The Lure of Sheffield Island
Sheffield Island | A Gem Off the Connecticut Coast
Today’s visitors to Sheffield Island, Connecticut’s Maritime icon experience an unusual outing that starts with a 45-minute cruise through the outer reaches of the Norwalk Islands passing nesting ospreys, two spark plug lighthouses, working oyster boats, and mansions on private islands on the way to Sheffield Island. Once on the Island, visitors can tour the ten-room historic lighthouse, see the Light Keeper’s Cottage, walk the trails to the Stewart B. Mckinney National Wildlife Refuge, a birding hot spot, use the telescope, and just unwind on the beach. A highlight of our three-hour excursion is an authentic New England clam and lobster bake in the new wooden pavilion that has amazing sea views. Visitors to the Island on a clear day can see the skyline of Manhattan on this very private island.
Sheffield Island has a rich and storied past that has been preserved by the Norwalk Seaport Association. It all began with a gift from a Norwalk Indian Chief named Winnipauk that deeded this isolated island to the Reverand Thomas Hanford on December 2, 1690. Town documents are scarce on how the island was used until it was purchased on January 24, 1804, by Captain Robert Sheffield, a Revolutionary War Veteran. The Captain was famous for being the owner of the first ship, the Severn that took a load of American cotton to Liverpool, England.
Sheffield Island’s next owner was the Captain’s daughter, Temperance who married Garsham Burr Smith and, together they raised 12 children on the island. They maintained a large farm that included a herd of cows that swam to Sheffield Island from Wilson’s Point guided by boats! From time to time the Smith’s cows would wander from island to island when the tide was low. Sometimes they were marooned on another island and Mr. Smith would have to herd them back to Sheffield Island by boat. The Smith Family lived on Sheffield Island for five generations, and in 1859, it even became a school district!In 1826 Smith sold a piece of land to the government and the first 30-foot lighthouse tower was built. Smith served as its keeper until his death in 1845. In 1868, the light tower was replaced by the picturesque Victorian-styled Lighthouse that stands today like a proud sentinel over Sheffield Island and Long Island Sound. It is built in the same style as the Lighthouse on Block Island.
The Sheffield Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1914 when the government sold the building and the LightKeepers Cottage behind it to Thursten Stabel. Green’s Ledge Lighthouse, located further out in the harbor, replaced Sheffield Island Lighthouse. In 1912, Alfred Mestre, an architect from New York purchased part of the island and built a palatial home designed like a villa of Spain. The house had a 100 foot long stone pier, terraced gardens, and even a glassed-in tower. Today visitors to the island will see only the ruins of this once beautiful estate that burned to the ground in 1946.
Two other gentlemen bought tracks of land on Sheffield Island. In 1900, John Cavanagh of the Hat Corporation built a home that provided refuge for mothers and children during the summer cholera infantum that swept New York City in 1910- 1930. This house was destroyed in the hurricane of 1950. Another part of the island was auctioned off in 1923, and purchased by Robert Corby who developed a country club on Sheffield Island replete with a golf course, tennis courts, polo ponies, and even a landing field for aircraft. The club closed down in 1937 because of a shortage of water on the island. Vandalism, time, and New England storms destroyed the country club and its constructed environment.
In 1978 the Norwalk Seaport Association was founded by a local group of citizens that had the vision to preserve Norwalk’s Maritime heritage. The Association purchased Sheffield Island Lighthouse and the Lighthouse Keepers cottage in 1986, and in 1989, both structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the Association continues to maintain and improve the visitor experience to and on the island and offers seasonal cruises and private charters to this maritime wonder in Long Island Sound.