The Rebirth of Ocean Beach – 1938: Devastation – 2018: A Jewel
By Carolyn Battista / Photos by Vincent Scarano
There are lots of reasons why people love Ocean Beach Park in New London. There’s the half mile of “sugar sand”—lovely stuff along Long Island Sound, perfect for toe-wiggling, sandcastle building, and volleyball games. There’s swimming, in both the Sound and an Olympic pool. There are amusement rides, a boardwalk, a triple water slide, miniature golf, a kiddie spray park, a full service restaurant, snack bars, ice cream, a gift shop, a lively arcade, a peaceful nature trail, and numerous special events – classic car nights, magic shows, bands, fireworks, and more. Maybe most important, there’s a certain atmosphere. This is a low-key, family-oriented, come-on-in kind of place. “It’s old-school,” says Dave Sugrue, the park manager.
About half a million people visit each season. Dave and the staff are ready, even when 12,000 arrive on a hot summer Saturday. “We have room for everybody,” Dave says. “We’ll make them feel welcome.” Some visitors are local (as is Dave himself, who grew up nearby). Some just walk from home. Many come from around Connecticut and neighboring states. Others come from farther away; the annual polka festival in June has drawn enthusiasts from 26 states. Dave does recall meeting one unhappy visitor. She was most annoyed because she had to park in the “overflow” lot. Ignoring Dave’s apologies, she informed him that this, her first visit, would be her last. Soon he noticed her on the boardwalk, looking out at the Sound and using her phone to tell someone, somewhere, “I’ve just found my favorite place in the world!”
This year is the park’s 78th season and also the 80th anniversary of the terrible event that led to the park’s development—the 1938 hurricane. In late September that year, the storm roared over Long Island and into New England, bringing devastation. More than 700 people died, many more were injured; and buildings, docks, train tracks, trains, boats, and cars were smashed. The New London area was especially hard hit by wind, floods, and fires. At Ocean Beach, which had been a popular summer colony since the 1890’s, cottages, hotels, and businesses were destroyed.
But over the years Ocean Beach had become too popular. Originally quite genteel, by the 1930’s it seemed seedy, with run down, over crowded boarding houses, not enough parking, too many noisy establishments, and just too many people flocking in the hot summer to a place without room for them.
Somehow, as New Londoners looked over the ruins around them, they began to see possibilities: cleaning up the mess, clearing an area, and building a brand new, well designed, family oriented park, with more than a touch of class. They set right out to make it happen. “It was a gutsy move,” Dave says.
The New London newspaper, The Day, covered this at the time; and in June 2015, Day staffer, John Ruddy dug into the archives and brought readers a two-part summary of how the park that people enjoy today came about. The summary tells how, after city voters overwhelmingly approved the idea, things got going and kept going. There were assorted problems of course, including working out compensation for owners of properties that still stood after the storm but had to be cleared for the new plan. At one point there was a postcard protest from some disgruntled New Londoners. However, signatures on many cards turned out to be from citizens who were underground…in city cemeteries.
Planners of the new park admired Long Island’s Jones Beach. Favoring the architectural style called Art Moderne (an offshoot of Art Deco), they decided on park buildings with such features as rounded corners, horizontal lines, glass blocks, and nautical touches like portholes and ship railings. Construction began in December, 1939. There were setbacks along the way and some fast and furious work in the final weeks. But on June 30, 1940 the new Ocean Beach Park opened, with a 100 foot clock tower as its focal point. People came on in. The tower is gone now, but efforts are underway to replace it. People are still coming. “They get addicted,” Dave says cheerfully. Local people especially, come year round. When the season’s over, there’s still a beautiful park (with inside event facilities). People savor the scenery, stroll the boardwalk, beach, and nature trail, and take small kids to the playground.
The park requires a large seasonal staff, and many locals recall their summer jobs there. Michael Passero, mayor of New London says, “I was a lifeguard for many years at Ocean Beach Park and rose to the rank of Lifeguard Captain.” He also remembers some off-duty activity with his cohorts, like “secret nighttime climbs.” Dave says his best friend is a guy he met decades ago, when both were teen workers at the beach. This year the staff numbers 150; and “as usual,” Dave says,”no matter where they’re from, they come together.”
Local organizations pitch in to support the park. New London Beautification Committee members plant and tend the park’s planters and gardens, including the large one that boardwalk visitors admire. Over time they’ve added soaker hoses, a birdbath, and more. Tita Williams, who heads the committee says, “We’re New London residents who love our city and love gardening.” Members tend some 25 city sites, but they consider Ocean Beach special. “Sometimes,” Tita says, “they just turn around and take in the view.” (She adds that with so much to do, they could use more members).
The Save Ocean Beach group formed in 1995, when many worried about the park’s future. Since then the “SOBs,” as they’re pleased to be known, have undertaken many projects, including work on the nature trail and playground, a “Buy a Board” campaign to support boardwalk rebuilding, the installation of numerous benches, and the rehabilitation of lifeguard chairs. Tom Quintin, chairperson, says, “We’re trying to help the park as much as we can.” The SOBs want Ocean Beach to be enjoyed by everybody always.
Anna Lathrop, of the New London Rotary Club, says the club is raising “upwards of $500,000” for a new picnic pavilion to replace one lost to storm damage in 2012. That would bring back a structure that can shelter picnicking families and non-profit groups’ fundraisers and other events.
There’s now a welcome plan to replace the iconic Clock Tower. For almost 50 years families, friends, and romantic couples would simply say, “Meet me at the clock tower!” Kids who got lost would stand by the tower where their families could find them. But in 1988, the tower came crashing down as a team tried to lower it to work on it. “That was a sad day,” Dave says. He still treasures a clock hand he salvaged from the disaster.
“The missing tower is a gap in the smile of Ocean Beach,” says Clark van der Lyke, a former City Clerk. He and Jeff Suntup, a New London businessman are working to rally supporters, raise funds, and put up a fine new tower. “Make this happen,” Clark tells people. “Be part of New London history.”
It’s a history that includes the vision and hard work of New Londoners who trudged around wrecked structures 80 years ago, saw a fine new park, and made it happen.
For detailed info on Ocean Beach Park, including admission, attractions, facilities, and event schedules, see www.ocean-beach-park.com.