An Island Buried in History
by Michael C. Dooling


(Click each photo to bring up a larger view.)

A popular but little studied island off the coast of Milford, Charles Island is connected to the mainland by a tombolo (colloquially referred to as a sandbar) that is exposed at low tide for about two hours. The 14-acre island is rich in history and lore, replete with its own legend of buried treasure, yet the historical landscape is littered with misin-formation, speculations and fictions.

The island has been and still is a magnet to those on shore and it seems highly likely Native Americans made use of the island they called Poqhahaug. According to an early history (Lambert 1838), the island "was a favorite summer resort" with chief sachem Ansantaway of the Paugusset Tribe having a "big wigwam" upon it.

The European discovery of Poquahaug can be traced back to the early Dutch explorers. In 1614, a group of Dutch fur traders on the ship Onrust, commanded by Adriaen Block, sailed through the Great Bay (Long Island Sound) and mapped its coastlines. No original logbooks or journals are known to exist from the 1614 voyage but as Block explored the area he recorded his observations on a map. His hand-drawn map survives today and is a reasonably accurate representation of the coastlines of what would become Connecticut and Long Island.

Fortunately for historians, a few years later another member of the Dutch West India Company, Johan de Laet, wrote a narrative of that historic voyage seemingly based on Block's original records. In Laet's account of the voyage (Jameson 1909), he made no mention of Poquahaug specifically. However, he did describe New Haven harbor and the Quinnipiac River, which he named the "River of Royenberch," and mentions an island to the west. This island may have been Charles Island or perhaps one of two other islands that have since fallen below sea level, where Stratford Shoal and Penfield Reef are located.

Four leagues further to the west there lies a small island, where good water is to be found; and four leagues beyond there are a number of islands, so that Captain Adriaen Block gave the name Archipelagus to the group.

In 1657 what had become known as Milford Island be-came the property of Charles Deal, who bought it with the intent of raising tobacco. The town of Milford granted him permission to purchase the island for that purpose on the condition that the buildings he constructed were solely used for that purpose and that he should "not trade with the Dutch or Indians, nor suffer any disorderly resort of seaman or others there" (Barber 1836:240). It is from Charles Deal's ownership that the island receives its modern name. His failed attempt at planting was noteworthy only in that it was one of the earliest attempts at raising tobacco in colonial Connecticut.

In 1835 Major John Harris purchased the island for $800 (Milford Property Transfer Records 1835) and built a beautiful summer residence there. The big home, built on the highest ground, had verandas encircling it on the first and second stories. Harris elegantly furnished the house and spent $14,000 grading and landscaping the island making it resemble "a large green inverted saucer" (New Haven Evening Register, 1884:4).

The island went through two other owners before it was purchased in 1852 by Elizur Prichard of Waterbury. Prichard, a wealthy button manufacturer who had recently retired, decided to turn the island into a resort. In 1853 Elizur Prichard opened a summer resort and hotel he initially called "Island House."

During the summer months, Prichard lived in the island mansion with his wife Betsey and their three daughters Elizabeth, Katherine and Sarah. In the off-season they returned to their home in Waterbury.

Prichard's resort got off to a slow start. Difficulties crossing the sandbar from the mainland and lack of boat service to the island kept large numbers of people away. The problem was remedied in 1855 when steamboats from New Haven (and later Bridgeport) started carrying visitors there for pleasure excursions twice a week during the summer months. (Hartford Daily Courant 1855).

At this point in the resort's history, it was meant to be a quiet retreat for its guests. In way of amusements the resort offered bathing, boating, fishing and strolling about the grounds. A few years later, several other attractions would be added for the enjoyment of visitors to the island. Along the way, the name of the resort changed to Charles Island House and later Ansantawae House. Word about the resort gradually spread and guests started to arrive from all points on the eastern seaboard.

On Thanksgiving Day 1860 Prichard died while walking back to shore on the tombolo. His daughter Sarah continued to run the resort and expanded it with new features. The hotel grew to a total of seventy-five rooms and other improvements included a swimming bath with plank bottom, an aquarium claimed to be the largest in the country and headlining P. T. Barnum's trained seal "Ned", pavilions, wharves and a fountain supplied with water from Long Island Sound fed by steam pump (Hartford Daily Courant 1866).

The resort closed by 1868, when the island was leased to the George W. Miles Company to build a plant to produce fertilizer and fish oil. The fish oil plant functioned there until 1884 when it closed amidst lawsuits brought by the town because of the odors that emanated from the operation. The once grand hotel burned down that summer and the island went into foreclosure in 1888.

The next important phase of Charles Island's history started in 1927 when the Dominican Fathers from St. Mary's parish on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven announced they would build a layman's retreat center on Charles Island (New York Times 1927). During the next two summers workers cleared the land and built a small complex of wood frame structures. A chapel, dining and recreation hall, about fourteen cabins (each baptized with a different saint's name), a grotto, walking paths, and Stations of the Cross were built and eventually accommodated up to fifty retreatants. It was a tranquil and simple sanctuary with few amenities. The facility held its first retreat on the weekend of July 4th, 1929.

Two years after opening, several additions were made to the retreat (Saint Mary's Church Monthly Bulletin 1931). The wooden chapel that was originally on the grounds was replaced with a stone chapel constructed near the same spot and a statue of St. Christopher was erected on a rock pedestal in memory of six workers who had drowned returning to the mainland in a small boat in 1929. The Dominican fathers also added a dormitory building, a bell tower built of stone gathered from the shore, and a statue of Our Lady mounted on a rock pedestal fronted by a stone altar. For unknown reasons the Aquinas Retreat closed and the little island again went up for sale in 1938.

Perhaps the most enduring story about Charles Island relates to treasure reputedly buried by Captain William Kidd in 1699. An early 19th century reference to this legend (Lambert 1838) implied it was long-established at that point. According to the story, Kidd was known to have visited Milford several times and buried his treasure on the south side of the island next to a rock. When two or three individuals later tried to dig up the treasure they were greeted by a headless man coming at them from above and the burial site was enveloped by smoke and blue flames.

As with many legends there are some elements of truth mixed in with fiction. In 1699 Kidd sailed from Oyster Bay, New York to Boston, where he was arrested for piracy. En route he buried about 14,000 of treasure on Gardiner's Island off the tip of Long Island. Authorities unearthed the treasure shortly after his arrest but Kidd claimed he had deposited more than 100,000 in other buried caches. These historical facts led to the numerous tales of buried treasure along Long Island Sound.

A later article (Downes 1889) added fuel to the legend. The article described "a faded and torn letter" written by a young woman and dated 1699 discovered in a bundle of papers in the garret of one of Milford's oldest houses. The letter, reprinted in the article, described one of Kidd's visits to Milford. No mention was made in which house it was discovered, nor of its whereabouts in 1889. Efforts by this author to locate such a letter and to identify earlier references to it have led to failure. Was the story of the letter simply an author attempting to add some more color to the legend? We may never know.

Charles Island is now part of Silver Sands State Park and has been designated a Natural Area Preserve for nesting herons and egrets. There are a few structural remnants visible on the island including a portion of the bell tower and part of the stone chapel's foundation, though it is eroding into Long Island Sound. Storms have taken their toll over the years and the evidence of human activity on the island is gradually blending into the sand.

References

Aquinas Retreat On Charles Island. New Haven: Dominican Fathers, 1929.

Barber, John Warner. Connecticut Historical Collections. New Haven: John W. Barber, 1836, 240.

Beers, F. W. Atlas of New Haven County. New York: F. W. Beers, 1868.

Downes, William Howe. "An Old Connecticut Town," The New England Magazine, November 1889 (New Series, Volume 7, #3), 268-281.

Hartford Daily Courant, "Items," 17 July 1855, 2.

Hartford Daily Courant, "Locals Convention," 2 August 1866, 2.

Jameson, J. Franklin. Narratives of New Netherland 1609-1664. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909, 44.

Lambert, Edward R. History of the Colony of New Haven. New Haven: Hitchock & Stafford, 1838, 147-148.

Milford Property Transfer Records, Volume 32, 213 (September 14, 1835).

New Haven Evening Register, "Its Last Misfortune," 8 August 1884, 4.

New York Times, "To Be Dominican Retreat," 26 September 1927, 20.

Prichard Family Papers (1747-1920), Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut.

Saint Mary's Church Monthly Bulletin. New Haven, November 1931.