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The 9-11 Living Memorial at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut's Oldest State Park

Oftentimes while driving on Interstate 95 through southern Connecticut, I would always notice a sign near Exit 18 for the Connecticut 9-11 Memorial and think to myself that I should take the exit and stop in at the memorial. Unfortunately though I usually didn't have the time to do that as I was either on my way to someplace or coming back late from that place I'd just gone to. A trip planned to specifically see the memorial seemed to be in order so last week, on an unseasonably warm and beautiful January day, my friend Patti and I made the drive to the Greens Farms section of Westport where the memorial is located.

As it turns out, the memorial is located at Connecticut's oldest State Park - Sherwood Island State Park which covers just about 235 acres and provides a place for visitors to enjoy various outdoor sports, study nature, picnic, fly kites or model airplanes, stroll along the beach on Long Island Sound, or maybe just relax and soak up a little sun which a lot of people were doing the Saturday that we were there.

Technically located on a peninsula rather than an island, the park is bounded on the west by the Sherwood Mill Pond, on the east by New Creek, and on the south by the Long Island Sound.  The land where the park is located is separated from the mainland by several other creeks and ditches and because of that, access to the park is via the Sherwood Island Connector that intersects with Interstate 95 at Exit 18. Centuries ago another creek (Gallup’s Gap Creek) ran roughly down the middle with an island to its west (Fox Island) and marshland to its east but that was back in the days of the Bankside Farmers who originally settled the land.

Never heard of the Bankside Farmers? Well neither had I until recently! Turns out that long before Sherwood Island became a State Park, it wasn't even known as Sherwood Island! Nope, it was part of the area known as Machamux - "The Beautiful Land" - as named by the Pequots who owned that part of Connecticut in the first place. Not to get too caught up in the history of the land, the Town of Fairfield (about 6-1/2 miles northeast) was settled and incorporated at a place the Indians called Unquowa (meaning "go further") after the Pequot War ended in 1639. In the 1640s several colonists originally from Fairfield settled on the land east of the present park after following some of their errant cattle which had wandered westward from Fairfield's town center along the old Indian trails.

Liking what they saw, three of the farmers who had followed the cattle - Thomas Newton, Henry Gray and John Green - decided to move from Fairfield and settle in the remote area of Machamux where the cattle were found. They were soon followed by Daniel Frost and Francis Andrews and in 1648 the Bankside Farmers (the name "Bankside" was chosen to commemorate the original Bankside district located in London, England in which several of them had previously resided) were officially sanctioned by Fairfield to "sit down and inhabit at Machamux". The agreement entitled them to own and administer in common Fox Island (now Sherman Island) west of the salt marsh and across Gallop's Gap Creek.

Circa 1648 Map of Sherwood Island
A map by George Penfield Jennings, author of the 1933 "Green Farms, Connecticut, the old West Parish of Fairfield", shows the 1648 properties of the Bankside Farmers

Around the same time that the Bankside Farmers were settling in down at Machamux, Thomas Sherwood, formerly of Nottingham, England, arrived in nearby Fairfield with his family. Originally arriving in Boston in June of 1634, Sherwood, a carpenter, miller, and  community leader, moved to Fairfield in 1648 following time spent in both Wethersfield and Stamford.  Considered to be a founder of New England and one of the first settlers of Fairfield, Sherwood eventually had a memorial erected in his honor as well as having fourteen children with his two wives, Alice Seabrook and Mary Fitch whom he married following Alice's death during childbirth in 1639.

In 1761, Daniel Sherwood - one of Thomas' many descendants - and his wife Catherine Burr moved to Fox Island where they and their family harvested oysters and grew abundant crops of onions and potatoes that were sent in large quantities by ship to New York. Sherwood's descendants also acquired an existing gristmill on Mill Pond and eventually Fox Island came to be called Sherwood’s Island while the land originally settled as Bankside by our five farmers in search of their cattle was officially named Green's Farm in 1732 in honor of John Green, one of the five. The settlement was incorporated as the Town of Westport in 1835 and the original land holdings of John Green are today known as the Greens Farms section of Westport which abuts the western edge of Sherwood Island State Park.

But what does all of that have to do with Connecticut's first State Park? Fast forward to 1911 when the Connecticut State Park Commission was formed and tasked with finding and developing shore parks along the state's coastline. Albert Turner, Field Secretary for the Commission, walked the shoreline seeking suitable sites that consisted of "several hundred acres of undeveloped land with natural scenic beauty, fronting on a good beach, and far enough from cities to ensure freedom from sewage pollution and lack of interference with industrial development." In 1914, after surveying the coastline, the Connecticut State Park Commission determined that the Sherwood’s Island area was the only location in Fairfield County that was suitable for a shore park but by then, the land had many owners. For help in making acquisitions, the Commission turned to William H. Burr Jr., a Westport produce farmer, former state legislator serving as Westport's representative in the General Assembly in 1911, and an activist for historical preservation.

Acting for the state, Burr Jr., while leading the fight to create the park, bought two small parcels in 1914 which included a 5-acre strip of beachfront. This acquisition is what gives Sherwood Island State Park the distinction of being designated as Connecticut’s first state park but it took another two decades for the park to be widely used.

By 1923, with William Burr, Jr. continuing to act as intermediary, the state had acquired another 48 acres of land on the marsh but objections were made by twenty-two neighboring landowners, led by local property owner Edward Gair who's estate lay to the east of Sherwood Island Lane on the Mill Pond. Launching a campaign against the state acquiring any more of the beachfront property, Gair and the others held up further funding to buy uplands for parking and park facilities. Even though the State did not need Westport's approval, the legislature was apparently reluctant to move forward without it and for the next nine years, supporters and opponents in Westport and Fairfield County debated the matter of further land acquisitions and spending on the park.

It wasn't until the summer of 1932 that the State of Connecticut leased more land (with an option to buy within five years) and opened the park. With the lease and option to buy nearing expiration, on April 29th, 1937 Governor Wilbur L. Cross signed two bills with a total appropriation of $485,000 for the state to buy more land and develop the park. At long last a victory was won for the Connecticut Forestry Association and the Fairfield County Planning Association along with several regional associations and the park's supporters including William H. Burr, Jr. who came to be known as the "Father of Sherwood Island".

Interesting as the history of the park may be though, the reason that Sherwood Island was chosen as the site of Connecticut's Living 9-11 Memorial has nothing to do with any of that.  The reason is that because on a clear day, the New York City skyline can be quite visible and prior to the terrorist attacks, the twin towers of the World Trade Center could be seen from Sherwood Island.  On September 11th, 2001, with beautiful blue September skies as clear as they could be and for several days following, people who gathered at Sherwood Island could see the smoke rise above the former World Trade Center.

Following the devastating attacks that forever changed the skyline of New York and the hearts of all Americans, the Governor’s office and the Office of Emergency Management mobilized to establish a staging area at the park to be used for support to New York City should it be needed but it was never activated.

As all Americans resolved that the memory of those who died in the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 would not fade with the passage of time, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was approached in May of 2002 by several private citizens and the Connecticut Office of Family Support with the suggestion that Sherwood Island State Park in Westport should be the home of Connecticut's official memorial to those individuals that were either residents of the state or had close relatives in Connecticut who had lost their lives in the terrorist attacks.

"The citizens of Connecticut dedicate this living memorial to the thousands of innocent lives lost on September 11, 2001 and to the families who loved them."

Featuring a 9-foot long granite memorial stone set into a grassed area and oriented so that visitors face towards the Manhattan skyline as they read the inscription, the contemplative memorial space on the “the point” at Sherwood Island State Park was designed by Connecticut Landscape Architect Shavaun Towers. To the left of the memorial stone is a bed of flowering shrubs while in front of the stone are four granite benches for rest and reflection. Behind the benches there are four large trees that provide shade and shelter with the finishing touch being the pines and cedar trees that were set into beds of dune grass and positioned behind and to the seaward side of the four memorial trees.

At the memorial's dedication on September 5, 2002, approximately 400 people attended the interfaith ceremony of music, speech, and prayer that was presided over by then-Governor John G. Rowland. The names of the people with ties to Connecticut who perished that day were read aloud.

In September of 2003, families came together in the park for a memorial service once again led by the Governor, this time dedicating one hundred fifty-three individual memorial names that had been installed in two rows flanking the main memorial stone.

Each year Connecticut remembers those who died on that beautiful September day in 2001 and holds a ceremony at the 9-11 Living Memorial. During the ceremonies on September 8th, 2011 which commemorated the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks, a sculpture that incorporated burned and punctured aluminum pieces from the World Trade Center that had been installed in the park's Main Pavilion was dedicated by those in attendance. The sculpture, which was designed to complement the Living Memorial, surrounds bio-plaques which were designed by Connecticut graphic artists Mary Ann Rumney and Ruth Baxter; the plaques contain information on the victims whose names are engraved on the smaller stones that flank the main memorial stone on the point.

Led by Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman, the ceremony which was once again attended by over 400 people, included interfaith prayers, a reading of the names of state victims, the playing of taps and a reading by state poet laureate Dick Allen. State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty also spoke while former Governor M. Jodi Rell and her husband were in attendance along with current Governor Dannel Malloy.

Entitled “Sanctuary”, the sculpture that incorporates shards of metal recovered from the Twin Towers was commissioned by the state and chosen from more than 100 entries submitted to a competition sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism.

The winning sculpture which is made up of a series of flowers, was co-created by local artists David Boyajian of New Fairfield and Matt Rink of Redding who both attended Albert University in New York. Rink described the “blossoms” as unafraid to show their scars, and said they are meant to convey a theme of regrowth. "The markings, creases, tears and punctures are extremely humbling and very significant," he said.

As stated in a press release on the Albert University website, "“About 10 feet high and 30 feet wide, the sculpture dramatically undulates across the pavilion’s faƧade under the protection of a roof. Ten large flower petals, each marking a year since the tragedy, were fabricated from the World Trade Center’s remains. Except for the required cutting and bending of the pieces into floral shapes, the sheet aluminum retains the rough patina and marks found on them in situ.”

Finally, one of the most striking features of Sherwood Island State Park, in addition to the sculpture in the Main Pavilion and the Living 9-11 Memorial, is this Black Cherry tree which stands at the center of the point and can be seen from miles around. I'm not sure what is inscribed on the stone next to it as I didn't even realize there was a stone there until I came home and looked closely at the pictures but to be honest, I think just looking at a tree like this pretty much says it all, especially with that one branch reaching out towards New York like an arm offering help. If trees could speak I can only imagine the wisdom that they might impart.

Should you ever find yourself in Connecticut and wish to visit Sherwood Island State Park and Connecticut's 9-11 Living Memorial, you can find all the information you need at the park's state website here or at the website for the Friends of Sherwood Island whose motto is "Helping to preserve and protect Connecticut's oldest State Park". Additionally, the Friends can be found on Facebook here.

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