History Revisited: Pine Island small in size, substantial in history

An image depicting the Quinnipiac Fertilizer Company facilities on Pine Island. From the Jim Streeter collection
An image depicting the Quinnipiac Fertilizer Company facilities on Pine Island. From the Jim Streeter collection

Whether for adventure or possibly a longing for isolation or privacy, many people have entertained thoughts of living on an island.

The actual number of islands in the world has been debated by geographers for centuries, but it can be safely said that there are thousands upon thousands. The sizes of islands vary dramatically: the world’s largest is Greenland, comprising almost 840,000 square miles, and the smallest, recorded in the Guiness Book of World Records, is Bishop Rock in the United Kingdom, which is 7,922 square feet in size.

Connecticut is home to more than 180 islands, one being Pine Island in Groton, just off the southeast shore of the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut. This 13-acre island should not be confused with one of the same name in New Fairfield.

The earliest record relating to the island is contained in the writing of New London’s noted historian Frances Manwaring Caulkins, who relayed that at a town meeting in 1651 “the marsh upon Pyne Island” was granted to ploo-right (plow maker) John Cole.

In 1696, the island was sold to James Avery, and it remained in the Avery family until 1780, when Latham Avery sold two-thirds of the land to James Smith. In 1784, Smith sold his property, including buildings and fixtures, to James Baley. In September 1788, four years after purchasing the land, Baley, who was a farmer and mariner, drowned while setting lobster pots near the island.

He was subsequently buried on the island, and his grave marker remains there.

Over the next 35 years, ownership of the island changed hands many times. It was during this period that several buildings, including a large dwelling, were constructed on the island.

In 1823, the island, including all buildings, was purchased by the Stoddard family of Montville. Orin Stoddard opened a “summer retreat” on the island, converting the large dwelling house into a hotel which, according to one account, was named the “Atlantic House.” The use of the facilities on the island as a seaside resort lasted for many years, and it was a popular “visiting port” for steamboats traveling between New London and Stonington.

By 1847, the island was owned by John G. Spicer and his wife Clarissa, who was the widow of Orin Stoddard.

In December 1862, the island was sold to Hubbard Morgan, who, along with his partner Franklin Gallup, established the “Pine Island Oil Company,” a commercial menhaden fish oil factory on the island. The business entailed boiling the menhaden (bunker) and extracting the oil from the fish to be used for lamp fuel, tanning and as a lubricant. The remains of the fish were dried, treated with sulphuric acid and ground into the well-known fertilizer called fish guano.

In 1868, the Pine Island Oil Company was purchased by the Quinnipiac Fertilizer Company, one of the largest fertilizer companies in the United States. The company built 13 buildings on the island and employed 50 to 100 workers. At the peak of each menhaden fishing season, the company would process approximately 15 million fish. On average, the manufacturing process produced about 25,000 gallons of fish oil and 4,000 tons of various fish guano fertilizer products having a combined value totaling more than $500,000.

The Quinnipiac company went out of business at the end of the 19th century, and in 1903 Pine Island was purchased by millionaire businessman Morton F. Plant. Plant was building his 31-room summer mansion, Branford House, on his estate at Avery Point, a short distance east of the island.

Plant had the fertilizer company buildings taken down and subsequently built a play house on the island for his granddaughters. Although no photographs of the play house exist, one can imagine, considering Plant’s wealth, that the building was probably very large and the furnishings elaborate.

A point of interest relating to Morton Plant and Pine Island is the fact that, while having rich top soil removed from the island for use in his gardens at his estate, he was made aware of the old grave marker for James Baley. At Plant’s suggestion a [newer] state soldiers memorial headstone was placed next to the existing one.

The Plant estate, including Pine Island were sold at auction to the State of Connecticut in late 1939. In 1942, the properties were deeded from the State of Connecticut to the United States Government to build a large training facility for the United States Coast Guard.

In 1943, even though Pine Island was under control of the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army, as part of the World War II Long Island Sound Harbor Defense Program, established a small artillery battery on the island. Named AMBT (Anti-Motor Torpedo Boat) 915, it was composed of two 90mm guns mounted on fixed mounts and two 90mm guns mounted on mobile mounts. A small contingent of soldiers was assigned to man the guns.

After World War II, the Coast Guard used the island for various training purposes including the use of explosives.

In 1967, the Coast Guard moved its training facilities to Governor’s Island, New York, and ownership of the Avery Point property reverted to the state. The University of Connecticut then established its Avery Point campus at that location.

Pine Island is still owned by the State of Connecticut and is under the stewardship of the University of Connecticut. There are no buildings on the island and, except for an occasional visit by interested scientific and archaeological students and teachers, little or no activity transpires there. In 2010, the island was designated a State Archaeological Preserve, thus ensuring its protection in the future.

Pine Island certainly stands out as one of Groton’s historical landmarks.

Jim Streeter is the Groton town

historian.

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