The Greenwich islands have a colorful history. Talk to the right people and you’ll hear tales of murder, millionaires and mischief. Here are their stories
illustrations by sally mara sturman
History is where you find it, sometimes in books, other times in the sand. Just ask Mike Nickerson, caretaker at Great Captain’s Island, who takes to the beach after the rains, armed with his top-of-the-line metal detector. For five years now, he’s been looking for treasure, maybe something he can sell, but what he tends to find is the past. Like those brass tags, each of them numbered, that keep turning up. Those probably went with the keys to the lockers or the bungalows that were here when the island was a resort. And all that jewelry. One of the wedding bands he uncovered is inscribed with the year 1959. And the Westhill High School ring, class of 1971, may have been here for forty years, perhaps since its owner’s last summer before college, or work…or Vietnam. And all those coins from all those years that time has turned the page on, forfeited to the island, until Mike rooted them out, held them once again in daylight, and wondered…
What goes through his mind during those solitary hours, often in the deep of winter, a mile and a half from the mainland, as he trails his White’s Electronics DFX metal-sniffer across the sand? “That maybe this is gonna be the day I find that diamond ring,” Mike says with a laugh. “I found one of them tags that says Captain’s Island Club on Saturday. It’s a good one. And coins: I’ve found a couple of hundred dollars worth at least, probably close to five hundred, six hundred dollars. I found a 1900 three-cent piece with an Indian head on it about four days ago. The oldest coin I found was from 1897. I think it was a quarter.”
The mission is to tell the history of the Greenwich islands. But how do you tell the story of places that hold more secrets than they reveal, where change tends to come slowly if at all, and where so much of man’s activities has been lost to the maw of time? The Indians who inhabited what would become Connecticut and New York surely made their way to these islands, most likely in hollowed-out log canoes, to fish and hunt, says Joe Zeranski, an author and student of local history. But no proof of their presence is evident. And while the settlers and colonialists certainly knew these places—the captain islands are named for one of Greenwich’s founders and first military commander, Captain Daniel Patrick—one yearns to know more about how they regarded them and used them.
Perhaps Mike Nickerson has the right idea: To learn about these islands, you have to scour the waterfront and see what turns up. Like the islands themselves, some of what you’ll find is built on bedrock foundation. Some of the tidbits that emerge stir the imagination. And some, like the talk of Captain Kidd burying treasure on one of these lonely outposts, is surely fiction. “A lot of this stuff is just hearsay,” says Nils Kerchus, a consultant to the Greenwich Historical Society. “I’m sure it makes for a great story, but there’s really not too much of a reliable source.”
Some thirty islands fall under Greenwich jurisdiction (give or take a rocky outcropping or two). A half-dozen belong to the town. The federal government owns one (Calf Island, a wildlife refuge), and part of another (a third of an acre on Great Captain’s Island, for its skeletal light tower). Shell Island is the property of the Greenwich Land Trust. Most, however, are privately owned. And while the bulk of those are small and unheralded bumps on the water, a few serve as showcases for intriguing homes, both big and small.
“Islands are cool,” says Craig Whitcomb, operations manager of the parks department’s marine division. “There’s something romantic and mysterious about an island.”
That might explain why Greenwich’s collection has attracted so many dreamers and schemers over the years. Great Captain’s has been particularly susceptible to those who couldn’t leave well enough alone. Years ago, probably sometime in the nineteenth century, someone decided it would be a good place for grazing sheep, according to a 1920 article in the Norwalk Hour. As the story has it, the creatures were put on a scow and ferried back and forth between the island and mainland. Then one day a squall kicked up while they were being transported and a hundred of them went splashing into the brine near the Byram River. The fate of the animals went unreported. The sheep shuttle operation, however, was no more.
Then came the Great Captain’s Island Beach and Yacht Club, an endeavor that was short-circuited by bad timing. The resort was much ballyhooed when plans for this “luxurious playground for the wealthy” were announced in September 1929. Unfortunately the stock market crashed a month later. The private club, which charged $600 dues and ferried its members on cruisers from what is now Byram, opened that first summer of the Great Depression, in 1930. It offered all the amenities, from a grand clubhouse to tennis courts to moonlight sails. The colorfully lighted ballroom even had an orchestra pit designed to look like the stern of a yacht.
The operation lasted but two years before going into foreclosure. The next owner kept it going awhile with a more egalitarian membership rate of $20 a year and $15 for the use of a bathhouse. The place didn’t welcome everyone, however: Not uncommon for the day, members and guests were restricted to those who were “refined and of the Caucasian race, acceptable to the management.”
That establishment, too, was soon shuttered. Further plans to develop the island literally went up in smoke. One summer night in 1947, a Coast Guard seaplane, searching for an Army aircraft that went down in Long Island Sound, mistakenly dropped a parachute flare atop the old clubhouse, setting it ablaze and leaving it in ruins. And in 1955, soon after the Aerotec Corporation bought Great Captain’s, another fire destroyed what was left of the resort. The company used the island as an employee retreat in the fifties and sixties before selling it to the town.
Little Captain’s Island, better known as Island Beach, has also been a private enterprise. Great Captain’s neighbor to the east opened for business as a “pleasure resort” a hundred years ago this May. The Island Beach moniker, in fact, was bestowed upon it by the syndicate of Greenwich businessmen who ran the place. Beyond sand and surf, Island Beach had a pavilion for dancing, carousel for the children, picnic area, shooting gallery, and a slew of bathhouses. It, too, shuttled paying customers across the Sound. “The coolest place between Labrador and West Indies” read its advertisements. “Good bathing in uncontaminated water.”
Lenny Nielson, caretaker at Island Beach from 2004 through 2009, says he has heard what may have been echoes from the old days when he was out on the island by himself. He’d be in bed at night when it would come to him. “I’m not crazy, and I never told anybody else this except for the girlfriend,” he says, “but I thought I heard music in the distance, like very far off, vague, like there might still be some sort of spirits out there. And I’m not making this up.”
The first Island Beach didn’t last long. Nils Kerchus of the historical society suspects that World War I hastened its demise, siphoning off many of the area’s young men. George Lauder, cousin and partner of Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, would come to purchase the island. In 1918, the Lauder family gave it to the town in memory of their son who died of pneumonia two years earlier. George Jr. had been
a renowned yachtsman and among other things one of the founders of Greenwich Hospital.
Today, an engraving at the base of the flagpole at Island Beach tells of that gift. But that isn’t the only memorial in these waters. Last September, a bronze plaque listing twenty-six people connected to Greenwich who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center was dedicated on Great Captain’s, with a view of the New York City skyline.
And on Shell Island, a quarter mile from Byram, sits the 60-foot granite tower that honors August Eimer II, who died in 1925, and whose family owned the island for half a century. The Eimers were prominent in the chemical industry, among other enterprises, and “Gus,” as he was known, had worked for his father.
The tower, which is listed on the registry of Connecticut’s historic buildings, once housed a family museum, but in later years suffered from neglect and vandalism. “The windows were broken,” says Ginny Gwynn, executive director of the Greenwich Land Trust. “There was graffiti. The door was gone. People were using it to do whatever they felt like.” Last year, the nonprofit, which keeps the island as a nature preserve, stabilized the structure and sealed off the windows and doors to prevent further damage.
One of the Greenwich islands, meanwhile, commemorates none other than William M. Tweed, best known as “Boss” Tweed, of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. In the 1860s, he brought his social organization, the Americus Club, to Indian Harbor, where he built the most grandiose of clubhouses overlooking Long Island Sound.
He also wanted to acquire nearby Finch Island, according to a 1901 report in the Greenwich Graphic. But town officials were unable to find the deed to tell him who owned it. Eventually, Tweed and his cronies made a land grab. “The Americus Club, amid great hilarity and after careful preparation, and with due formalities incident to a grand dinner, seized the island on behalf of their chief and named it Tweed’s Island,” says the account. To this day it is widely known by that name.
Tweed, who had a summer home in town, built a cottage on the three-acre island. When his misdeeds in New York finally caught up with him and he was facing the prospect of a lengthy jail sentence for embezzlement, Tweed absconded and was rumored to have briefly hid in that house. In 1895, with the island’s ownership issues sorted out, Elias C. Benedict bought what had been the Americus Club and Tweed’s Island. He sold the cottage, which was taken away by barge and tugboat to a nearby property on the mainland. Benedict soon bought that land, too, then resold the house to the same buyer, who once more floated it off into the harbor en route to its new location.
Mayhem and Miracles
The isolation of the islands, especially in the days before a strong police presence on the water, offered privacy for individuals with bad intentions. During Prohibition, bootleggers frequented Long Island Sound and were said to use certain islands to distribute their goods.
Over the years, too, a number of bodies have been fished from these waters. Some were accidental deaths, such as folks who had fallen overboard from boats, and some had been murdered. Authorities never learned who killed oyster-bed watchman George Lockwood, who lived on Captain Knapp’s Island (also known as Bluff Island) in Cos Cob Harbor. One night in 1874, just days before he was to testify against a group of men charged with pilfering the oyster beds, Lockwood went missing. His corpse surfaced near Indian Harbor with a stab wound in the neck and what appeared to be a bullet hole in his leg, reported the New York Times. More baffling, all the hair on his head, including his moustache, was gone, raising the macabre possibility that he had been doused with scalding water to make him unrecognizable. He was thought to have been slain on the island. For a time, according to Zeranski, the place was known as Murderer’s Island.
And in 1936, the remains of a hoodlum named Frank McDonald were found near Calf Island, off of Byram, with a 60-pound weight tied to his torso. His death—one account said he was strangled, another that his skull was bashed in with a hammer—was tied to a gangland war. Brooklyn police brought a nineteen-year-old “burlesque actress” named Mickey O’Neil to Greenwich to identify the body, according to the Associated Press. The officers said Miss O’Neil uttered only two words when she looked at McDonald’s decomposed body—“That’s him.”
Evil doings aside, the islands can be a godsend in times of peril. In the winter of 1885, much of Long Island Sound had frozen over, and a group of young men ice-skated from Rye to Greenwich. Then, defying good sense, they decided to skate out to Great Captain’s. Halfway there, one fell through the ice. He was dramatically rescued by the island lighthouse keeper’s teenage son, who’d been watching them with field glasses, as well as the man’s friends. Initially, the fellow was thought to have died. But he was rushed to Great Captain’s, treated by a doctor who happened to be there, spent the night, and went home.
Then, in September of 1903, a New York City broker who was fishing in a rented rowboat got caught in a storm near Little Captain’s Island. Thrashed against a rock, the boat had a hole driven through it, and the man spent two anxiety-filled days alone on the island with no food except for some berries he picked and a can of corned beef someone left behind. As luck would have it, he was finally saved by the boat’s owner, who had gone searching for his property. “A CRUSOE OFF GREENWICH,” declared the headline in the New York Times.
Just east of Island Beach, and connected by a tombolo, is privately owned Wee Captain’s Island, also known as the Clump. In 1949, F. LeMoyne Page, whose company sold advertising space on commuter trains, began building a nautically themed homestead on the half-acre isle. The five small buildings included a pilot house from an actual tugboat and what had been the cabin of a sand barge. Accessories ranged from a ship’s wheel, to a catwalk, to an old whaler that was parked on the grounds. Today, that property, which has an assessed market value of a little over $1 million, belongs to Sandra S. Weiksner, a lawyer, and her husband, George, an investment banker.
The other end of the housing spectrum can be found on Horse Island, which is a stone’s throw from Mead’s Point and connected by a causeway. There, an elaborate Tudor-style mansion, one of the more impressive residences around, looks out upon Long Island Sound. As chronicled in The Great Estates, the Junior League of Greenwich’s history of the town’s magnificent old properties, the house dates back to the 1920s. The original structure, a somewhat traditional Tudor, was built by James P. Cahill, who ran a brokerage firm. Its next owner, George H. Townsend, who was an entrepreneur, expanded the house threefold to make room for his seven kids. In addition to adding a big east wing, Townsend put up a turret, which became his private domain. (Frank P. Whiting, the architect for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, among other projects, designed both the original house and its addition.)
In 1933, it should be noted, Horse Island hosted a wedding reception for Townsend’s daughter Kay and Dick Chapman, whose father owned another storied manse, since demolished, on Round Island, in Greenwich Harbor.
Today, the “fantasy castle” on Horse Island belongs to Thomas O’Malley, chairman and chief executive officer of PBF Energy. The house, with an assessed market value of $29 million, spans more than 14,000 square feet. It has nine bedrooms and thirteen bathrooms.
Then there’s our friend Mike Nickerson, who lives year-round in the newly renovated lighthouse on Great Captain’s Island, with his wife, Dina, and three-year-old son, Michael Anthony. The picturesque three-story granite structure was built in 1868 and has housed many a light keeper and caretaker. Its beacon was extinguished in 1970, when the Coast Guard erected its automated light tower, but a non-navigational, decorative light is expected to soon be installed in the lighthouse.
In December, the Coast Guard’s foghorn, which is programmed to sound when visibility is bad, was damaged in a storm. As a result, it began blaring its warning every twelve seconds, for a few weeks, before somebody finally came to fix it. Mike got used to the noise during the day. “It’s when you wake up in the middle of the night and try to go back to sleep, that’s when it would get annoying,” he says. “Very annoying.”
Still, Mike likes it out there. In the off-season he can spend lots of time with his son, read, exercise, or hit the beach with his favorite toy. “Tomorrow morning the tide’s going to be right for me,” he said not long ago, after a storm had tousled the island and a full moon was soon to be rising. “I’ll be going metal detecting for like four or five hours.”
Anne Young, curator for the Greenwich Historical Society, provided research assistance for this article.