By Cynthia Cormier
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2013
In 1913 the Connecticut State Park Commission purchased property in Westport that later was designated as Sherwood Island State Park—Connecticut’s first state park. Over the ensuing 100 years the Connecticut State Park system grew to encompass 139 parks and forests and today preserves more than 150,000 acres. This year we celebrate the centennial of Connecticut’s state parks.
The national park movement began in 1872 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill that would conserve land and the National Park Act named Wyoming’s Yellowstone America’s first national park. California’s Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks were founded in 1890. In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt became president and the national environmental movement began to grow rapidly.
At the turn of the century, Connecticut was largely deforested—for the second time: In the 18th century the state had been cleared of trees to support agricultural interests, and in the 19th century the industrial revolution’s reliance on large quantities of timber for heat, building materials, and railroad ties led to a second deforestation. Rapid industrialization also made Connecticut dirtier and more crowded than ever. It is against this background that the Connecticut State Park Commission began its work in 1913.
While Connecticut is a small state compared to Wyoming or California, it enjoys a great variety of natural environments, including beaches, rivers, lakes, mountains, and deep forests. The Connecticut Park Commission’s first act was to buy five acres of salt marsh from the town of Westport. The commission purchased additional land in the 1930s, and today Sherwood Island State Park comprises 238 acres and includes parking, pavilions, and a bathhouse. It’s an ideal place for fishing, sunbathing, and watching ships – and the Manhattan skyline. In 2002 the state constructed a 9/11 Living Memorial there, dedicated to the Connecticut residents who perished on September 11, 2001 [See “Destination: The Living 9/11 Memorial,” Fall 2011].
Millions of visits are recorded each year by the staff at Connecticut’s state parks, and the state beaches are undoubtedly the best-attended properties of all. While Connecticut’s colonists considered the shoreline unprofitable, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries private individuals were buying up much of Connecticut’s shoreline. At Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, several conservation-minded citizens, including Frances O. Kellogg, who donated her family farm known as Osborndale (Derby) to the state, Frederick Chase, who donated his estate known as Topsmead (Litchfield), and Curtis H. Veeder, who donated Penwood (Bloomfield), bought the land around Rocky Neck and held it until the state could buy them out in 1931. The park opened in 1932.
In the midst of the Great Depression the Federal Emergency Relief Agency (later superseded by the Works Progress Administration) was formed to create jobs for millions of Americans. Many of these jobs involved working on state and local projects. At Rocky Neck FERA workers built the huge stone pavilion that overlooks the beach, with the majority of the construction materials coming from state parks and forests. As with so many of Connecticut’s state parks, Rocky Neck has a long and interesting history. The park’s Bride’s Brook takes its name from a wedding ceremony performed on its banks by New London Magistrate John Winthrop in 1667. Baker’s Cave refers to the place where the loyalist Baker family sent one of its sons to hide, and avoid the draft, during the American Revolutionary War. For more than two centuries before becoming a park, the site was used for commercial purposes, serving as a shipyard, tannery, and fish mill. The foul smell of that last business may be what saved it from private development.
Many Connecticut state parks and forests have rich histories to explore, along with their diverse topography and abundant flora and fauna. To find out more about each of the 139 sites visit the State of Connecticut’s Web site for the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.
Note: Information in this article is based in large part on Joseph Leary’s A Shared Landscape, A Guide & History of Connecticut’s State Parks & Forest (Friends of Connecticut State Parks, Inc., 2004), which may be purchased through Connecticut Forest & Park Association at ctwoodlands.org.
Cynthia Cormier is a member of the Connecticut Explored editorial team and education and was historic sites operations manager for Connecticut Landmarks. She currently works for the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.