History Revisited: A hurricane devastates a Groton colony

Flagg Cottage sits at the edge of water at Bluff Point around 1933. The cottage, along with nearly 100 other summer houses at Bluff Point, was swept away in the 1938 hurricane.
Flagg Cottage sits at the edge of water at Bluff Point around 1933. The cottage, along with nearly 100 other summer houses at Bluff Point, was swept away in the 1938 hurricane.

In light of the recent news coverage about the two major hurricanes causing significant damage and destruction in the States of Texas and Florida, it is probably a good time for readers to either learn about or, if old enough, to recall some of the facts and stories surrounding the devastating storm that struck Southeastern Connecticut in September 1938.

Sept. 21 will mark the 79th anniversary of one of the most powerful and destructive storms ever to strike New England. It killed almost 700 people and caused damage estimated of over $306 million which, by today’s standards, equates to almost $15 billion.

Unlike today, where technology such as satellites, radar and computers track such storms and provide advance warning, prediction of the storm that struck that year was lacking specificity.

In fact, the weather forecast published in The Day called for “rain and cooler temperatures with moderate shifting winds.” The last storm of hurricane strength to strike New England was in September 1815, and there was no one still alive who recalled it – thus, many believed that a hurricane force storm would never hit the area.

Although heavy rains had pummeled the area for four days prior to this storm, many local residents were continuing their summer stays at their camping and cottage sites located on the beautiful farming property called Bluff Point, adjoining the Poquonnock River and Long Island Sound.

Today the 806-acre property is Bluff Point State Park, a state-managed public recreation area and nature preserve.

By way of background, in 1646 the property was originally granted to John Winthrop Jr., the founder of New London, who called it the Great Farm. In 1851, the property was conveyed to Henry Gardiner of Waterford.

In 1907, Groton’s John Abbot Ackley leased the farm property from the Gardiner family to raise cattle, pigs and a herd of 400 sheep. The leased Ackley property at Bluff Point became a popular area for locals for picnicking and camping and by 1920 it was considered a camper’s paradise. Ackley began sub-leasing small portions of the farm whereupon campers began to build their own shacks and cottages.

Between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s, the number of shacks and cottages on sub-leased property at Bluff Point had increased to approximately 107 shacks and cottages. There were also buildings containing a small concession and fairly large casino/pavilion. The area, occupied by several hundred people throughout several months of the year, had now become known as the Bluff Point Colony.

In a recent interview with 99-year-old Noank resident Elizabeth Adams Noyes, whose family began camping at the Point in the early 1920s, a great deal of information was garnered that provided many answers as to why this area was so popular.

The stories and experiences relayed to me by Mrs. Noyes, about her times at Bluff Point sort of reminded me of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer: playing Tarzan while swinging on grape vines, rowing boats, digging for long neck and quahog clams using their feet, fishing, long swims and lying on the sandbar beach, family picnics, picking blueberries, and playing cards and other board games at cottages of friends on rainy days.

Also, there were multiple visits to the Blue Shanty, the small store near the entrance gate to the Point where you could buy candy, ice cream and other incidental items.

Mrs. Noyes also had memories of sitting outside the casino on nights when dances were held there. She was not old enough to go inside the facility but recalls sitting outside with a flashlight watching the dancers inside.

Mrs. Noyes also recalled attending Sunday evening church services with many other campers at Sunset Rock, a large bolder near a wooded area.

The stories and information relayed by Mrs. Noyes should, and will be the subject of a separate article in the future

Certainly, the various adult and children activities, as well as the peacefulness and tranquility of being so close to nature, made the Bluff Point Colony a commodity for so many people.

For two reasons, the existence of the Bluff Point Colony came to an end in 1938.

In June of that year, lawyers representing the Gardiner estate, which was considering selling the property to the state, wanted the camps and cottages removed. Notices were given to each owner to have them removed by no later than October 1st and the property would then revert back to the Gardiners.

Unfortunately, before many of the owners had had the opportunity to dismantle and move their building, the hurricane of 1938 struck. This hurricane, subsequently nicknamed “The Long Island Express,” struck Bluff Point with vengeance and destroyed or damaged beyond repair over 80 percent of the buildings.

Several individuals were stranded at the Point, and there are stories about people crawling on the ground trying to make their way to the large, structurally strong farmhouse on the property, for safety.

There was also the tragic news that the husband of a newlywed couple, who were spending their honeymoon at the Point, had drowned while trying to retrieve a puppy belonging to a friend at a cottage.

This was the end of what was once a jewel of Groton. One often wonders what would have become of this “summer resort community” if not for the hurricane of 1938.

Jim Streeter is the Groton Town Historian.

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