There are many ways to get from Westport to Cockenoe Island.
You can sail. You can paddle. You can JetSki.
Or — if you are particularly adventurous — you can walk.
Alert — and creative — “06880” reader Jeff Manchester reports:
“With a super low tide at 8:09 this morning, some intrepid souls took their soles and walked from Saugatuck Island to Cockenoe Island.
From left: Jeff Manchester, Eric Sugerman, 9th graders Jake Coykendall and Tucker Peters, and 8th grader Max Manchester, with their “support vehicle”: a mega-kayak.
“It was a brisk morning in the high 40’s when we started, and only in the 50’s when we returned. However, the water was warmer than the air, so it made for a much more enjoyable journey.
“This is a bucket list item for sure, when the tides and weather cooperate.
En route. (Photo/Mary Sugerman)
“And of course, we have the Einsels, Greens, Jo Fox Brosious and many more to thank for their herculean efforts, saving Cockenoe for future generations from an attempted nuclear power plant over 50 years ago.”
Indeed. Although if that Chernobyl-style structure had actually been built there, today’s water would be a lot warmer.
The first moon landing. Woodstock. Chappaquiddick. The Mets.
All year long, Americans have celebrated the 50th anniversary of historic evenets.
Locally, 1969 was an important year too. But most Westporters have forgotten a battle that — if lost — would have irrevocably changed this town.
Joe Schachter still remembers the fight to save Cockenoe Island from becoming the site of a nuclear power plant. (You read that right. Click here for full details.)
Joe — a member of the “Cockenoe 50th Commemorative” group, along with Betty Lou Cummings, Miggs Burroughs and Jo Fox Brosious (honorary) — writes:
1969 marked the end of a townwide, all-consuming effort to stop installation of an industrial-size nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island. The huge, 14-story complex — just a mile or so off Compo Beach — would have transformed our pristine view; stopped access to the island’s trails, beaches and boating anchorages, and forever altered this part of Long Island Sound.
A rendering of what might have been.
The 2-year “Save Cockenoe Island” battle “involved more residents in a local action than ever before– or since,” says Jo Fox Brosious, then-editor of the Westport News. Her leadership, editorials and articles led the battle.
Victory meant that families who might have considered leaving Westport if the nuclear plant had been built did not have to make that choice. Nor did thousands who moved to Westport since, but might not even have considered it, had the plant been erected.
That critical 1967-69 effort followed an earlier battle by Westporters that took place about 250 years ago, and also shaped today’s Westport. Note these parallels:
In 1777, Westport farmers rose up as “Minutemen” to battle British efforts to stop formation of the new republic that, centuries later, provides today’s envied way of life.
In 1967 Westport residents rose up again, to battle an ominous nuclear presence on Cockenoe — avoiding a specter that could have decimated our way of life.
The 1777 British troops who burned their way up to Danbury were engaged by Minutemen as they returned to their waiting ships, seen anchored from Compo Beach.
The 1967 Westporters stopped a potentially despoiled view from Compo Beach, and prevented loss of access to Cockenoe’s swimming, clamming and fishing grounds.
Today’s residents see reminders of our patriots’ 1777 battles as we pass the Minuteman Monument, or see a pair of cannons on South Beach — each commemorating an event about 250 years ago.
But our town has yet to officially recognize an existential episode of only 50 years ago by designating even one similar lasting object to commemorate this critical achievement.
Indeed, most Westporters under age 60 don’t have even one first-hand memory of an all-out battle that preserved the character of our precious community.
To prevent this clash from disappearing from the pages of our town’s history, members of the 1967-69 “Save Cockenoe Island” original leadership commemorated that battle every 10th anniversary year with events, press releases and boat parades, right through to the 40th in 2009.
2019 is its 50th commemorative year. Those remaining few who were part of that pivotal battle will not be around much longer to remind youngsters and newcomers how their predecessors protected this community for them.
Now we leave it to them to preserve the sparkle of this historic contribution to our town’s brilliantly shining light.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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