“Save Cockenoe Now”: Still Relevant, 50 Years On

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of some significant events.

1967 was the Summer of Love. Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War. “Race riots” consumed Detroit, Newark and other cities.

Meanwhile, here in Westport, we debated whether building a 14-story nuclear power plant a mile off Compo Beach was a good idea.

The story is remembered by many — and unknown to many more. It starts with United Illuminating, the statewide utility that in 1965 secretly bought Cockenoe Island, a popular spot for boaters and fishermen.

Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.

Another key player was Jo Fox Brosious, editor of the fledgling Westport News. She crusaded tirelessly against the idea.

It was not easy. Although plenty of Westporters opposed the plan, the more established Town Crier was all-in. What a boon for the tax base, the paper said.

Brosious helped rally a coalition of common citizens, conservationists, fishermen, attorneys, Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Lowell Weicker, and Congressman Stewart McKinney.

Local artists Walter and Naiad Einsel created a memorable (and very 1967-ish) poster with the group’s rallying cry:

Under pressure — with national coverage in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, and thanks to the threat of a bill in the Connecticut legislature that would curb eminent domain requests of power companies — UI agreed to sell Cockenoe.

To the town of Westport.

The deal was struck in 1967. The purchase price was $200,000. When the contract finally closed 2 years later, the Westport News headline read: “Cockenoe Island Safe in Sound.”

Memorabilia saved by Jo Fox 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.

That’s the bare-bones, SparkNotes version. You can read more by clicking here.

Or — this being 2017 (not 1967) — you can watch a YouTube video about it.

The 9-minute mini-documentary comes courtesy of Julianna Shmaruk. A Staples High School sophomore, she created it for a National History Day competition.

The contest theme was “Taking a Stand” — which is exactly what Westporters did.

Julianna tracked down old newspaper clippings. She interviewed 91-year-old Joe Schachter (a boater involved in the battle), and got vintage home movie footage from Ed Stalling (a then 11-year-old who wrote a postcard decrying the sale).

Julianna’s video offers vivid evidence that — as Stalling says — “the people can win.” And that newspapers can rally public opinion.

Those lessons are just as important today as they were half a century ago.

To see Julianna’s video, click below:

18 responses to ““Save Cockenoe Now”: Still Relevant, 50 Years On

  1. Great story. And great film Julianna! I enjoyed it immensely. One sidenote that not too many people realize: The actual nuclear plant that was planned for our Cockenoe was the exact same model as what was built at Fukushima, Japan. There but for the Grace of G-d and Jo Fox et al go us! By the way, Children have only now been allowed to return there. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/world/asia/japan-fukushima-nuclear-disaster-children.amp.html

    So Thank You indeed to the folks of the Fighting Save Cockenoe Now group!

  2. “A boon to the tax base” remains a popular argument for development. Although it’s certainly not without merit, the tale of what very nearly happened just off our beach in 1967 nicely demonstrates what can possibly occur if that argument is used by itself.

  3. Dan. Many thanks for posting this and I have great memories of the fight to save the Keeney as my father ed Kahn was involved as the soon to be a moderator of the RTM my memory which may be slightly off is my father spearheading a movement with Jo a referendum at the RTM and I remember him talking to me about how difficult how the referendum was because they had to convince members to vote no and he told me how voting no went counter to what people naturally voted for and I remember him being on the phone a lot and the motto just vote no was something that he had on the tip of his tongue or in fact was a campaign slogan so I thought I would add his participation to the story and the just say no motto alarm because it was such of it hold such a memory in my mind. Thank you for all of your posts. If I can ever help please let me know. Karen kahn.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Dan,
    If I remember correctly, the family that originally owned Cockenoe Island offered to sell the island to the Town of Westport a year or so earlier, but the Town balked at the price. Finally after the island was sold to the utility and the plan for a “Nuke” was made public, reality set in and the island was purchased at a MUCH higher price than originally offered! Very glad that we do own Cockenoe today not only for our generation of “Westporters” but for our children and grandchildren when they visit Westport!

  5. Thanks, Dan. Great video, Julianna!

  6. Great story. That was one of the two greatest purchases made by the Town of Westport (the other being Longshore) thank God for forward thinking people.

  7. One of the claims that United Illuminating made was that the water at Compo Beach would be warmer. How nice – swimming in nuclear water!

    The video was good but the background music was distracting. Why do people think music is necessary?

    • I forgot all about that claim, but clearly remember people making that argument. Hard to believe, and scary that people were actually sold by such propaganda.

  8. Peter Gambaccini

    Deserved credit to Jo, who gave me my start in journalism not once, not twice, but three times. It’s hard to believe the “Town Crier” could have been as shortsighted and wrongheaded as it was on Cockenoe. By itself, this one issue surely did much to hasten the paper’s demise and give “The Westport News” its solid success.

  9. Fabulous video. Was surprised to get Julianna’s initial message “hi I’m a sophomore at Staples high school, are you the one who wrote a letter 45 years ago…” So refreshing to know such talent and spark still exists at Staples, found her passion for telling this story inspiring. How strange to be so much older now, looking back at how the actions of so many people made our world a better place. I try and get out to the island when I visit my hometown, it’s a special place. I’m looking forward to taking my granddaughters out there someday. Nice job Julianna!

  10. Wendy Crowther

    Congratulations, Julianna. Your video is excellent. Thank you for reminding Westporters that “taking a stand,” even at local level, can accomplish great things.

  11. My favorite thing about that time, besides saving cockeno, was the April first issue of inklings, titled Finklings!
    The headline was
    “Cockeno sinks!”, above a picture of open water.
    So clever!

  12. Lisa Marie Alter

    Thank you for the wonderful story Dan, & well-researched video Julianna, and I offer a special dose of gratitude to ALL those who had the foresight and fortitude to “Save Cockenoe Island”…I know I would NOT be living in Westport now if UI had been allowed to build that nuclear plant. For all we know, Westport may have been rendered a radioactive wasteland, had there been a meltdown in the ensuing 50 years.

    I do feel the David & Goliath aspect of this story is particularly timely in this era of opposition against Trump’s agenda —

    At the risk of distracting from your story, Dan – and for those who have either been hibernating, or have turned off the news – I have posted a summary of the past week’s events of the current “Administration,” in the Comments section of Dan’s story “Raising Children in Trump’s America.”

    Those who – like me – take issue with any or all these events might want to consider this similar tale: the small group who opposed Cockenoe was able to overcome the odds of battling a larger and more well-equipped opponent, for something we all can appreciate 50 years later.

    I encourage you to contact our Members of Congress to express your concerns.

    Sincerely,
    Lisa Marie Alter

  13. Cockenoe is one of my favorite places since childhood. Awesome video and pick for a high school project. Westport could’ve been so different!

  14. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Amazing in retrospect (and I was there) that UI was able to get as far along with their plan as they did. Joni Mitchell said it all.

  15. Proud of you Julianna! You did such an incredible job for our class!

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