Protect Ya Neck
Look, man, I tried visiting this place. At least three times! But I never got to it when it was open – and I suppose there’s a chance it will open again in the future. I have no idea. Regardless, I’m fairly confident I have an idea of what the Rocky Neck Nature Center was like.
Because I’m sure it was exactly like the dozen or so other Long Island Sound Nature Centers I’ve been to. (And again, technically speaking I have been to this one. In 2016 I went right up to the door to find it closed. I peered in the windows. I took it all in from the outside. Good enough for me – and good enough for you.
That 2016 trip took me and my sons to Baker’s Cave. It was on that trip that I learned the center was only open Thursday-Sunday back then. I have no idea when it shuttered for good, but probably during the pandemic. It was a very small nature center at only one room.
And fortunately WikiCommons actually has a few pictures from that one room.
Taxidermized raptors! Local mammalian skulls! Found Native American tools and stones! A map of Connecticut!
Local turtles and snakes and probably some frogs. Maybe a hermit crab or two!
I’m sure there was some information on what a salt marsh is and how it’s an important ecosystem to preserve. But there’s more here than just marshland and a beach. The 710 acres of Rocky Neck State Park encompass land that, in the 19th century, supported a stone quarry and in the early 20th-century, the Niantic Menhaden Oil and Guano Company occupied much of the property. The fish (menhaden are fish if you didn’t know) would be unloaded from large ships at the pier, then travel up an inclined tramway to the mill. Once the fish oil had been steamed out, the remains of the fish would be dried for fertilizer. The operation ran around the clock, from May to November, and the resulting odor could be smelled as far away as Flanders (which is a section of eastern East Lyme that really isn’t all that far away, especially with an onshore breeze, but pointing that out would be lame on my part). An article in the New London Day, published on February 1, 1930 stated: “In years past the malodors of this establishment have nauseated shore dwellers and, failing relief by legal means, the works have twice been set on fire.”
That’s the stuff right there.
After the stinky company went bankrupt, a local developer named Charles Brockett operated a campground on the property for several years. The Connecticut General Assembly first considered purchasing the land in 1929, but the effort was blocked by supporters of another coastal property in Groton (now Bluff Point State Park). Ten men, including members of the State Park and Forest Commission, were so determined that the property be set aside for the enjoyment of the public that they risked their own money to hold the property until the Assembly voted to approve the purchase in 1931.
Work soon began on the public buildings of the new campground and beach. Beginning in 1934, with federal money and manpower from Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, and a ten percent contribution from the state, the Ellie Mitchell Pavilion was constructed overlooking Long Island Sound. Nearly all of the materials for the pavilion came from state owned lands. Stones were used from the Niantic Menhaden building, from stone walls on the property, and from local quarries. The flagstones used to pave the walks and terrace of the pavilion came from Devil’s Hopyard State Park in East Haddam. Each of the state’s parks and forests in existence at the time supplied a tree for the interior wooden pillars.
The Rocky Neck area has been known for generations for its abundance of wildlife. Bride Brook meanders through the wide salt marsh on the eastern side, attracting osprey and fish hawks in the spring, and snowy egrets, herons and migratory birds in the fall. On the western side, Four Mile River flows to Long Island Sound.
And all of that – the beach, the marsh, the stones, the pavilion, the river… all of that will remain longer than this website. But the little one-room nature center? ‘Tis no more.
Much of the text is from the East Lyme Historical Society and the pictures are from WikiCommons.