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Selden Island: Once A Bustling Quarry, Now A Quiet Haven

More than 40 years ago, Dave Wordell of Salem took his then-10-year-old son, Dave Junior, on a boat ride up Selden Creek, a narrow, secluded tributary of the Connecticut River in Lyme.

“It was like going up the Amazon,” the elder Wordell recalled the other day. “Overhanging branches, vines …”

After a while, when the Wordells decided to return to the river they noticed an even narrower passageway and decided on a whim to follow it. To their amazement they eventually found themselves back on the Connecticut River.

“Dad! This must be an island!” the young boy exclaimed.

Excited by their discovery, father and son pulled their boat ashore, disembarked and began exploring. Soon they were even more amazed: The island contained remnants of centuries-old granite quarries – some with metal wedges still jammed into cracks in the rock.

“It was incredible,” Wordell said.

Thus began a decades-long fascination with what they now know is Selden Island – at 610 acres, Connecticut’s largest island and only maritime state park.

“For years my whole family spent every weekend marking and clearing three miles of trails that go around the whole island,” Wordell said. At the same time he began researching Selden’s colorful history.

I first met Wordell years ago and spent an entertaining afternoon with him traipsing around the island. We crossed paths not long ago and I was delighted to learn he’s just as passionate about Selden Island.

I paddle past Selden periodically and have camped there a few times times – the state maintains four primitive campsites accessible only by canoe or kayak.

It’s a wonderfully enchanting place, but it turns out that far from being a tranquil sanctuary Selden Island once had been the scene of a brutal murder as well as a gangster’s hideout. It also had been connected to the mainland and known as Selden’s Neck, before heavy spring flooding in 1854 washed away a spit of land.

In 1875 a number of giant lilies with blossoms 8 inches across and leaves large enough to support a baby were found growing on the island. Botanists determined that these plants had been germinated from seeds that had been stored in Egyptian pyramids for more than 3,000 years. Evidently the seeds had been hidden in rolls of linen stolen from the pyramids and then sold to paper manufacturers in this country.

The scientists theorized the seeds must have dropped from a ship carrying the linen rolls upriver, washed ashore and taken root.

Lotus plants grew on Selden Island until a 1927 flood washed them away, along with much of the surrounding vegetation. Hardwood trees eventually grew back but the lotus plans are long gone.

As for Selden’s quarries, Wordell learned that back at the turn of the 20th century some 600 men toiled with steam drills and derricks to remove tons of granite that was cut into blocks and shipped, among other places, to New York City for road construction.

Wordell, a retired math teacher at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford, spent years researching Selden’s fascinating history, which includes tales of the murder of a quarry cook whose skeleton remained wedged in the rock for years, of a notorious gangster who once hid on the island, and another man who spent 50 years in self-imposed, silent exile after a fight with his wife.

Wordell created a slide show about his findings that he frequently presented to large crowds throughout the Connecticut River Valley, and later converted it to an award-winning documentary on DVD.

At 7:30 p.m Thursday, Aug. 20, Wordell will present a free showing of “The Quarries of Selden Neck” at the Salem Historical Society’s headquarters on the Salem Town Green on Route 85.

It promises to be a great program and the next best thing to setting foot on the island.

By the way, if you’d like to camp on Selden it’s kind of a clunky procedure: You have to send a written request two weeks ahead of time to Supervisor, Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Road, East Haddam, CT 06423. More information is available on the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment’s website, www.ct.gov/deep.

You don’t need advance permission, though, to paddle there and visit the old quarries.

The closest boat launch is just below Gillette Castle, about a mile and a half north of Selden Island, and those wanting to extend their paddle can launch a few miles farther south off Ely’s Ferry Road, or across the river at Essex Town Dock. Check the state DEEP website for a list of launch sites.

 

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