As beach season barrels down upon us, alert “06880” reader Rob Schmidt asked a question that has vexed him since the 1950s:
All along the salt marshes at Burying Hill and Sherwood Island, a perfectly laid out grid of small canals is apparent at high tide. I’m guessing they where dug in the 1930s by the WPA or some conservation group. I have not seen them maintained for 60 years, and have never figured out their purpose except drainage of some sort. Do you know the history behind them?
I not only did not know the answer; I’d never even thought about them. Although our junior high posse played there back in the day, I’d always thought they were natural.
But I knew who would have the answer. I contacted an engineer friend I grew up with. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to Green’s Farms (and a desire for anonymity).
He replied almost instantly:
I’ve seen these since I was a kid in the Burying Hill and New Creek Road area. I’ve also seen extensive evidence of this in Branford and Guilford.
My understanding is that these are hand-dug “mosquito ditches.” The idea was to better drain low-lying salt marshes where mosquito larvae thrived due to stagnant pools.
They were started after the Civil War, when there was a serious malaria outbreak. Long after malaria was controlled we continued the practice because mosquitoes were a nuisance. The practice continued slowly to 1900, but blossomed in the 1930s. It became a WPA effort in the Depression. By 1940 virtually all of Connecticut’s coastal salt marshes were ditched for mosquito control.
In 1970, when we became much more environmentally aware, we figured out that the practice caused more harm than good. In 1985 the DEP stopped the practice altogether. When feasible they seek to fill in these ditches and let the natural flooding process take place.
Nowadays the Connecticut DEEP encourages the development of a minnow population that feeds on mosquito larvae to control mosquito populations.
The next time you’re at Burying Hill or Sherwood Island — or Branford or Guilford — think about the hand-dug “mosquito ditches.”
Be thankful you didn’t live during the 1800s, when mosquitoes were a nuisance.
And malaria was deadly.