The Thimble Islands are a cluster of rocky outcroppings on the Connecticut coast reminiscent of a scene in Maine, complete with a quaint New England village. Ask a visiting cruiser for their favorite destination on Long Island Sound and many times the answer is the Thimble Islands, because of the beautiful scenery and the friendly nearby village of Stony Creek.
Depending on the height of the tide and your definition of an island, there are anywhere from 100 to 300 islets within three miles of Stony Creek, which is located between the towns of Branford and Guilford, Conn. These pink granite islands range in size from less than a half-acre to 12 acres, with around 23 of them inhabited. Locals attribute the name of the chain to the thimbleberry, a relative of the black raspberry said to be previously found here.
Like an antique thimble collection jutting up from the water, the islands are different in appearance. Some are bare granite, while others are thickly wooded, and still others are elaborately trimmed with houses, gazebos and docks. Houses range from small, rustic cottages to gingerbread Victorians and even a Tudor-style mansion. Many of the islands have city water piped from the mainland, though only a handful have electricity, and there are no automobiles. All but one is privately owned, and there are no hotels or public lodging.
Dutch explorer Adrian Block discovered the Thimble Islands in 1614. American Indians inhabited and fished the islands and aptly called them Kuttom-quosh, or “beautiful sea rocks.” The islands were used for sheep grazing, boatbuilding, granite quarrying and by the late 1800s were a popular summer destination for city folks. A number of the islands have passed through families for generations and some have been purchased by the rich and famous.
In 1976, party goods magnate John Svenningsen purchased West Crib Island. After his death in 1997, his widow, Christine, purchased Wheeler Island in 1998, followed by Rogers, Phelps, Jepson, and Cut-in-Two East in 2003; Reel in 2004; Cut-In-Two West in 2005; Beldens in 2006; and East Crib in 2007 — at a total cost of more than $36 million. She is currently renovating the properties, rather than turning them into new developments. Celebrities who own island homes include Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and his wife, newscaster Jane Pauley.
Today, the islands continue to be a wonderful summer escape for relaxing at anchor off the main entrance channel, sightseeing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and bird watching. There are a large variety of birds to see, and migrating harbor seals can be sighted in the winter months.
A boat ride to local lore
In addition to their beauty, the Thimble Islands are rich in history and local legends. One of the best ways to learn about the past and see the islands up close is to take a narrated boat tour. The tours respect the privacy of the islanders, and guides refrain from telling where celebrities reside, focusing instead on the history and stories passed down through generations.
The Volsunga IV, with Capt. Bob Milne, is a 40-footer with a covered deck and can accommodate up to 48 passengers (www.thimbleislands.com). Capt. Bob is a Stony Creek native and has been providing tours since 1987. His local knowledge of the waters allows him to provide an intimate view of the islands without the worry of encountering one of the rocks that are hidden at high tide. The 45-minute tour is both informative and amusing, as Capt. Bob weaves his stories while he winds through the islands at 4 knots.
Another tour option is the 44-foot Sea Mist with Capt. Mike Infantino, who’s also a Stony Creek native (www.thimbleislandcruise.com). Regardless of whom you sail with, here are some of the enchanting tidbits you might pick up on a boat tour:
The rocky composition of the islands was useful in industry. Shipbuilding was popular on West and East Crib islands for many years, and natural rock formations in the shape of boats and known as “cribs” were used to frame and launch vessels. Rodger’s Island was previously known as Granite Island and, along with Bear Island, it was used as a quarry in the late 1800s. The famous pink granite from the island quarries and the shoreside Stony Creek operation were used for the base of the Statue of Liberty, New York’s Brooklyn and George Washington bridges, Grand Central Station and many other important buildings and landmarks. And the Stony Creek quarry is still in operation after more than 150 years.
Houses on the islands come in many shapes and sizes. In the early 1900s a 3-1/2-story, 27-room English Tudor was built on Rodger’s Island. The home and extensive gardens have been restored to their early splendor. Money Island is the most populated, with approximately 30 homes on 12 acres. In the late 1800s, it was a self-sufficient summer community. Today, the village buildings have been converted to private homes.