State ponders future of Gungywamp, 270 acres with a complicated past

Al Brown of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center talks about the stone ring that makes up one of the different sites in the Gungywamp property in the woods of Groton Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Al Brown of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center talks about the stone ring that makes up one of the different sites in the Gungywamp property in the woods of Groton Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Groton — Hundreds of acres of woodland that have captured the imaginations of archaeology buffs and vandals alike are now officially state property, and officials are tasked with the job of determining its future.

Clarence Latham bequeathed a nearly 400-acre parcel in the northern part of Groton, known as Gungywamp, in 1928 to the YMCA of New London, which later folded into the YMCA of Southeastern Connecticut. Portions of the property were used as a YMCA camp, the YMCA sold some of the land and some was taken by the federal government for Navy housing, while stone structures on the land were overseen by a now-defunct group of amateur archeology enthusiasts.

Latham's will required the land to become a state park if the YMCA was no longer able to maintain it as a farm, but in 2011, the YMCA of Southeastern Connecticut disbanded before it could transfer ownership to the state. So the 270 remaining acres property have remained in limbo, the deed owned by the disbanded YMCA, until a judge in New London Superior Court ruled last March that the property should transfer into the state's hands. The deed was officially changed over last month, according to Graham Stevens, the director of the office of land acquisition and management for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

In the interim, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center has served as the steward of the property, offering information about Gungywamp on its website and giving the public the chance to visit on guided hikes two or three times a year.

"There's a challenge of exactly how to manage it, you have to be so careful," said Maggie Jones, the nature center's executive director. "No place locally stirs the imagination locally as Gungywamp does."

The Gungywamp property was first referenced in a 1654 letter to John Winthrop, the governor of colonial Connecticut, as a "newly discovered" stone wall and fort. The origin of the stone chambers, circular rock patterns and rows of erect granite slabs on the property has never been determined, but speculation about who built them has ranged from the followers of a 6th-century Celtic monk to pagan mystics and colonial settlers.

Throughout the years it has attracted local history buffs and archaeologists along with vandals who have damaged the stone structures or started fires, Jones said.

Stevens said he and other DEEP officials are in contact with the nature center and other state agencies, such as the State Historic Preservation Office and the Office of the State Archaeology, to discuss the future of the land and its archaeological features.

"The archaeological resources are certainly something the state wants to protect," he said. "We want to do so in a manner that permits the public to explore and view these resources (and) at the same time, ensure they're not misused."

The state may first have to contend with an assertion, made by a descendant of the Latham family, that DEEP's claim to the land may not be ironclad. Charles Gates has filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's office saying that the state treasurer signed a 1960 quit claim deed relinquishing its rights to the property.

His son Josh Gates said he believes the document, which he said was not considered in the 2017 ruling ceding the property to the state, indicates that he and his father, have a right to the property, or at least a right to help determine its future.

Office of the Attorney General communications director Jaclyn Severance said the office was reviewing Gates' claims.

"If there's something that needs to occur, it will," Stevens said. "I can't speak to exactly what that would be until we fully evaluate the documents that Mr. Gates has referenced."

He said Jones and the staff at the nature center will be included in any future plans.

"We're certainly open to speaking with the nature center about it," Stevens said. "They've done a great job in this intervening period stewarding the property."

A large part of the state's calculations about the property center on public access; Nature center staff have developed agreements with private abutters for permission to get onto Gungywamp through their properties. Other public pathways onto the property are not ideal "unless you want to trudge through a very large swamp," Stevens said.

"It's in very early days," he said. "The property does need a lot of work with respect to determining where the trails are (and) what the uses of the property should be."

Stevens said more information will be made available on DEEP's website over the coming months, including guidance about legal access onto the land.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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