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.)
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.
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.)
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.)