The 710 acres of Rocky Neck State Park encompass land that, in the 19th century, supported a stone quarry owned by James Luce and Thomas Hoskins and a dairy farm owned by the Luce family. The family farmhouse still stands near the entrance to the park. In 1852, a single track was cut through the property for the new railroad. This was widened and realigned in 1889, and the stone excavated from the ledge to accommodate the new tracks was used to build a pier for the quarry operation.
In 1902, the Niantic Menhaden Oil and Guano Company occupied much of the property. The fish would be unloaded from large ships at the pier, then travel up an inclined tramway to the mill. Once the fish oil had been steamed out, the remains of the fish would be dried for fertilizer. The operation ran around the clock, from May to November, and the resulting odor could be smelled as far away as Flanders. An article in the New London Day, published on February 1, 1930 stated: “In years past the malodors of this establishment have nauseated shore dwellers and, failing relief by legal means, the works have twice been set on fire.”
After the company went bankrupt in 1922, a local developer named Charles Brockett operated a campground on the property for several years. The Connecticut General Assembly first considered purchasing the land in 1929, but the effort was blocked by supporters of another coastal property in Groton (now Bluff Point State Park). Ten men, including members of the State Park and Forest Commission, were so determined that the property be set aside for the enjoyment of the public that they risked their own money to hold the property until the Assembly voted to approve the purchase in 1931.
Work soon began on the public buildings of the new campground and beach. A bathhouse was built in 1932, and a new entrance road opened in the spring of 1934. The road section on the eastern edge of the marsh, now used for bicycles and pedestrians, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. The CCC also worked with members of the park staff to build the administration building, and create campsites and camp toilets. Beginning in 1934, with federal money and manpower from Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, and a ten percent contribution from the state, the Ellie Mitchell Pavilion was constructed overlooking Long Island Sound. Nearly all of the materials for the pavilion came from state owned lands. Stones were used from the Niantic Menhaden building, from stone walls on the property, and from local quarries. (At least one Niantic quarryman, Walter Brailey, claimed that the government never paid him for the stones.) The flagstones used to pave the walks and terrace of the pavilion came from Devil’s Hopyard State Park in East Haddam. Each of the state’s parks and forests in existence at the time supplied a tree for the interior wooden pillars.
E. Royal Marshall transferred to Rocky Neck from Devil’s Hopyard to oversee daily operations during the construction phase. He became the first park ranger of Rocky Neck, and served until his retirement in 1971. More recent construction at the park includes the East Bathhouse, built in 1966, and the West Bathhouse, built in 1973 on the site of the original 1932 building.
The Rocky Neck area has been known for generations for its abundance of wildlife. Bride Brook meanders through a wide salt marsh on the eastern side, attracting osprey and fish hawks in the spring, and snowy egrets, herons and migratory birds in the fall. On the western side, Four Mile River flows to Long Island Sound. Trails crisscross the ridgeline, with many points of interest along the way. One of these, Baker’s Cave, is supposedly named for a local man who hid in the cave to avoid military service during the American Revolution.
The boundary between the Saybrook and New London colonies was a frequent matter of dispute. When the General Assembly attempted, in 1672, to resolve the matter, John Winthrop, Jr. of New London attested that “not finding meadow sufficient for even a small plantation, unless the meadows and marshes west of Nehantick river were adjoined”, the western boundary of New London had been extended to the Sunkipaug, a stream running parallel to, and just east of, Four Mile River. As further proof of his claim, he told the story of Jonathan Rudd and his bride. They were to be married at Saybrook, but, due to heavy snow, the magistrate was unable to perform the ceremony. Winthrop was asked if he would officiate instead. He agreed to do so, standing on the eastern, or New London, bank of the brook, while the couple remained on the western, or Saybrook, side.
Although the boundary issue was not resolved by this testimony, it became a favorite part of East Lyme’s lore. The Sunkipaug became known as Bride Brook and a monument was dedicated to the wedding in June of 1925. Among those attending the dedication were Congressman Richard P. Freeman, State Treasurer Ernest E. Rogers, and several descendants of Jonathan Rudd. The Bride Brook Wedding was reenacted as part of the Connecticut Tercentenary Celebration in 1935, with Rudd descendants playing some of the roles. Another reenactment took place at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
The Reverend John James McCook and his family began summering on the Niantic shoreline in 1869, after their physician suggested a removal from the heat of Hartford would be beneficial for their eldest son’s health. They purchased an eventual 16 acres on what had been known as Champlin’s Point, and had a large, prefabricated house built on the property. At the time of the purchase, only one tree, an oak, stood on the bluff. McCook spent many years, with local help, reconfiguring the landscape, removing ledges, moving boulders, and planting maples and beeches. The house was burglarized several times in the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially after the McCook family became embroiled in a dispute with local fisherman over the use of fishtraps in Niantic Bay.
The property was offered to the town in 1953, and after much debate, the town of East Lyme purchased the property, for the “benefit and enjoyment of the town and its citizens”. The white sand beach on the western side of the bluff soon became a popular spot for swimming and sunbathing. Two decades later, the town acquired the equally lovely Hole-in-the-Wall Beach on the eastern side of the bluff, named for the passage from Baptist Lane under the railroad tracks to the beach.
There are several points of interest at McCook’s Point Park. Lucretia’s Spring is named for a Nehantic woman who is supposed to have waited by the spring for the return of her lover. There is a cupstone on the property, whose markings have been at various times attributed to ancient Celts, or possibly ancient Libyans. A monument to the Nehantics once buried in the area (but removed to Union Cemetery in the late 1800s) was dedicated on November 5, 2006 by the East Lyme Cemetery Association. This is in the same area of the park that was once occupied by Seaside, a tuberculosis sanitarium which was located here from 1919 to 1934, before moving to Waterford. The Veterans of Foreign Wars building, on the north side of Columbus Avenue, was the nurses’ residence for the facility. South of the bluff, Wigwam Rock marks the southern end of what was once the border between the towns of Lyme and Waterford, prior to the incorporation of East Lyme in 1839.
Next to Hole-in-the-Wall Beach, and running eastward for 1.1 miles, is the Niantic Bay Boardwalk, which was dedicated in July 2005. One hundred years earlier, this piece of shoreline was occupied by wharves built to serve the fishing boats which stopped for ice to keep their cargoes fresh on the way to New York City.
At the eastern end of the Boardwalk, two bridges cross the Niantic River, one for the railroad and one for Route 156. In between, at the approximate site of the old Rope Ferry Bridge, is Cini Memorial Park, dedicated to the memory of David Cini, First Selectman 1989-97.
Lieutenant Bull of Hartford was awarded a large section of present day Niantic as his share of the Soldier’s Bounty granted to the men who served under Captain John Mason during the Pequot War of 1637. Bull transferred the land to Nehemiah Smith of Groton, who sent his son, Samuel, to settle the land in 1690. Samuel’s son, Joseph Smiith, built a grist mill and home along the Pattagansett River. Both properties still stand, and are privately owned.
During the American Revolution, the house was rented to Elisha Beckwith. Beckwith was known to be a Tory, and was in frequent contact with the British. Members of the British force at Sag Harbor, New York, would row across Long Island Sound at night, hide their boat at Crescent Beach, spend the next day gathering news from Beckwith, and leave the next night with fresh supplies he had given them. On one occasion, as reported in the Connecticut Gazette of November 30, 1781, the men were surprised by a local trainband:
"Last Friday a guard under command of Ensign Andrew Griswold, stationed at Lyme, discovered a whale boat in a fresh pond near Black Point, and suspecting it came from Long Island they set a guard of five men over the boat, and the night after four other of the guard, with Ensign Griswold, went toward the house of the noted Elisha Beckwith; one of the party named Noah Lester, advancing farther than the rest, was challenged by Beckwith’s wife, who was near the house; this alarmed ten men who were in the house, well armed, and they immediately seized upon and made prisoner of Lester and carried him in to the house. Soon after the other four of the guard came to the house (not knowing Lester was a prisoner) and went directly in; when they discovered the ten persons in arms. A scuffle immediately ensued between them, and after some time the guard secured six of the party. Among them was Elisha Beckwith; the other four made their escape into the woods; but they were all except one taken the next day; they came in the above boat from Long Island and were under the command of Thomas Smith, formerly of Middletown, who held a captain’s commission under the British king. Elisha Beckwith went off with the enemy the 6th of September last when they made their descent upon this place.”
It is also reported that a musket, discarded by one of the British troops as he fled the house, remains in the possession of Noah Lester’s descendants.
For more about the action at Fort Griswold, please visit:
Four Mile River, Pattagansett River and Latimer’s Brook/Niantic River were invaluable resources in the early years of East Lyme. The first dams were built primarily for agricultural use, to create farm ponds or to power mills for the products of those farms. Grist mills, cider mills, sawmills, oil (such as cottonseed) mills and tanneries were built alongside dams on these rivers as well as smaller streams throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Other mills were built to process cotton fibers into rope, twine and wicking. Fulling mills, where woolen cloth was processed with water and clay to become a denser, more durable cloth, were built as early as 1693. As the Industrial Revolution took hold in New England, mills grew from part-time extensions of the family farm to full-time businesses.
Charles Sturtevant operated a woolen mill from 1878-1894 below what is now known as Pattagansett Lake, at the end of Mill Road. With new owners, the Niantic Manufacturing Company occupied the site until the late 1920s, producing ladies’ suiting and novelties. In 1927, E. P. Barber bought the property and attempted to revive it, but declared bankruptcy in 1933. The equipment was auctioned off and the Connecticut Board of Fisheries and Game bought the dam and some of the surrounding property in order to build a boat launch. The state was not interested in acquiring the mill houses, however, so they were sold off as private property. In the last part of the twentieth century, the property was used as a furniture outlet. The building is now gone.
A former sawmill at the southern end of Gorton Pond became a manufacturing facility for the Technical Equipment Company of New York City in the early 1900s. TEC acquired the steam gauge production divisions of Libby Valve and Packing Company and the Utica Steam Gauge Company in the spring of 1913, and the newly expanded company became the New England Steam Gauge Company, based in Niantic. The company continued at this site until the late 1950s. The State of Connecticut rebuilt the dam after Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and demolished the building when no buyer could be found.
The third manufacturing facility of note in East Lyme was located on Hope Street in Niantic. First established in 1867 as an umbrella factory, the building was used to manufacture shoes, fruit extract, typewriters, gun cotton, and surgical gauze. During World War II, the demand for sterile gauze was so great that manufacturing operation was expanded to the former Niantic Manufacturing Company building in Flanders. This building, too, no longer exists.
Abraham Avery purchased 10 acres of land along present day Society Road from Joshua Moor in 1792. Over the next decade, he added several more parcels, including two bought from Joseph, Sarah, Aaron, Solomon and Lucy Poquiantup, Nehantics, in 1793 and 1799. Abraham died in 1834, and his widow Elizabeth followed in 1837. On July 1, 1845, his son Thomas, who had helped run the family farm and had acquired a portion of it for himself earlier, purchased the remainder of his father’s holdings from his sisters Mary and Hannah, and Ellen, the widow of his brother Samuel. Elizabeth Henderson, another sister, effected the same transfer on May 29, 1846.
On March 12, 1845, Thomas Avery married Elizabeth Brace Griswold, and they established their family in a newly-built Greek Revival house on the site of an earlier dwelling, c. 1700. A portion of the original structure was incorporated in the new construction. When the Town of East Lyme undertook the restoration of the building in 1976, the earlier foundation and kitchen area were retained, and the kitchen now has the appearance of an early 18th century room.
Little is known of Thomas Avery’s life, but it is clear that he was a respected member of the community. Avery served as a Justice of the Peace for the Town of East Lyme, and when the revitalized Congregational Church decided, in 1831, to build a new stone meetinghouse, Avery served on the building committee. It is also clear that Avery was a farmer. Deeds, land transfers and probate records describe a farm and the belongings associated with farming. In the collection of the East Lyme Historical Society is a ledger, dated 1847-1857, of an oil mill located in the town of East Lyme. This ledger contains records bearing Thomas Avery’s name, indicating that he traded wood for cottonseed cakes to feed his cattle. The 1850 census lists Avery as a farmer, and the value of his real estate as $3500.
Upon Thomas’s death in 1869, the property was inherited by his sons, William Andrew and Charles Thomas. Charles quitclaimed his share to William, who died eight years later, at the age of thirty. His widow, Lockie Payne Gorton Avery, sold the house to William’s distant cousin, William H. H. Smith, and moved, with her three young daughters, to Norwich.
A descendant of Nehemiah Smith, Jr.,who bought a large tract of land known as the “Soldiers Reward” along the Niantic River in 1691-2, William was the grandson of Simon Smith, a first cousin to Abraham Avery. Simon Smith was a stonemason who built, in 1831, the new stone meetinghouse of the Congregational Church from granite taken from his own quarry in Oswegatchie Hills. Several years earlier, he had used stone from this same quarry to build a stone house for his wife, on a hill overlooking Smith Cove in Niantic, which still stands. William worked in the Department of the Navy, under Secretary Gideon Welles, during the Civil War, during which time he had occasion to meet with Abraham Lincoln. His wife, a family friend of Mrs. Welles, even helped to plan receptions and other events at the White House. The Smiths lived in Washington, and spent their summers at their Niantic home, which came to be known as Brookside Farm. Smith even purchased an additional 40 acres along the Pattagansett River.
By the late 1890s, the farm was being managed by Smith’s younger brother, Herman W. Smith, and his nephew, Frank A. Harris. Around 1900, these two gentlemen married two sisters, Lula and Florence Munger, also from Niantic. On October 13, 1921, William H. H. Smith transferred the entire property, now 145 acres, to Smith and Frank Harris. They, along with their wives continued to farm the property until the 1950s. William often visited the farm until his death in 1927.
Until the town of East Lyme was incorporated in 1839, the entire Niantic River, and much of its western bank, were part of New London or, after 1801, the new town of Waterford. The Beckwith shipyard was located on the eastern shore of the river, in the area of Keeney Cove, and, therefore, never a part of what we know as East Lyme. However, many East Lyme men were employed in the shipyard, or made their livings on the fishing boats it produced.
Jason Beckwith began operation of the shipyard before the American Revolution. Four generations of the family produced hundreds of crafts, primarily fishing smacks, sloops and schooners. Jason, Jr. took over the business upon the death of his father, and his seven sons worked in the yard as ships' carpenters. Two of those sons, James and Daniel, ran the yard after their father's death, while two other sons, Gordon and Elisha, began a second yard at Strait's Bridge, now known as the Golden Spur area. James and Daniel Beckwith, in response to a demand for larger vessels, moved the original shipyard to New London in the early stages of the Civil War.
During the War of 1812, as the British blockaded Long Island Sound, the Beckwiths became concerned about the safety of the shipyard and its crafts. With the help of neighbors, the boats were brought farther up into Keeney Cove. Saplings were then cut and placed upright in the water, arranged across the mouth of the cove in an attempt to disguise its existence. Fortunately, no British ship came up the river, so the yard remained intact. However, one fishing smack became so imbedded in the mud that it had to be abandoned.
Among the boats produced by the second Beckwith shipyard, at Golden Spur, was a vessel that sailed from New London to San Francisco in 1849, under Captain James Rogers. They also built fishing schooners such as the Niantic, Belle of the Bay, and North Star.
Golden Spur, also known as Head of the River, was a longtime center of commercial activity in town. The Beckwith family had a shipyard here in the eighteenth century, employing a dozen or so men building small schooners, sloops and the like. Before the small bridge was built over the river, commodities and machinery were carried to and from local mills and farms by barge. A plank bridge over the river eased transportation in the area.
In 1905, the East Lyme Street Railway, providing trolley service between East Lyme and New London, decided to increase ridership on the line by developing the Golden Spur Amusement Park. Rooms were available at the Golden Spur Inn on the north side of the road, and in the Annex on the south. There were many amusements, including a dance hall, skating rink, merry-go-round, and fun house. Boats and canoes were available for rental. A pagoda was built on a small island behind the Annex to serve as a tea room, connected to the shore by a rustic bridge. It was known as “Little Japan”. Visiting attractions included J. W. Gorman’s World Famous Diving Horses.
The Amusement Park closed in 1924. The Inn and Annex buildings still stand, and are now private residences. The island is also private property, and the pagoda is no longer there.
Caulkins Tavern was originally a farmhouse, built around 1660, at the intersection of what are now Boston Post and Chesterfield Roads. We know that it was a tavern by 1703, when Sarah Knight recorded stopping there en route to New York from Boston. It was purchased by the Caulkins family in 1778. In History of New London County, Connecticut, by Duane Hamilton Hurd, published in 1882, Dr. Daniel Caulkins reminisced about the time George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette, along with a contingent of troops, stopped by the tavern for lunch:
"I remember in my boyhood hearing my grandmother speak of Gen. George Washington and M. de Lafayette calling here while passing through. The time was midday, and if my memory serves me, as told by my grandmother, they had an escort of men or guard, and those men partook of a meal, while on 'bivouac', on the hill in front of the house, under the old willow-trees. I have now in my possession the kettle or large iron pot in which the men boiled the meat and potatoes for said meal.
"The Marquis de Lafayette, in his last visit to this country, made a point to call at all places where he and Washington had called during the Revolutionary struggle. In passing through here from Lyme, where he stayed all night, he made a call at this house sufficient length of time to rest about midday, and was introduced to quite a large concourse of people by Judge Moses Warren. Lafayette addressed the people assembled on the hill, under the willow in front of the house, alluding to his former visit with Washington and his memories of those times when they and their men stood on the hill and under the trees, many years before, charging them to look well and guard the liberties for which their sires had fought, bled and died.
"In repairing the house in 1872 I retained the floors where Washington and Lafayette walked, and also the doorstep where Washington and Lafayette's feet have stepped. Although I was beset by many to have the steptstone recut, it remains as it was a century ago, and shall remain so as long as I live for the memory of Washington and Lafayette."
In the 19th century, the building also served as the Town Clerk's office, and as a post office. The building was eventually taken down to make way for commercial development. It was carefully dismantled, with the intention of reconstructing the building elsewhere. However, the wood was discovered to be in such poor condition that reconstruction was impossible, and the salvageable wood was sold for other projects.