A Glimpse of the Thimble Islands
by Archibald Hanna
The largest group of islands in Connecticut is Branford’s Thimble Islands. Tour boat captains have been heard to claim that there are “three hundred and sixty five of them-one for every day of the year.” But even counting every rock that shows above low tide the count will hardly reach more than a hundred, thirty of which are inhabited in summer. They take their name from the “thimbleberries” or black raspberries which once grew wild on them.
The Stony Creek area, in which the Thimbles lie, seems to have been a favorite summer camping ground for the Mattabesec Indians. It was not until the fifth division in 1716 that the colonists made land grants of the islands. Since Branford was a farming community, the islands had little value except as a source for seaweed, used as fertilizer. The larger islands could be used in the summer pasture for sheep. Consequently, it was not until 1773 that the last of the islands were handed over to individual owners.
In the 1840’s tremendous changes, social and economic, were taking place as the nation was becoming industrialized. Money and leisure were becoming available to large numbers of people. In the summer of 1846 a steamboat excursion from New Haven to “Kidd Island” in the Thimbles was advertised as “a fine opportunity for those fond of fishing and for invalids to enjoy fresh sea air.” Earlier that same year William Bryan of Branford had built a hotel on pot Island, which he renamed for the famous pirate Captain Kidd, promoting, if not creating the legend of possible buried treasure.
During the next few years steamboat excursions became more frequent, stopping not only in the Thimbles but also at other shore points. The completion of the New Haven and New London railroad in 1852 brought Stony Creek within easy reach of the city. Other hotels and boarding houses opened, not only on the islands but on shore, and guests lengthened their stay to days, and even weeks. By the 1870’s people were building their own summer cottages on the shore and on the islands.
It was not only vacationers who were attracted to the Thimbles. Lobstermen and commercial fishermen found a profitable harvest in their waters, but it was oysters that produced the real bonanza. The islands provided sheltered waters and the freshwater streams entering from the mainland produced the exact temperatures and salinity the shellfish needed. Stony Creek oysters became highly prized by connoisseurs. The roughly 25 years from 1890 to the outbreak of World War I were a golden age for the Thimbles. The town was finally persuaded to build a public dock for the convenience of the islanders. This was the great era of yachting. Long Island Sound offered room enough for an extended cruise without the dangers of open ocean and plenty of snug harbors in which to end the day. The Thimbles were a favorite anchorage and on one August day in 1910 no less than 50 yachts from three New York clubs anchored there.
Since WWI, changes have come to the islands. There is no longer a hotel on any of them; water pipes and telephone cables have been laid; there are fewer sailboats, more motor boats and water skiers instead of rowing races. Islands change hands, but many of the same families come back year after year, one generation succeeding another. The ferry and tour boats that leave the town dock have different names and different captains, but as you go from island to island you will be told many of the same stories of people and events that were told nearly 50 years ago.