Notes from the Old Noank Jail: Fishers Island a place of lobster wars and drinking excursions

An illustrated lecture at the Noank Historical Society on June 21 chronicled the tangled relationship between our Connecticut mainland and Fishers Island, including border disputes, secession, annexation and “lobster wars.”

The presentation, by Pierce Rafferty of the Fishers Island Henry L. Ferguson Museum, recalled my frequent visits to Fishers Island during the late 1950s. I viewed Fishers Island as a “rich man’s retreat” that had a convenient restaurant/bar near West Harbor.

Those of us age 18 or older could pop over to New York from Connecticut in private boats to legally purchase alcoholic drinks at the Pequot House. Such was our narrow focus of youth at that time.

As to previous history, from 1644 to 1646, an Englishman named John Winthrop found the island primarily deserted and began keeping some livestock there, treating it simply as farmland. There was subsequent confusion involving a 1662 charter from England and a 1664 Duke of York claim involving Long Island and Fishers Island, but still recognizing John Winthrop as the New York owner of Fishers Island.

However, boundary disputes between Connecticut and New York lasted over 200 years. In 1679, Connecticut tried to claim it outright largely because of proximity. During the War of 1812, the English forces occupied Fishers Island, and it was considered “enemy controlled territory” by the Revolutionaries.

Finally, in 1863, Fishers Island was purchased from the Winthop estate by Robert Fox, who operated it as a gentleman farmer and considered the island “off limits” to visitors.

In the 1870s there were several “illegal prizefights” on Fishers Island. Attempts to establish some form of Fishers Island transportation “trolley” system failed.

In 1876, Fox sold small land lots on the west end of Fishers Island, some existing today. And in 1880, there was a nautical boundary line arbitrarily established by New York between Connecticut and Fishers Island in essentially the middle of Fishers Island Sound. Connecticut objected with bitterness, and Stonington even tried to acquire Fishers Island on its own, to no avail.

In 1884, a large gun club leased a portion of the east end. Then in 1889, Henry Ferguson purchased a nine-tenths portion of Fishers Island from the Robert Fox estate toward the east end. Attempts were made to exclude steamers and seaweed fishermen from approaching Fishers Island, and in 1900 Connecticut lobster boats were detained for invading New York waters. Legal battles ensued in 1902, and these continued with little resolution.

During the 1920s, the Ferguson family sold properties for private estates on the east end, and in 1926 a private clubhouse was created, which exists today. Following the stock market crash in 1929 into the 1940s, the HG Wright Militay Fort was established near the south shore. Following WWII, from 1945 to 1949, there were major debates again concerning the annexation of Fishers Island by Connecticut involving Groton. Proponents felt it would be convenient, but negatives leaned away from more police presence on Fishers Island.

And during 1947, there were major fears of Connecticut lobster boats taking over Fishers Island territory.

More lobster disputes surfaced in 1967 to 1971 concerning protected zones and dropping lobster pots in unprotected waters. Then, in 1976, when the Thames River was being dredged for submarine usage, environmental issues arose concerning an off-shore dumping site west of Fishers Island. Years later, the Fishers Island Ferry was charged after their boats had constantly dumped sewage into Long Island Sound while traversing West Harbor and New London.

Today, Fishers Island is still primarily a private enclave, and the lifestyle tends to be quiet; celebrities and unbridled development are discouraged. Population varies between 250 people in winter to 3,000 in summer.

The 50-acre military installation still quietly exists, and there is a small airport at the west end.

There is no mayor, but a judge along with Planning & Zoning Board members are available, along with a doctor and volunteer fire and EMS services. The school population is about 75 students, including a few from the Connecticut mainland. Currently, there is no active hotel on Fishers Island, following the closing of the Pequot House. Electric utilities are provided from the Groton shore.

The Ferguson Museum itself specializes in archeology, birds and local history, along with being involved with the Fishers Island Land Trusts and trail maintenance. It also maintains strong relationships to the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Stonington.

“What is past is prologue.” Connecticut still looks at Fishers Island as the prize it lost, for now.

Ed Johnson lives in Noank.

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