This Way to Pleasure Beach

Eighteen years after the burned bridge cut off access, Pleasure Beach has been reopened. I didn’t manage to go out there via the water taxis that ran during the summer but a Veterans Day expedition confirmed that the pavilion has been renovated, the boardwalk repaired, and amenities such as picnic tables and trash cans provided.

Pavilion at Pleasure Beach, 2014.

I confess I’ve expressed some cynicism on the subject but I suppose nearly two decades is still a short wait to the people who run the DMV. Though everything was locked up for the season, the lights were on and we even met a park ranger — the first time I’ve ever encountered someone out there. “It’s a long walk from Stratford,” he said. Yes, but still easier than loading two kids and a dog on a paddleboard.

The beach is pristine, the sand much softer and cleaner than Fairfield’s. There’s talk of building ball fields and visitors are free to bring their bikes over and ride the old cracked roads. It’s so nice you can almost forget you’re in Bridgeport.

Fugitive Slave Settlements Discovered

An amazing story of shoe-leather archaeology deep in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina:

Buried in the earth are what are believed to be remnants of one or more communities of escaped slaves, known as maroons, who built homes and carved out lives where their freedom depended on secrecy. Researchers now think settlements may have existed there on and off for hundreds of years; their occupants relying on the swamp’s forbidding conditions to give safe haven from those who wanted to return them to chains.

Historical archaeologist Dan Sayers spent years researching documents and talking to residents but his big break came when he reinvented his approach toward interviews:

Locals were stumped when he inquired about hills in the flat swampland.

His luck changed, Sayers said, when he figured out how to phrase the right questions.

In February 2004, he asked refuge forester Bryan Poovey about islands.

“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll take you out to one,’ ” Sayers said.

Very often, how you structure your questions determines the answers you’ll receive.

Onward to Pleasure Beach

A consultant group has revealed a plan for the future of Pleasure Beach:

The plan calls for the construction of food kiosks, public restrooms, sporting fields, a playground, adult fitness equipment, pavilions, walking paths and educational programming on the city-owned property that once was the site of an amusement park.

“You don’t have to do much to make Pleasure Beach a place people will want to go,” said Sorge, a principal of the Hamden-based company hired by the city to map out a plan for the peninsula’s revival.

But, of course, the city must make it accessible. Officials have pledged to reopen the summertime oasis to the public by the end of 2012.

This is Bridgeport so I’ll believe it when I see it.

To be fair, the Finch administration has made more steps toward reopening access than anybody since the bridge burned in 1996. This summer the city replaced the decrepit bridge footing on the mainland side with a sparkly fishing and recreational pier, seen above. Only took them a decade and a half!

The article also says the permitting has been completed to install a floating dock at the base of the pier from which the water taxi will operate. The pier features a cordoned queue on its right-hand side; presumably this will be the entry and exit to a gangway and the floating dock below.

Kelo

This is the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, Connecticut almost six years after the Supreme Court decided money talks and personal property is bullshit. The “municipal development plan” by the New London Development Corporation, the private developer behind the debacle, promised a 250-room hotel, up to 80 condominiums, 450,000 square feet of office space, and a national Coast Guard museum. But in the year 2011, the NLDC is bankrupt, Pfizer has moved across the river to Groton, and the city of New London doesn’t even own this land.

The area, originally known as Mamacock, was a peninsular pile of rocks in the Thames River just south of New London until the American Revolution. New London was then Connecticut’s most important harbor, deep water sheltered three miles upriver from Long Island Sound. It was also the state’s privateering capital. To protect it, Governor Jonathan Trumbull and his Council of Safety ordered a fort to be built on Mamacock overlooking the harbor. Together, Fort Trumbull and another fort on the opposite bank in Groton, called Fort Griswold, maintained a protective screen across the harbor. Records show several examples of American vessels, hotly pursued by British warships, saved by the aegis of the forts’ cannons. The reality was more bark than bite since both forts were undergunned and undermanned, but the British didn’t know that. In September 1781, Benedict Arnold (originally from Norwich, just upriver from New London) burned the town by landing forces on both sides of the river’s mouth, marching north, and capturing the forts from behind.

Fort Trumbull was nothing more than an earthworks and stockade during the Revolution but later, during the 19th century, it was developed into a stone-walled citadel. Today the complex is a state park with gorgeous views overlooking the river.

The homes outside the park were routinely labeled a “working-class neighborhood” by media during the Kelo v. New London court battle, “working class” being shorthand for “pre-gentrified” or “non-McMansiony.” It’s not a wrong assessment but all of New London could fall under that description. New London is actually one of my favorite towns in Connecticut. Unlike a lot of coastal municipalities in this state, the city actually feels like a New England seaport, full of crying seagulls and hilly streets and Federal-style houses, some well-kept and others that could be great again. New London has been bleeding population since 1960, making it feel big and empty (I never have a problem finding a parking space), but with a shabby bohemian atmosphere of murals and galleries and food co-ops and vintage-clothing stores holding it together. I could spend days snapping photos there, and if I were younger and didn’t have to worry about jobs or my sons’ schools, I might even move there.

But the citizens of New London do have to worry about jobs and schools, which is why it’s so unfortunate they couldn’t be better served by their government. Never mentioned in any of the media coverage of the court battle was how derelict the downtown area is. Walking along Bank and State Streets, I estimate that one-third to one-quarter of the storefronts are empty and available for lease. It’s been that way for years. Most of the businesses are bars, catering I suppose to the students of the Coast Guard Academy, Connecticut College, and the handful of other colleges in town (I’ve never been in downtown New London on a Friday night, but I always imagine fistfights in the street and sailors flying through plate-glass windows). But instead of redeveloping the downtown with a hotel or condo units or office space — all of which there’s plenty of room for — the NLDC and the city government tarred Fort Trumbull — that’s what? a half-mile away? — as a blighted ghetto and destroyed a functioning residential neighborhood.

Which is now just fields of weeds and rocks. The city doesn’t even own the weeds and rocks. The NLDC was supposed to turn over the titles to the city once the demolition was complete but they never did; and the city is reluctant to pursue action because then they would have to mow the weeds and be responsible if someone fell off the rocks. I suppose theoretically the NLDC pays property taxes on the lots — but since they’re bankrupt, that money is just hash marks on paper. Eminent domain is touted as being for the public good. But in New London, the public paid taxes so the government could steal their own land which they didn’t even get.

Today the only residents of Fort Trumbull are a clowder of stray cats. Somebody built a little scrap shelter for them on a rocky mound. There’s a water dish and I met some moms and kids who had come to feed them. The cats of New London are better off than the people.

Lost States

Santa left a copy of Michael J. Trinklein’s Lost States under the tree this year, a book I’ve been wanting to crack for months. I recommend it if you too are fascinated by lost or forgotten geography — with the caveat that Lost States is more of a compilation of cartography paired with Wikipedia entries than a serious history book.

The full title and subhead of the book is Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. Here’s my true story: between 2005 and 2007, I shopped a book idea entitled The Lost States of America. My high-concept tagline was, “Everybody knows there are fifty states. But what about the ones that didn’t make it?”

I eventually abandoned the project, even though I wrote the first chapter (18,000 words!), due to lack of interest from agents or publishers and a growing realization that my energies were better spent elsewhere. Along the way I accumulated a number of rejection letters, including my favorite from an agent who wrote a long reply about how he wanted to write a history of a lost-state endeavor near where he lived. He declined to represent my book, therefore, lest it interfere with his. I chuckle just thinking about that letter. Of course, if he had wanted to write his book so badly, he would have done so already. But he hasn’t and he never will. I prize that rejection as the quintessential example of everything that’s wrong with big-name book publishing. Trinklein, an Emmy-nominated PBS producer, self-published the original version of Lost States. It seems publishers were just as deaf to him as they were to me.

My concept differed from Trinklein’s in that I planned to write a textual history book about ten different lost states (eight of which Trinklein includes). Trinklein opted for a more graphic presentation. Each of the 74 entries features a full-page chart crafted to resemble a map from the relevant time period — nicely done. A 300-word description faces it. And yet while Trinklein writes in a breezy style that is sometimes fun, sometimes flippant, his renditions are sometimes at history’ s expense.

Take Franklin, for instance. Trinklein cites Samuel Cole Williams’s History of the Lost State of Franklin as the source for his entry, a reference I also read while researching my 2004 Reason piece on Franklin. Trinklein disparages the whole idea of Franklin, even going so far as to assert that Benjamin Franklin, for whom the endeavor was named, was hostile to it. Not so; the Philadelphian was politely noncommittal. Trinklein also says that North Carolina troops crushed the Franklin movement militarily. Again, not true: Indian attacks in what is today western Tennessee caused North Carolina to walk away from the Franklin issue, eventually leading to the creation of the Volunteer State in its place. I caught several other errors throughout the book and the customer reviews over at Amazon list a bunch more.

Trinklein is also hindered by his lack of focus. The words “George W. Bush,” “Iraq,” and “quagmire” pop up a lot — even though the copyright on the book is 2010. He reminds me of my grad-school professors who, as late as the early 21st century, would spin themselves into a tizzy over Ronald Reagan and Grenada. A couple of entries (New Connecticut, Nickajack) go off on silly tangents, something a writer can’t afford when he’s jotting in eight-graf blurbs.

Like Wikipedia, the scholarship of Trinklein’s hardbound gazetteer is dodgy but it’s a good place to begin an inquiry. Enjoy the maps and follow the bibliography to more factual accounts of events.

Writing professionally, I believe, is like being a drunken lighthouse keeper: it’s lonely; and for every dozen vessels safely shepherded to their destination, you have a spectacular shipwreck on the rocks. Years ago, my reaction to Lost States would have been jealousy. Experience has taught me since that whatever enemies a writer may have, other authors aren’t among them. I may resurrect my old book idea, although with a focus on a single lost state and told through a biographical narrative, when I finish my current project. But more on that later.

Lost in Plain Sight

Recently I attended a biannual meeting of The Association for the Study of Connecticut History where I heard Marta Daniels speak about her co-discovery of the first tract of land owned by Venture Smith. Smith, if you’ve never heard of him, was an 18th-century African slave who, through sheer acumen and industry, died in 1805 a free and wealthy Connecticut landowner. His autobiography is the only existing testimony in which the narrator describes his childhood in Africa, his subsequent capture and servitude in America, and his life as a free man. He’s becoming something of a folk hero here in Connecticut, as he should be.

Daniels, an antiquarian, described how she and hydrographer Nancy Byrne pinpointed Smith’s original land in Stonington. The general area of the tract was known but previous researchers had made several critical errors in interpreting Smith’s deed, leading to the wrong piece of land being attributed to him. What stumped historians was that the deed clearly noted the parcel’s four corners were marked by rocks with certain initials carved into them — but no one could find the rocks. By returning to the original deed and using GIS, Daniels and Byrne were able to correctly identify the shape and location of the parcel. The women then plunged into the muggy, mosquito-choked forest to test their theory, and sure enough, located the markers. The revealed parcel further demonstrates Smith’s business sense. As a rocky hillside, the 26 acres were probably perceived as junk land by whites, but for Smith, who made his money lumbering and trading, they were a trove, thickly wooded and providing access to the Sound. He sold the land four years later at a profit.

Daniels gave a longer version of the same presentation on C-SPAN.