Looking Down On Westport

When a tree falls in Westport, who hears it?


Some of us lament the loss of every tree, whether felled by a developer, an arborist, wind or old age.

Others applaud the removal of dead, dangerous trees, or say it’s simply smart design to remove trees from near new, large homes.

Most of us, though, agree on one thing: Westport has “always” been a woodsy, New England town.

Most of us are wrong.

A look through photos in the University of Connecticut’s fascinating 1934 aerial survey shows that — well within the memory of some of our older citizens — much of this town was open fields or active farmland. South of the Post Road, in fact, there were virtually no woods.

Here is a shot from just 80 years ago. The railroad is the dark line near the top, running from west to east. South Compo is the white road, cutting southeast across the middle of the photo. Longshore is at the left; Sherwood Mill Pond is on the right in the middle, with Soundview Drive at the bottom right:

Westport south of Post Road - 1934 UConn aerial survey

Contrast that view with today. We’ve got much more development — and many more trees:

Westport 2013 south of South Compo Road

Further north, here’s the Saugatuck River (center), with Main Street/Easton Road shown from south to north on the right. Those squiggles just west of Main Street are Willowbrook Cemetery:

Westport - Easton Road 1934 UConn aerial survey

Today, it looks like this:

Westport 2013 - aerial view Saugatuck River

Much has changed — including the addition of the Merritt Parkway, at top.

We can see more trees in the1934 scene below. It shows Long Lots Road, heading northeast near the bottom of the photo (that’s the Post Road at the far bottom). There are substantial woods between the main north/south roads (from left: North Avenue, Bayberry Lane, Sturges Highway), but also plenty of open fields and farmland:

Westport aerial view 1934 - Roseville Road, North Avenue, Bayberry Lane

So what does all this mean?

Westport looks different, at different times in our history. Farms didn’t just happen; our ancestors had to clear the land. Gradually, though, that open space was built over. Trees were planted. Now some of them are coming down.

So when we talk about “preserving Westport,” we aren’t always 100% accurate.

Perhaps we should say, “preserving the current look — which may look substantially different, not many years from now.”

(Aerial video bonus: Check out this YouTube video of Compo Beach and Longshore, taken by a drone on November 9, 2013. If your browser does not take you directly there, click here.)

15 responses to “Looking Down On Westport

  1. Dorrie (Barlow) Thomas

    Thank you for this, Dan. It is interesting proof of what my father has always said (he’s almost 84 and lived his “first” 🙂 76 years there)…that Westport used to be all open spaces when he was a kid. So often, as we’d drive down some road–be it a main thoroughfare like South Compo or a little side road like Gorham Avenue–he’d exclaim, “There are so many trees! There was none of this here growing up!”.
    Even I remember more openness, and I’m only 45. Of course, mostly what’s making the town feel crowded now is all the retail stores and cars crammed in everywhere! :/

  2. Scott E. Brodie

    Indeed — there is almost no old-growth (“virgin”) forest left in all of New England. The only substantial surviving tract in New York City can be enjoyed at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx…

    Of course, street names that end in “… Farm” or “… Farms” are a tip-off that one is driving on one-time farmland!

  3. David Schafffer

    You mean the past isn’t always the way people remember it? Hmm . . .

  4. Most of the farms starting disappearing after WW2. Westport became the suburbs and people stopped working the land.

  5. Regarding treeless Westport, local Historian, Ed Hynes, gave a highly detailed presentation to Westport Rotary about the British Raid on Danbury in 1777, including the many line of sights without trees. For example, the militiamen choose to prepare to fight the british from the top of Old Hill, not only for the height, but especially with broad views up the river valley. Unfortunately the British were able to get to their waiting ships by crossing the Saugatuck where Ford Road is now.

  6. Great story Dan. And compelling images, too. There was a pretty acute wood shortage in CT by the end of the 18th century – between timber harvesting, farming, tanning and charcoal making (for iron production) it was basically clear cut. By the middle of the 19th century two thirds of the state was under cultivation. Plainly, Westport was no exception.

  7. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Amazing transitional shots from farmland to rail, bridge, highway development, all of which define a prosperous place. Prosperity is Westport’s middle name (I’ve noticed), so get over this glass half empty mentality ’cause you can’t have the best of both worlds. Planting a new tree may help your woes, though.

  8. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    p.s. Yikes! Just watched the video. I had been warned that the place is unrecognizable from 1976, but I would expect that of any prosperous town/city. However, it seems that $ trumps common sense in Westport. It’s a sad day when Tiffany takes over The Remarkable Bookshop. That was Westport’s first mistake, a mistake impossible to erase. Please, just find a better balance in the future by leaving egos at the door.
    I’m sad to admit that I prefer not to revisit my childhood town, would rather rely on better memories of the place.

    • Tiffany did not take over Remarkable Book Shop. Talbot’s did. Tiffany took over Ships (which took over Colgan’s/Thompson’s Drug Store).

      • Nancy Hunter Wilson

        You understand my point: Whether it’s Tiffany or Talbots, or any other ridiculously high-end shop, a “Remarkable Book Shop” doesn’t stand a chance anymore in Westport.

        • A “Remarkable Book Shop” doesn’t stand a chance pretty much anywhere anymore. Independent book stores were displaced by Walden/Border’s/Barnes & Noble who in turn have been crushed by Amazon.com and eBooks from the Apple Store. That started a long time ago. Remember the movie “You’ve got mail”??? Ancient history.

          Talkies killed the silent film stars. Computer generated images killing live filming. Farms replaced trees and now have been replaced by houses and new trees. Time marches on and neither you or I can stop it. We may regret things gone from the past, as our parents probably did from theirs but net, net, we are probably collectively a lot better off as a society than we were in the 1950’s.

          Time to move along. As the saying goes, “get busy living, or get busy dying”. Alternatively, “you are never too old to rock and roll…”

          • Nancy Hunter Wilson

            Yes, of course, move along. Move along with eyes and ears open.
            I live in a municipality identical to Westport: same $, same beauty, same opportunities for all, but with a “Main Street” that has kept character.
            It’s very hard work to balance growth and character, but the people who live here demand it.
            The only area of my town that has lost charm due to overblown development is an area owned by First Nations. It’s big, but quite swish.
            Hmm, so maybe I do have the best of both worlds. Cheers!

  9. David J Loffredo

    Thanks for this Dan – found our 113 year old Victorian farmhouse on Indian Hill Road – still going strong as a working farm 80 years ago, wish I could have all of our land back!

  10. This is why we see stone walls marching through forests. The farmers plowed up the state’s biggest non-cash crop (rocks) and built walls, making room to plant edibles. When the farms ceased to be farms, the woods came back and the walls stayed in place.

    Dan, your point about “preserving the current look” is exactly right. See James Lomuscio’s excellent 2005 book “Village of the Dammed” on the construction of the Saugatuck River Dam at Valley Forge in Weston. After Bridgeport Hydraulic was forced by the EPA to build an arguably unnecessary water treatment plant, their watershed lands were opened up for development. Residents of Easton and surrounding towns protested vigorously (pathetically even resorting to jingoism at the company’s foreign (Scottish!) ownership). More constructively, they raised funds and gathered like-minded partners, and bought the land, preserving what they perceived to be a pristine natural beauty that was, in fact, entirely man made!

    Mr. Brodie is right, too. There is almost no old growth forest left in the northeast. As to Ms. Wilson, 1976 was nearly 4 decades ago. I was born in a town that hasn’t changed its look all that much since I left it 48 years ago, and with that as a benchmark, I will heartily affirm that change is a heck of a lot better than no change.