April 2012 Archives


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Anyone who has taken the ferry to Island Beach has probably seen the lighthouse on Great Captain's Island. Some say it was named after the pirate Captain Kidd, who may have buried treasure there. Most people believe it was named after Captain Daniel Patrick - one of the original settlers of Greenwich. Not many people realize it's actually at the southernmost point of Connecticut and New England. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

The 17.2-acre island is located 1.5 miles off the coast of Greenwich. It's actually located at the "mouth" of the approach to the East River in New York. Not only does it serve as a directional marker, but it also warns vessels of small islands, ledges, shoals and other marine hazards. The waters around the island and Greenwich Harbor are strewn with glacial erratics, or rocks, some called "chickens and hens". There have been several ship wrecks around the islands in Long Island Sound. Some are marked with buoys. The lighthouse on Great Captain's Island reminds sailors to watch out for navigational obstacles in the Sound, and directs the boats to Manhattan.

Great Captain's Island was given to John Anderson by King George III in 1763.  The Bush family also had a claim to the island, and when Anderson cut down a tree on the island, the Bush family appealed to the courts. Both New York and Connecticut lay claim to the island. Ownership was challenged over 50 years. The island was eventually turned over to Connecticut.  There have been many owners over the years.

The original lighthouse was built in 1829 after Captain Stephen Waring made a request to Congressman David Plant of Stratford. It was built on 3.5 acres on Great Captain's Island, which was purchased for $300 in 1829. The structure was made of stone, and was rather rickety. It cost $3,000. The light rose 30-feet above the ground. There were a total of 10 lamps and reflectors, which sent light out 360-degrees.

Through the years, subsequent inspections indicated the structure was gradually falling into disrepair. In 1868, a new structure was built out of granite. It consisted of a lighthouse and keeper's house. A cast-iron tower for the light was attached to a beautiful stone dwelling. The tower rises 51-feet above the ground. A fourth order Fresnal light was moved to the new tower.

The keeper and his family raised chickens and cows, and vegetables in a garden. The rest of the island was used for camping, fishing, swimming, and hunting. In 1890, a coal-fired, steam-driven fog whistle was added. Then, in 1905, the horn was upgraded to noisy siren powered by two 13-hp oil engines, which residents found annoying. This device was adjusted to solve the problem.

Law enforcement officials were alerted by the Lighthouse Keeper to the fact that "bootleggers" were using the island as a drop-off point in 1925. This was at the height of Prohibition. Ironically, the Lighthouse Keeper was suspected of being involved, and was questioned before being released!

In 1926, the island was sold to a developer, who wanted to build a club.  There were other plans to build a private country club, casino and vacation resort.  By 1930 an exclusive club was opened, but due to the Depression, there weren't many members.  The club eventually went bankrupt.  In 1944, the Town took over the island for non-payment of taxes.  The island was then sold to a Port-Green Corp, which tried to develop it as an amusement area.  However, two fires destroyed a clubhouse, and in 1955 the Aerotech Corporation bought the land and renamed tit "Huckleberry Island".  Cabanas were built so that employees could stay overnight on the island.  In 1966, the town purchased most of the island for $90,000.  

Something happened in 1970 that would change the island forever.  A 30-foot iron skeleton tower was built by the Coast Guard to support an automatic beacon.  The lighthouse lamp was extinguished.  In 1973, the Town purchased the remaining 2.6 acres and the lighthouse for $42, 500.  A married couple moved in 3-years later to discourage vandalism.  Then, in 1985, Otto Laudersdorf became the Island Keeper, and moved in with his family and stayed there for 20 years.  During that time, he experienced hurricanes, medical emergencies and vandalism.  He spent his spare time gardening, building model airplanes and reading.

As the new Millennium began, the Chamber of Commerce and the Indian Harbor Yacht Club partnered to raise funds to renovate the lighthouse.  The non-profit fund was named "Return the Light".  It set a goal of $250,000 to supplement federal funds.  By early 2001, half the funds had been raised.  Unfortunately, the nation was stunned by the events of 9-11 and the subsequent financial turmoil.  As a result, the upgrade had to be put on hold.  In 2003, the keeper's quarters were so dilapidated that the family had to leave!  In 2006, the lighthouse project was "side tracked" because of the need to build a public safety complex, install new athletic fields, remove mold from Hamilton Avenue School and renovate the Western Greenwich Civic Center.

There was also a controversy associated with renovating the lighthouse.  Environmentalists thought the increase in visitors would scare nesting birds away.  It so happened that the island was a "stopover" for several migrating bird species.

There was also a controversy over a September 11th memorial that was proposed for the island.  Part of the renovation involved the installation of a plaque to honor 23 people who lived in Greenwich, or had a connection to the town, who died on 9-11.  Most had died at the World Trade Center, while 2 others died in the planes.  There was some debate as to whether everyone's name should be included.  Sixteen people had lived in town, while some were relatives or had another connection.  This held up the commemoration.  Eventually, a plaque with all 23 names was installed as a memorial at the site in 2010.  In addition, a memorial walkway and garden were built as part of the project..

Fortunately, the non-profit was able to raise $305,000, and with Federal Funds, $1.13 million was obtained for the project.   Fundraisers wanted to relight the lighthouse beacon since it had not been lit for four decades.  On February 13, 2012, a 4-second flashing green light was installed in the lighthouse.  It was not meant to be a navigational aid, but a tribute to the lighthouses and lighthouse keepers who were dedicated to saving lives on the Sound. ( Keeper Adam Kohlman was credited with rescuing two small boys while he was stationed at the lighthouse in 1929.) 

Lighthouses light the way all along Long Island Sound as well as the rest of the New England coast.  They are symbols of our (maritime) history.   Most have been replaced by automated beacons;  but many have been preserved.  The citizens of Greenwich joined together to preserve the light on Great Captain's Island.  We are fortunate to have a monument to the brave men and women who manned the lighthouses to protect sailors on the Sound. 
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Historical Happenings

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Preserving Civil Liberties, Protecting Public Safety

As part of the Greenwich Reads Together initiative, US Attorney James Letten will talk at the library about his experiences in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  He was responsible for prosecuting the policemen accused of shooting five unarmed citizens during Martial Law. This incident raised serious questions concerning the suspension of civil liberties during emergencies.  This program will be held in the Cole Auditorium on Tuesday, April 24, at 7 pm in the Cole Auditorium.  Admoission is free.

"Mother" Lois Fern Hamilton

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I had the great pleasure of knowing actress Lois F. Hamilton from about 1999 to 2005.  Lois taught acting at the Senior Arts Center on Greenwich Avenue to fund The Acting Company of Greenwich.  Despite her handicap - she could not walk - she was very energetic and loved to teach people how to perform.

Lois was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on September 8, 1927.  She started at Northwestern University, but left to pursue her love of acting on Broadway.  She landed bit parts and character actress roles.  After six years on Broadway, she moved to Hollywood in 1955.  The people she worked with reads like a "Who's Who":  Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Alan Ladd, Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore and Joey Bishop.  She appeared in live commercials on the Bob Hope, Ernie Kovaks, Dinah Shore, Bob Cummings and Wally Cox shows.  Lois used to race cars with Steve McQueen.  At one time, she was engaged to Rod Steiger.  In 1957, she married Christopher Hamilton, a television script writer.  Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack four years later. 

Lois moved back east with her daughter, Melissa, and eventually settled in Greenwich.  This is where she pursued her love of acting through community theater.  She founded the Cameo Theater in 1975 and served as its artistic director until 1987.  In 1990 she founded the Acting Company of Greenwich.  Lois believed in presenting affordable professional-level theater for people who could not afford it or travel to New York theater.  She was "chief cook and bottle washer", having to handle many of the tasks of community theater.




                                 Lois Fern Hamilton (L) with Norma Mathis in 1998.

                                 COURTESY:   The Acting Company of Greenwich


She was nicknamed "Mother" by her students, who commented on how she doted over them.  Lois was a great teacher.  She taught people how to use their words and body language to express themselves.  She stressed that actors must convince the audience that they are the characters they portray.  Not only did she help them develop their craft, but she also brought the best qualities out of people.

Ms. Hamilton was involved in a near-death automobile accident in Bruce Park around 1983, which left her paralyzed.  As a result, she helped found the Performers with Disabilities Task Force - a group which works to get handicapped actors hired by film, television and stage producers.  Lois traveled to New York regularly to promote the welfare of the disabled. 

Lois Fern Hamilton passed away in May 2005.  She left behind a great legacy of helping people. Those who knew her are better off for it.  She never let her celebrity get in the way.   Many will remember her affectionately.  "Mother" will be greatly missed.



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Historical Happenings

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Katrinaville Chronicles - HSTG - 39 Strickland Road - April 19 - 7pm

Author and photographer David Spielman will talk about New Orleans after the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.  He will expalin what it was like with no electricity, water or gas - as well as other necessities. An exhibit of photos is central to the program.   There will be a book sale and signing by Mr. Spielman after the lecture.


Greenwich Lost & Preserved - Bruce Museum - Bruce Park Drive - Through May 27

An exhibit of vintage photos, artifacts and paintings tells the story of historic house preservation in Greenwich.  You may want to check out the Museum website, which contains a video on preservation. The program is meant to introduce residents to the Greenwich Preservation Trust.

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