45 Minutes, Yet a World Away – The History and Natural Beauty That is Fishers Island
Profile by Carolyn Battista
Photography by Vincent Scarano
Walking along the Fishers Island shore, we saw the natural tidal wrack lines of washed-up eel grass and kelp. Heading inland, we spotted big signs about invaders, like the awful black swallow wort. We—photographer and writer—were here to look around and learn a bit about this quiet, mostly private little island.
We focused especially on the history of the island and on the work to protect its land and wildlife, today and forever. The U.S. Army once operated Fort H. G. Wright here to deal with our nation’s enemies. Now the Fishers Island Conservancy works here to vanquish environmental “enemies”—black swallow wort and other invasive plants – and to replace them with native species. The Conservancy, which has long looked after island land and waters, hopes that islanders will get behind the effort and that others can learn from it.
The island, about a mile wide and nine miles long, is a “hamlet” of Southold, New York, although it’s much closer to Connecticut. In summer, its population is a few thousand; the yacht clubs and golf course are busy. Off-season, the population is about 230. The island’s long “east end” is a gated neighborhood; the “west end” has a small village area, tree-lined streets, the ferry dock, a museum, a few year-round businesses, and a few more seasonal ones. There are churches, a health center, a volunteer fire department, and the school, pre-K-grade 12, where about half the 70-some students come from the mainland. (Commuting kids on the ferry said they love the school. “I’m intellectually challenged,” one said, noting science programs. “I know everyone’s name,” another said).
Besides students, the 45-minute ride from New London carries people who live, vacation, or work on the island. It docks shortly after passing by Race Rock Light, a beacon since 1879 on the treacherous waters off the far western end of the island. We were met at the dock by Justine Kibbe, naturalist for the Fishers Island Conservancy. She and Pierce Rafferty, director of the Henry L. Ferguson Museum, would be our excellent guides.
Growing up, Justine spent summers on the island, enjoying long, free days of swimming, biking, fishing, exploring. After spending some 25 years away, including time in Alaska and on the remote Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, she returned in 2011 to live here. She figured the Pribilofs prepared her for year-round island life, not just nice summers. During stark winters the wind blows, and lights across the water seem distant. But, she said, “There’s a community here,” and she’s part of it.
The Conservancy works to preserve and protect the island’s natural environment, to advocate for it, and to educate people. In her job, Justine monitors ecosystems, looks for trends over time, and records what she finds. She digs into the island’s traditional knowledge, posts island photos and field notes, and shares her experiences. She wants islanders to know and savor what’s there.
On our walk, she talked about the rich eel grass meadows within Long Island and Fishers Island sounds. Having documented a rise in recreational fishing vessels, she wants people to be aware that keeping abundant fish populations means not damaging eel grass.
She also works with kids. “Leave your phones at home!” she tells them. “This is life.” In her Sentinel program, she mentors future stewards of the environment. “They help me monitor,” she said. On what she calls the “Sanctuary of Sands,” she and the kids “circle up, sit still, observe, and feel privileged to be guests of this natural world.”
We met Pierce Rafferty at the museum, which has galleries on the island’s pre-history, history, and natural environment and holds the island’s only land trust. On a quick tour, we viewed the exhibit Photographs of Fishers Island, Part One, 1880’s-1930’s, showing wonderful scenes of island life.
Pierce gave a lively capsule history, starting in the 1640’s when the island was first settled by John Winthrop, Jr. The Winthrops would own it for more than 200 years, most of that time being absentee landlords to tenant farmers. The museum has an original 1734 lease that spells out tenant obligations, like always keeping “one chamber in the best house” for the special use of any visiting Winthrop.
Robert R. Fox bought the island in 1863 and worked to improve its farms. After his sudden death in 1871, speculative proposals for its next use bubbled up. The New York state legislature considered buying the island and moving Sing Sing prison from Ossining to this “better” location.
By the early 1880’s, a little town had developed. Tourism flourished. There was hotel-building, and big steamers brought big crowds. Folks envisioned a “Coney Island of the East.” But In 1889 Edmund and Walton Ferguson—brothers who were successful bankers and businessmen—bought 9/10ths of the island. They put in infrastructure and soon began to develop a more genteel, family-oriented seasonal resort. They bought out existing hotels, banished the steamers, and kept going. They expanded especially the Mansion House hotel (now gone) and built a “cottage colony” around it.
By the 1920’s a new Ferguson generation was putting a Seth Raynor golf course on the east end, where they planned an elite private residential colony of 300-400 homes. “Then comes 1929,” Pierce said. “The crash defines Fishers Island, in that the east end stayed relatively undeveloped.
Island enterprises came and went. Over time clay pits and brick-making, poultry farms, and “the Boroleum factory,” where Boroleum ointment was tubed, all closed. (The museum has the tubing machine in its collections.) Fishing and lobstering are not what they were; Fishers Island oysters are the island’s only export. A small U.S. Navy facility remains on the island. Fort Wright, established in 1900, was a bustling operation through World War II. Today its old parade grounds are among the sites where the Conservancy battles invasives.
Driving us around, Pierce stopped to chat with a road worker who had a gift for him–a rusted old horseshoe that he’d found. An artifact for the museum! A guy in a truck waved. He was Steve Malinowski, owner of Fishers Island Oyster Farm, who asked, did Pierce want to help with tarps? Steve and other volunteers were laying tarps over a section of porcelainberry, an especially invasive plant.
Later, I talked with Dr. Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware, who’s aiding the Conservancy’s work to stamp out invasives and replace them with native plants. “Invasives are ecological disasters! They wipe out other plants,” he said. “Other non-native species are also unsatisfactory,” he added, “because they don’t support enough of the insects that birds in the area eat.”
Dr. Tallamy said that remove-and-replace strategies are “effective only if everybody gets on board.” He urges property owners to take care, weed out invasives, and use attractive native alternatives to plants that may look and smell nice, but can harm the life around them. On this island, there’s less chance that alien invaders will just come back and more chance that a dedicated community can make the project succeed.
I also talked with Tom Sargent, president of the Conservancy, who has high hopes. “It’s important that we restore the balance of nature,” he said. “This can be an educational template, not just for Fishers Island.”