Unearthing A Mosquitoes-And-Malaria Mystery At Burying Hill Beach

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?

An aerial view of the

An aerial view of the “canals” (faintly seen above the inlet; click or hover over photo to enlarge). The inlet running from Long Island Sound separates Burying Hill Beach (right) from Sherwood Island State Park (left).

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.

Hand-digging ditches during the Great Depression.

Hand-digging ditches during the Great Depression.

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.

12 responses to “Unearthing A Mosquitoes-And-Malaria Mystery At Burying Hill Beach

  1. Craig Clark

    There are the same ditches at Old Mill. I was also told that the ditches allowed water to drain so the local farmers could get in and harvest the salt hay they took from these areas.

  2. I love the background you provide to all things Westport. But malaria is still deadly, see https://www.malarianomore.org/ just not here in the U.S. where it has been eradicated and there is decent medical care. When I developed malaria after a trip to Nigeria. the doctors had a field day bringing in residents and students to observe me.

  3. Wendy Crowther

    I’ve always wondered about these canals too and suspected that they were hand dug for drainage long ago. It’s fascinating to get the back-story. Thanks, Dan.

  4. Susan Gunn Bromley

    The ditches are also prevelant in and about Saugatuck Shores – Westport and Norwalk.

  5. David Squires

    Very interesting. Explored there a lot as a kid too. Still fun for kayaking if the tide is right!

  6. Yellow fever wasn’t traced to mosquitoes until after 1900, by Walter Reed (the army doctor who lead the investigation and had the military hospital named after him for his success.)

    I’m pretty sure those cuts were made for farming “salt hay”, which is a term for all sorts of tidal grasses used for everything from building materials to animal feed and other agriculture. There were a LOT more marshes than today for the original settlers, since large scale drainage and landscaping hadn’t occurred yet. And those marshes were a main part of any seaside colonial life, they held lots of wildlife and were not private land. So the hay, as hard as it was to cultivate with dykes and ditches, was pretty much free for the taking.

    I heard there was a hotel on the lot next to Burying Hill, which the town bought and added to the park. Anyone know of that? – Chris Woods

  7. I respect that your engineer friend wants to remain anonymous, Dan, but a big thank you to him for sharing his knowledge!

  8. Sandy Soennichsen

    When we bought our house, and the accompanying 2+ acres of wetlands, the State had a person come twice a year to clear the “ditches.” When we called the State we were told they were the irrigation ditches for the extensive salt water hay farming in the area, and needed to be kept cleared. Sure enough, a year or two later the State stopped clearing those ditches and we started to get more flooding in the surrounding houses. Oh well.

  9. Wendy Cusick

    Now this is a great article. I did a whole Science Fair Project on Salt Marshes and how important they are to the environment. Salt Marshes control flooding. That’s why it’s wonderful that Dr. William Teuscher saved Imperial Ave from housing development and fought to keep it a park and undeveloped. Dan has an article about this somewhere and Google Dr William Teuscher Wetlands Preserve, it will bring up articles and the court case.
    By the way, I believe there was an appearance of Dan in Norwalk between 530pm and 6pm at his favorite store, He’s a brave man to venture into that parking lot.(entitlement parkling lot).

  10. I grew up in a house in Fairfield that overlooked salt marshes that were filled with ditches. They were dug in the early 1900’s to control mosquitos.

  11. You can see these very well on Google Earth in front of Shorehaven Country Club in the cove. They are very extensive there. When I first saw them, they looked like sunken building lots that were lost in a hurricane. Like that ever happens, right? It’s comforting to me to know that the flooding has not ever been severe enough to change that topography in over 100 years!!