“The Sound & The Saugatuck” — Go See It!

For years, the Westport Historical Society has mounted educational, informative exhibits. They’re on manageable topics — Longshore, local cartoonists, Westporters and TV — because, let’s face it, it’s a volunteer-run museum with not a lot of space.

But the current exhibit is huge — in scope of geography, sweep of time and importance.

“The Sound & The Saugatuck” opened last week. It runs through September 1, and whether you’re a history buff, geology freak, nature lover, environmentalist or someone who has ever driven across the river or enjoyed the beach, it’s not to be missed.

Using stunning modern aerial photos and seldom-seen black-and white shots; maps; artifacts; even fish and animals — and with plenty of explanatory (but not overwhelming) text — the exhibit covers 9,000 years of geologic, natural, economic, political, demographic, social, ecological and conservation history.

In a word, it’s fascinating.

For example, I’d heard that ferries crossed the Saugatuck. But I didn’t realize how important they were to daily life and commerce. And I didn’t know that George Washington used them twice here, in 1756 and ’75. (In 1780 and ’89 he traveled through what is now Westport by carriage.)

One small part of the WHS exhibit.

I never thought about the impact our bridges have on tidal floods, soil and water chemistry, and plant and animal habitats. Or the impact of the foul-smelling, polluting Riverside Avenue tannery that discharged waste into the river.

I did not understand how much the geography we believe is “natural” has been altered by dredging, damming, diversions and landfill.

There are panels on the glacial era, Indians, Dutch coastal exploration, shellfishing, maritime commerce, hydropower milling and manufacturing, modern recreation and more. In a nod to very recent history, there’s important info on the stormwater impact of Hurricane Irene.

And, of course, plenty on the amazing Sherwood Mill Pond.

A fantastic look back at the Sherwood Mill Pond.

There are shout-outs to our beaches (including oft-forgotten Burying Hill), marinas, islands like Cockenoe — and the Black Duck. (What was the barge before it served burgers and brew? A bait shop. And — don’t laugh — a dress consignment store.)

Back in the day, Compo Beach boasted portable bathhouses.

Speaking of the beach: I learned that in 1902 the town won a lawsuit asserting it — and not Compo Hill landowner David Bradley — had control of the beach. Seven years later, authorities demolished “unsightly shacks and tents in the Bradley Street section, dispersing vagrant squatters and rat-infested filth and trash.”

Now that’s the kind of historical exhibit I like!

“The Sound and the Saugatuck” covers the, um, waterfront. In fact, there’s only one thing missing:

No back story on the vessel mired in the Saugatuck River mud, just west of the Bridge Street bridge.

I’ve seen it for years. And, judging from many brief glimpses, it looks like it’s been there for centuries.

(“The Sound & The Saugatuck” runs through September 1 at the Westport Historical Society, 25 Avery Place. The WHS is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturdays, 12-4 p.m. For information, call 203-222-1424.)

Cockenoe Island from the air — one of many amazing photos exhibited at the Westport Historical Society.

7 responses to ““The Sound & The Saugatuck” — Go See It!

  1. Mark Potts

    We learned at Burr Farms Elementary decades ago that that half-sunken vessel was the remains of an old onion barge. I look for it every time I return to town and cross the bridge.

  2. Dan, Thanks for your wonderful, and very specific comments about our new exhibit at the Westport Historical Society. So glad you enjoyed our show about The Sound and The Saugatuck. Just want to make you aware that we did not forget the Remsen shipwreck in the Saugatuck River. We even have the ship’s actual keel leaning against the wall of the gallery. There is a photo by Larry Untermeyer of the shipwreck as it can be seen today, and a lengthy script on the gallery wall of the history of this ship. Thanks for all your support of the WHS!
    Anne Levine, WHS exhibit committee member

  3. Hi Dan,
    We feel the same way you do about this exhibit. It’s stimulating and informative and the artifacts bring it all alive for the viewer. Just wanted your readers to know that this exhibit lasts through Labor Day- Sat September 1st. We welcome group tours of the exhibit and can arrange for one of exhibit committee members to give a personal tour. Our website will have details on value-added programs to make it all come alive.. WHS is proud to showcase our waterways whose magic and beauty will always be appreciated.

  4. Those onion barges used the canal at the end of Saugatuck Shores to get to Norwalk. This canal saved them from having to go out around Bluff Point and Seymour’s Rock. The south end of the canal filled in during one off the big hurricanes in the 30s, and that little white bridge crosses over the north end.

  5. Rindy Higgins, Guest Curator

    Dan, thank you for your exciting review of The Sound and the Saugatuck exhibit at the Westport Historical Society. The imprint in the mudflats on the SE side of the bridge IS a curious site to many who see it. That’s why my photograph of it is in the exhibit.
    According to G.P. Jennings, Greens Farms, Connecticut and E.C. Birge, Westport Connecticut, the imprint is indeed the remains of the Henry C. Remsen.
    The American Lloyd’s Register of American and Foreign Shipping and the Connecticut Ship Database say the Henry C. Remsen was built in 1851 in Red Bank, New Jersey but was registered in the name of Ebenezer Allen by 1868. The 2 masted schooner was 85 feet long with a draft of 6 feet 2 inches.
    I invite you to come back to the exhibit to read the script on this ship’s story, see the photo of Walter Allen’s Clam House which was built in large part from lumber salvaged from Henry C. Remsen as well as the actual keel knee, courtesy of Jeff Northrop.
    In fact, this exhibit is so extensive, that a visitor may want to return more than once to absorb all the incredible artifacts, detailed labels, beautiful photographs. So, “Come See It Several Times!”

  6. Linda Gramatky Smith

    I have never seen a more crowded event as last Friday’s opening of this exhibit. Someone from Wilton’s historical society commented that they never have crowds like this, so I hope all Westporters know what a FUN, “happening place” the Historical Society is for all ages.

    And of course, the Mollie Donovan Gallery was dedicated on Friday too. 🙂 Ken and I have such warm memories of a woman who worked on something like 50 WHS exhibits over the years and was a master at working together with others and making each exhibit an enjoyable project. I think Westport magazine named her as one of the 40 People Who Created a Lasting Legacy in our town. So true, but besides that, she was a very special friend.

    I’m going back to see more of the show because it was hard to see all of it at the opening.

  7. Sounds like a fantastic exhibit! Love the write up and the photos. Hopefully it’s still there next time I come to town. I too remember being on a Burr Farms field trip of Westport History and them pointing out that sunken ship from the bridge, and never crossed that bridge again without looking for it. Amazing what a tiny thing in a field trip in the 1960’s can do.