Branford, a shoreline town located on Long Island Sound in New Haven County, has the best of both worlds, proximity to the ocean and the mountainous ridges of Central Connecticut. Once renowned as a summer resort community where the wealthy like Greta Garbo, Rudy Vallee and Sinclair Lewis stayed and played, cool summer breezes still attract hordes of visitors to its beaches and islands.
Eight miles east of New Haven and one of the earliest settlements in the Nutmeg State, the population was 28,026 as of the 2010 census.
Branford's origins started long before any European settlements. The area was settled by Native Americans who named the area Totoket, which means place of the tidal river. About 1635, Sachem Montowese had inherited Totoket from his mother who was a Quinnipiac Indian of chiefly lineage. Although his mother was a Quinnipiac, his father, Sowheage, was the mighty sachem or the chief of the Mattabesec Indians, whose land stretched northward to Middletown and beyond. Possession of Totoket by the tribes enabled the inland Indians access to the Sound to obtain seafood, to collect shells for making wampum, and to trade with Europeans.
A group of English settlers from nearby Wethersfield came around 1644, purchasing the land some years earlier from the Mattabesec Indians for “eleven coats of trucking cloth and one coat of English cloth.” They settled the town and renamed it Branford after the town of Brentford in Middlesex County, England.
Soon the area became a much sought-after resort community as settlements grew up around Stony Creek, Indian Neck and Pine Orchard. Branford’s summer resort era began before the Civil War and reached its peak by World War I. As many as 20 summer hotels sprung up on the Branford shoreline as visitors spent from a few days to the whole summer at the seashore.
According to the Branford town website, “Travelers came by horse and wagon, train, trolley, automobile or by one of the several steamers that sailed the coast between New York, New Haven and the east shore.” It noted that an average trolley trip from Holyoke in Massachusetts took about eight hours. One of the resort stops was Short Beach, whose only year-round hotel was The Arrowhead. Built in 1911, the hotel saw the likes of actress Greta Garbo, newspaperman and radio commentator Walter Winchell, and writers of the day Sinclair Lewis and Jack London. The hotel was converted into apartments that still exist today.
Other noted establishments were the Granite Bay Hotel, where Guy Lombardo and Rudy Vallee entertained and which burned down in 1958; the Double Beach House, which today is the Echlin Manufacturing Company; and the Branford Point House, which was torn down to make room for the town’s beach.
Stony Creek also had its share of summer hostelries, such as the Harbor View hotel, Sachem House, and Shoshone Inn. According to the town’s website, the Flying Point Hotel, built in 1868, was the largest hotel in Stony Creek, accommodating 128 guests. In 1882, for example, it cost $2.50 a day to stay at the hotel, which remained in business until 1942 when it was demolished. One of the better-known hotels, the website said, was Stony Creek’s Indian Point House. Ebenezer Coe built the hotel in 1854, and it was noted for its oysters and clam bakes, beautiful views, tennis courts and croquet. After 90 years of operation, the hotel burned down in 1964.
Perhaps Branford’s most famous hotel, though, is the Montowese House, located in Indian Neck. A trolley bought visitors there in the summer. Known as the “The of Queen of the Sound,” it was built by William Bryan in 1866 and operated by the Bryan family for 96 years. The hotel could accommodate 250 guests and offered fine dining, boating, swimming, horseback riding, golf, tennis, water skiing, dancing and a panoramic view of Long Island Sound. Some of the famous guests who stayed at the Montowese were novelist Mark Twain, former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, writer Thorne Smith, U.S. Vice President James Sherman and dancer and choreographer Agnes DeMille. The hotel closed and was torn down in 1965, signaling the end of Branford’s summer hotel era.
Landmarks and the Thimbles
One of the main reasons to come to Branford is to visit its nearby islands. The Thimble Islands are an archipelago consisting of small islands in Long Island Sound, located in and around the harbor of Stony Creek in the town’s southeast corner. The islands made up of Stony Creek pink granite bedrock were once the tops of hills prior to the last ice age. First discovered by Adrian Block in 1614, legend has it that notorious pirate Captain Kidd buried his treasure there. Although named for the thimbleberry, a relative of the black raspberry, the plant is seldom found on the islands. The islands were and still are a popular oystering spot.
Branford has six historic districts that are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), These include buildings in Federal, Arts and Crafts, and Queen Anne styles of architecture. Five NRHP-listed districts are Branford Center Historic District, Branford Point Historic District, Canoe Brook Historic District, Route 146 Historic District, and Stony Creek-Thimble Islands Historic District.
More than 20 historic homes and other properties are separately listed on the National Register. The inhabited islands bear a total of 81 houses: 14 islands have only one, one (Governor) has 14, one (Money) has 32, and the rest have between two and six. The houses are built in a variety of styles, ranging from a 27-room Tudor mansion, with tennis and basketball courts and a caretaker’s residence on 7.75 acres on Rogers Island, to small summer cottages built on stilts or small clusters of buildings connected by wooden footbridges. Some of the houses cover a small island completely, while Money Island, 12 acres in size, bears an entire village of 32 houses, a church and post office buildings, concealed among tall trees.
Some of the houses were once occupied year-round, but now are only used in the summer. The exposed nature of the houses makes them dangerous during storms; local residents still talk about the hurricane of 1938, which killed seven people. The exclusivity of the houses has made them quite expensive, therefore residents are divided between local families who have owned their homes for generations, and more recent residents who tend to be wealthy. The least expensive houses, on Money Island, are appraised at about $600,000.
Only six islands get electrical power through underwater cables from the shore and about half the islands get fresh water through underwater pipes from shore; the rest use wells or rainwater, or have containers of water delivered. No sewers serve the islands.
Who Lives Here?
Current and past well-known residents of the islands range from General Tom Thumb on Cut in Two Island East to Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and Jane Pauley, broadcast journalist. President William Taft established his "Summer White House" on Davis Island for two years and actor Frank Converse purchased a two-acre Thimble Island in 1975. Residents of the area tend to protect the privacy of island dwellers, obeying the 5-mile-an-hour speed limit for motorboats and never landing without an invitation.
Sailing through the islands can be especially tricky for non-natives because of the disorientation caused by the similar islands (particularly at night), hidden underwater rocks and ledges, and complex currents caused by the tides.
In the warm season, a small ferry, Thimble Island Ferry Service, transports people and goods between the islands and the Stony Creek harbor on the hour from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Prior to telephones, islanders hung a red flag on the dock to request a ferry visit. An on-call water taxi service has recently been added, and three taxis take passengers on scenic cruises. Seal-watch cruises take place in March. Kayak tours are also available. Many residents have their own boats, and some occasionally arrive by seaplane.
Debra A. Estock is executive editor of New England Condominium and a Connecticut resident.