Published November 06. 2015 3:04PM
By Steve Fagin
At nearby Haley Farm, the walking paths that meander through rolling meadows and dense woodlands, as well as past stone walls and secluded ponds, could very well have been paved over as condominiums and a housing subdivision.
And across the sound, the Fishers Island panorama could have been marred by a state prison housing inmates moved from New York’s notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Over the years and throughout the region plans for these and similar manmade intrusions have been proposed, considered and fortunately scuttled by various forces: hurricanes, the actions of dedicated environmental advocates, changing economic conditions, and sometimes simply dumb luck.
When savoring the serenity of pristine areas I often think of how close we’ve come to losing them to a malignant sprawl that has spread over so much of the land.
I had an opportunity to reflect on this phenomenon earlier this week when I visited Fishers Island to speak to students about two of my favorite topics: the great outdoors and writing.
I’d been invited by Bernard “Bing” Bartick of North Stonington, a retired teacher and fellow outdoors enthusiast who coordinates an enrichment program at Fishers Island School. I’ve known Bing for years, having given talks about my mountaineering adventures to his former classes in Groton and at the Wheeler Library in North Stonington, where he serves on the Friends of the Library board.
Bing also lived on and taught at Fishers Island for three years, and proved the perfect host and tour guide for our daylong excursion. By the way, this was my second visit in as many weeks to the New York island that lies less than three miles off the Connecticut coast; readers may recall that last week I wrote about circumnavigating Fishers by kayak with my son.
This was a decidedly more cerebral outing. The Fishers Island School students were terrific – bright, attentive, intellectually curious, well-behaved and insightful enough to laugh at my corny jokes – and after presentations to two classes there was just enough time before the return trip to New London by ferry for a visit to The Henry L. Ferguson Museum.
This handsome institution is an eclectic treasure trove of exhibits that highlight the island’s pre-history, history and natural history, as well as underscore a mission to preserve undeveloped property and protect habitat for flora and fauna. (Visitors should call first during this off-season to check the hours: (631) 788-7239.).
Founded in 1960 and named in honor of a man who devoted his life to the civic and business affairs of Fishers Island, the museum contains not just wonderful dioramas, collections of sea shells and mounted birds, but also fascinating documents and displays tracing the island’s history dating back to the earliest inhabitants some 8,000 years ago, its discovery by Dutch fur trader Adriaen Block in 1614, and first settlement in the 1640s by John Winthrop, Jr., the son of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Though most people today think of Fishers Island solely as a private enclave for generations of Rockefellers, Roosevelts, DuPonts, Whitneys and other aristocratic families, it also includes a working-class community in the western end that values the elegant simplicity of island life just as zealously as the tycoons who populate the private land to the east.
Fishers had in the past been developed extensively for agriculture as well as a tourist hub that came perilously close to becoming another Coney Island or Block Island, Pierce Rafferty, the museum’s director told me.
Robert R. Fox, a merchant who bought the island for $55,000 from the last of the Winthrop descendants in 1863, raised cattle and sheep there until his death in 1871. Soon afterward, various plans unfolded, including a proposal by the New York General Assembly to move Sing Sing from Ossining to Fishers. Lawmakers quickly came to their senses and abandoned that idea.
Eventually, the western third of the island was sold off into separate lots and various developers envisioned elaborate projects designed to attract tourists – but their proposals collapsed with the 1929 crash of the stock market and start of The Great Depression, Rafferty explained.
Today, the eastern end of Fishers remains private, graced by exquisite waterfront mansions, white-sand beaches and an exclusive country club. Residents there guard their privacy and strenuously oppose further development.
“They’re quite protective of the land,” Rafferty said. The bulk of all unsold property is held by the Fishers Island Development Company, “which really is an anti-development company,” he added. “Residents are pretty much on board with keeping Fishers Island unspoiled and really private. There is a desire not to make it a ‘destination,’ but just to keep it quiet, private and safe.”
Some people may bristle over the notion of preserving nature for the enjoyment of the privileged classes, but I’m not going to weigh in here on this issue.
People are entitled to privacy, yet would osprey, terns and other wildlife be better off if private property at the eastern end of Fishers were open to the public? What’s more important: providing public access or protecting nature? Are those choices mutually exclusive?
I’ll leave that for the sociologists to decide.
In the mean time I’m happy Fishers Island isn’t a penal colony, crowded resort or suburban community with shopping malls, fast-food restaurants and factory outlets. There are no shortage of destinations containing these features.
One last word to the students at Fishers Island School, about evenly divided among year-round residents and those who commute daily via ferry from various towns in southeastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island: Good luck, kids. Enjoy the wonderful natural and learning environments.
You’re off to a great start.
FishersIsland.net Editor’s Note:
Pierce Rafferty sent in the following clarifications about historical details that were cited in Mr. Fagin’s article: “The Crash of 1929 did not stop tourism and Coney Island type development on Fishers Island. The Crash halted the private development at the east end—the “Olmsted Plan”—and kept it from being fuIly developed. Instead of the intended 400-plus houses at the private east end, there are still only about half that number today. Tourism was stopped in the 1890s by the new primary owners, the Fergusons, not by the Crash of 1929.”