNeil Homestead in Litchfield is a center-chimney Colonial built in 1760 by McNeil, an Irish immigrant who before getting to America survived a shipwreck off the coast of Nova Scotia. He eventually went on the serve in the Connecticut militia during the Revolutionary War. The home’s country kitchen still has a wood stove.

The mere existence of this historic Colonial is a matter of wonderment – not because the circa-1760 Alexander McNeil Homestead, as the Litchfield residence is known locally, possesses structural integrity sound enough that it is still inhabitable more than 260 years since its construction. That’s not it at all. This home’s existence is so astonishing because in the summer of 1737, back when the namesake builder was a teenager emigrating from the north of Ireland to America, he and his family narrowly escaped a watery death when the high seas took their vessel apart.

The McNeil family, which included his father and two brothers, were shipwrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia. The tragedy that befell the ship Catherine killed about half the passengers. “Two hundred and two persons had the prospect of a good passage, till they came near the isle of Sable,” it was reported in a June 1737 edition of the Boston Evening Post. “They had very thick, hazy weather, the wind blowing very hard (south-by- southeast) and a very high sea beating over them, the tiller was broken in two by the force of the sea.”

A 2014 article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation offered a bit more clarity on the disaster, noting that more than 100 survivors were able to make it to the shores of Sable, a tiny island about 100 miles from Nova Scotia.

“The ship’s longboat had washed ashore and was some- what damaged, but over the next two days it was repaired,” read the CBC writeup. “On the third day the master, mate and others sailed it to Canso, (Nova Scotia) where the residents of Canso then mounted a successful rescue operation.”

Their journey was harrowing and their arrival was miraculous.

Sometime in the 1740s, the McNeil family moved to Litchfield, ostensibly for farming.

“He built the house in 1760 and his brother built the original farmhouses at the Wisdom House [retreat and community center], which is right up the road from my home,” said owner Andrea Lake Meharg. “Kind of interesting, and I know Alexander McNeil fought in the Revolutionary War, and was buried in Litchfield.”

That’s right. In 1779, when he was in his mid-50s, even after a death-defying journey across the ocean which by the luck of the Scots-Irish he somehow survived, McNeil left the comfort of the country farmhouse he built and joined 17th regiment of the Connecticut militia to fight the same English crown he escaped from in his youth.

Since 2015, the house has been listed on the Connecticut Historic Preservation Office’s Inventory of Buildings and Structures. It was submitted by local historian Dan Keefe.

“This historic house originated as a center-chimney building, displaying the traditional five- bay format and overhangs of its period,” Keefe wrote in the application. “Around the 1870s, the chimney was removed as part of a Victorian-era update that involved installing a center hall and staircase and new doors and frames, all designed in the then fashionable Italianate style.”

Another significant landscape feature is the old roadbed running through the property up to the Daughters of Wisdom at Clark Road. This is a remnant of the “new road,” which was built in 1866 to provide an alternate road westward from the depot at the Naugatuck River into Litchfield Village. Apparently, it was also part of a larger passageway from Hartford to Albany.

That alternate route may no longer exist, but the house that McNeil built does, and that alone is a matter of wonderment.

Send your real estate tips for JACK’S REAL DEAL to Follow Jack Coraggio on Twitter @JCoraggio and Instagram @ jackspratt5225. Coraggio is a freelance writer, reporter, critic and quizmaster. He also was a reporter for the Litchfield County Times.

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