Save Cockenoe Now: A “Powerful” Story From Westport’s Past

This Saturday (August 10), Jo Fox will join the Westport Historical Society’s trip to Cockenoe Island.

She’ll walk the 28-acre spit of rock, brush and sand a mile off Compo Beach. For decades it’s been a favorite spot of birders, boaters and campers (and lovers).

Some members of the tour will be regulars. Others will see it for the 1st time.

None would be there, though, without Jo’s herculean efforts nearly 50 years ago.

Cockenoe Island.

Cockenoe Island.

In 1967 Jo Brosious was the editor of the Westport News — a fledgling newspaper, challenging the established (and establishment) Town Crier.

A newcomer from the West Coast, Jo and her husband enjoyed taking their small boat out to Cockenoe (pronounced kuh-KEE-nee), to fish and clam.

One day, they heard a rumor. The island would be sold. On it, a power plant would rise.

Jo started a campaign to keep Cockenoe in the public domain. Readers quickly responded.

A couple of months later, the Bridgeport Post ran an enormous headline: “UI Plans A-Plant in Westport.”

United Illuminating — a statewide utility, and the new owner of the island that had long been privately held — would not just build a power plant. They planned a nuclear power plant. A 14-story nuclear power plant.

With a causeway, linking the island to shore.

The Westport News swung into high gear. Jo wrote news stories and editorials decrying the idea. She published letters to the editor, and editorial cartoons.

The Town Crier, meanwhile, supported the plan. It would be good, the paper argued, for the town’s tax base.

Memorabilia in Jo Fox's basement includes news clippings, a bumper sticker, a photo of Jo on Cockenoe, and another shot of her speaking in Hartford, as sunlight streams directly on her.

Memorabilia in Jo Fox’s basement includes news clippings, a bumper sticker, a photo of Jo on Cockenoe, and another shot of her speaking in Hartford, as sunlight streams directly on her.

An RTM hearing drew an SRO crowd. The legislative body voted unanimously to acquire Cockenoe. They’d use federal, state and — if necessary — local funds to keep the island as open space.

Save Cockenoe Now — a grassroots group — met often at Jo’s house. They enlisted the help of a Westport Library research librarian. In those pre-internet days, she struck gold: a Life Magazine editorial about ways in which municipalities could curb eminent domain requests of power companies.

Jo’s group decided to challenge UI’s eminent domain, through a pair of bills in the state legislature. One would enable the town of Westport to use eminent domain in this case. The other would allow all Connecticut towns to have pre-eminence  over all utilities, in all eminent domain cases .

That was huge. Case law was unsettled over who had 1st rights in cases involving eminent domain: utilities or local governments.

Ed Green ran for state representative, on a “save Cockenoe” platform. He became the 1st Democrat in 50 years elected from Westport.

Democrats pressed the issue. They rented buses to take Westporters to Hartford, for committee hearings on the 2 bills. Green introduced the 2 Cockenoe bills in Hartford. They were co-sponsored by Louis Stroffolino, a Republican representing the Saugatuck area.

Westport’s arguments were not against nuclear power, which — before Chernobyl and Three Mile Island — was considered safe and clean. The argument was for saving a valuable recreational spot; the power plant could be located elsewhere.

"Save Cockenoe Now" posters were displayed all over Westport.

Naiad Einsel’s “Save Cockenoe Now” posters were seen all over Westport.

Under pressure — including national press like the New York Times and Sports Illustrated; Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Lowell Weicker; Congressman Stewart McKinney; conservationists, fishermen, thousands of citizens, and even other utility companies that feared the omnibus bill — UI offered to sell the island.

There was, however, one condition:  Westport would drop the proposed legislation.

In 1967, the deal was done.

The town paid approximately $200,000 for Cockenoe Island — UI’s purchase price. State and federal funds covered 75% of the cost. Westport now owns Cockenoe — in perpetuity.

Jo trumpeted the accomplishment with this Westport News headline: “Isle Be Home For Christmas.”

When the deal closed — on December 23, 1969 — she wrote this head: “Cockenoe Island Safe in Sound.”

The next summer — and for every summer thereafter — area residents have enjoyed Cockenoe. But each year, fewer and fewer know that, without a crusade led by one woman, the island — if not the entire area — would look and feel far different today.

In July 1970, Life Magazine called it one of 7 significant environmental victories in the nation.

Jo Fox today.

Jo Fox today.

Jo has been out to Cockenoe a few times since 1967 — but never in summer.

This weekend — 85 years young — she looks forward to seeing the birds, clams and boats. (Though perhaps not the lovers.)

Thanks to Jo Fox, the water there is also a lot less warm than it otherwise would be.

(This Saturday’s trip to Cockenoe begins at  11 a.m. at Longshore Sailing School. In addition to kayak rentals — available there — the cost is $18 for Westport Historical Society members, $20 for non-members. Click here for details.)

27 responses to “Save Cockenoe Now: A “Powerful” Story From Westport’s Past

  1. Thanks, Dan, for a great article and for reminding everyone what one motivated and determined person can accomplish. Jo Fox is an inspiration.

  2. It is a wonderful story (and that poster brings back memories). I think it would make a fascinating documentary.

  3. Mary Kneisel

    Dan, you neglected to mention or perhaps didn’t know that there is a movie out there about this event called “Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys”. I believe Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are the main actors in it. I saw this before we moved to Westport in ’74.

    • Sorry, Mary — I didn’t mention it because it’s not true. “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys” is about Westport’s (called Putnams Landing) effort to stop a Nike missile site from being based in town in the 1950s. The book was by Westporter Max Shulman; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were in the film a couple of years later (late ’50s), which brought them to Westport for the first time.

      The Nike site was at the current location of Bedford Middle School; the launch area was on Bayberry Lane, where the Westport Weston Health District and Rolnick Observatory (a relic of that time) are now. The reason Westport was chosen was because of its relative height, and close location to the important defense contractors in Bridgeport. You can read an “06880” story about all that here: https://06880danwoog.com/2011/10/11/when-the-cold-war-came-to-town-photos-tk/

      • Mary Kneisel

        Wrong again. That’s what age will do for you. Sorry!! It was still a fun movie for Westporters.

      • Somehow, the Nike radar towers got built anyway, up on Bayberry near the Merritt. The Westport Astronomical Society has their main telescope on top of one of them.
        -Dan Lasley

  4. Matthew Mandell

    Great story and shows what members of a community can do when they put their minds behind something important.

    I look out sometimes at the island and wonder how anyone could think a power plant on it would have done anything, but destroy Westport as a wonderful place by the sea. Thanks to everyone who took time back then to save the Island and the town.

  5. Congratulations, Jo! We are truly grateful for all you did. Best, Diane Cady

  6. Not to get off topic, but “Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys” is an absolutely great read. I read it as a teenager, long before I even knew Westport existed, in one sitting, long into the night, with school the next day.

  7. barbara stephens

    Funny when I have told folks, especially young ones, this story they do not believe it and strongly reply NO WAY would anyone ever consider a nuke plant that close to Westport. Then again they are also disbelievers in the fact that a good part of downtown (the library and Women’s Club upper parking are our garbage dump from the 60’s) That Parker Harding was the port right up to todays older buildings. That Barron’s North (Winslow) was almost Bloomingdales. And that today, if they don’t stay involved and keep vigilant much of Westport is targeted for major development. We can only hope that in 30-40 years they will look back and say Thank God the town had the brains and heart to save …………

    • Matthew Mandell

      That’s what I have been saying. We need to act now, in 2013 on certain issues, so that in 2050 they say, glad they did it.

      One such issue is saving the Kemper Gunn house. The 1885 Victorian in Downtown. It can be saved if we all work together to do it.
      Go to http://www.savewestport.com/kempergunn.html and read about the issue and sign the on-line petition.

  8. I love going out to dinner and seeing Cockenoe island mussels and oysters on the menu. Not always my first choice but they bring very fond memories of home.

    Evan Stein

  9. Great lady…smart and sense of humor.
    😉

  10. Great story Dan. Great lady Jo is. Who knows? If not for Jo Wesport might have been the setting for The Simpsons.

  11. Then there was the “palm” tree on the east end of the island. I sailed there often both with and without girlfriends. Gawd how I miss the Sound. Thanks for another great memory Dan.

  12. Sally Campbell Palmer

    We still have a framed copy of that poster and have no intentions of parting with it.

  13. Eric William Buchroeder

    It’s incredible (at 61) to look back and see how close UI came to pulling this off (when I was 16). It’s also incredible to look at the current picture and see how beautiful Cockenoe Island is today, even more so than what I remember from when I was a child. There ARE “angels on earth” and Ms. Jo Fox Brosius is living proof.

  14. Ms. Fox- thank you!!!

    As a Westporter & avid fisherman since 1960, I can’t imagine having grown up with on the horizon.

    I vote, and will, contribute to a bust of Ms. Fox to be put on the hill on the island !!! Come on, Dan, organize that !!!

    Ezra, King’s Highway El., Bedford Jr, and Staples Class of 1972

  15. What a wonderful and inspiring story. Thank you Jo for championing the cause.

    As an aside, I looked up some earlier Cockenoe Island history on Wikipedia. How times change!

    In the 19th century, the island was a working farm with a farmhouse, barn, and livestock. The business eventually turned into a whisky distillery, which the federal government raided in 1870.

    • Matthew Mandell

      Interesting. One would think the island was larger then to support something like that. The sea is rising. Now moonshine I can see with that space.

  16. Estelle T, Margolis

    A Million Mazeltovs, Jo! You did something infinitely valuable for our town.
    I wish I could join you on the trip but I am on the Peace Vigil from 11 to
    11:30 on Saturday. Have a glorious trip, it is YOUR Island!
    All the Best, Estelle

  17. Thank you so much Jo for your amazing contribution to the preservation of Westport! God only knows how Sandy might have impacted a nuclear power plant set on an Island that flooded significantly during that storm.

  18. Lawrence Zlatkin/Maureen Whiteman

    As avid sailors and boaters, we can’t thank Jo Fox enough for her hard work and dedication in saving Cockenoe for the many of us who sail by her shores throughout the boating season. Westport’s entire coastal area would have been destroyed by the presence of a large industrial site, let alone a nuclear power plan. Thank you– and we think you deserve a landmark in town named after you for your lasting contribution to the town’s character and integrity.

  19. Lisa Marie Alter

    Great bit of local history, Dan — once again, thanks for bringing us the scoop !!! ( And, Barbara Stephens: I AM one of those folks who, when told about the prospect of the nuclear plant way-back-when, said “No WAY… who would do such a thing ?!”)

    I also love that Jo was – IS – a fighter and that she WON the fight.

    And naturally, it was a woman (think of Karen Silkwood, Erin Brokovich) who had the foresight to protect our assets, for future generations 😉

    And Thank God, UI didn’t get their way — or I wouldn’t be living in Westport today !

    So, thank you, Jo, for your hard work, your perseverance, your fortitude, and your foresight…

    And everyone else who “walks the walk” every day (Matt Mandell, among others:-)…

    Perhaps the lens should be our future generations asking “What were they thinking ?!” when our town fathers/mothers pitch their ideas/make their decisions (Mahackeno, Baron’s South, Compo Beach planning, Downtown 2020, Bedford Square, et al)…

    And, I guess it also means the onus is on all of us citizens to be vigilant and continue to ask the hard questions.

  20. Maxine Bleiweis

    I am proud that a Westport Library research librarian figured prominently in this story. Even in the age of the Internet, librarians can be the best search engines.

  21. Sam Febbraio

    I was in grade school back in the late 60′s, and while I don’t get there much these days, memories of the beach from those day are without a doubt, some of the best I have of Westport. I doubt that would be the case had there been a nuclear plant on the island. What Jo did for Westport was so much more than people likely realized at the time. Had the pleasure of meeting her some years ago – she is a force to be certain, and a good one at that. I would be honored to contribute to a memorial for the island as Ezra suggests.

  22. Type “cockenoe island” in You Tube. Someone did a brilliant video showing what might have been and some of the parade of boats to commemorate the victory!