Friday, August 14, 2015

Can you dig it?

"The Hammonasset River was a main digging ground for the Hammonassett people…"

Old Native American fish trap West Beach
       Tim Visel writes: “In the late 1970’s, the State of Connecticut sought to expand parking at the West Beach bath houses. To do this, they excavated an area behind the beachfront, and I watched as hundreds of old poles 4 to 6 inches in diameter, were exposed. At the time, I thought I was seeing the remains of a colonial bridge, but now realize that it was an old Native American fish trap that had been preserved in the acid muck of the previous tidal environment. I recall the state park had to send many of its large green dump trucks to carry all the poles from the site. Mr. Miller once told me of a fish trap in the area, but always thought it was Sound side, not in a salt pond behind the beach. The practice of trapping fish in such a tidal breach/salt pond was common by Native Americans. Fish would enter such a salt pond on the incoming tide and be trapped by a big brush fyke trap net. Salt ponds were actually preferred for such “vee fykes” were common to catch alewife, flounder and eels. Many have been found in Maine where the “V” stone wall configuration can be seen on aerial photographs. At the time, I first thought that the original salt pond was being created or restored. My enthusiasm waned as fill was trucked from the site, which yielded a silt-like gray to black sand with many clam and oyster shells, only to be replaced with crushed stone. It was very evident that this area was tidal and even the excavation itself soon filled with seawater, and it became more of a dredging operation that an excavation one. My disappointment yielded a letter to the Army Corps about several projects in 1979 and the need to rebuild, not fill in such salt ponds…


Evidence does indicate the presence of Native American coastal fishing village(s) 1,500 to 2,000 feet offshore of the current high tide line. The 1960’s hydraulic dredge operation pumped hundreds of artifacts ashore with the fill. If estimates are correct, since the colonial period, Hammonasset Beach has eroded an average of 2 feet/yearly (from 1900 to 1955, 200 feet; since 1955, around 100 feet). The age of the offshore site is suspected to be around 900 to 1100 AD placing it in the proximity of its current offshore location…”

More from T Visel:
    "Hammonasset" means, "where we dig holes in the ground" and refers to the place where a settlement of eastern woodland Indians farmed along the Hammonasset River. They subsisted on corn, beans, and squash, and by fishing and hunting. The first colonists arrived in 1639. Property changed hands frequently between Native Americans and the first colonists.
     In 1898 the Winchester Repeating Arms Company bought Hammonasset and used it as a testing site for their new rifle. Their Lee Straight Pull rifle was mounted on a horse drawn stone boat, from which it was fired into targets on the beach.

    On July 18, 1920, Hammonasset Beach State Park was opened to the public. The first season attracted over 75,000 visitors. The park's reputation drew tourists from across the continent as well as the state.
    During World War II the park was closed to the public and loaned to the federal government as an army reservation. Meigs Point functioned as an aircraft range. Planes flew over Clinton Harbor, fired at the range and then flew out over Long Island Sound.
    The stone breakwater at the Meigs Point end of the park was built in 1955. The stones were brought in by truck from quarries in northern New England.
     Today, over one million people come annually to enjoy Hammonasset Beach State Park.

The word Hammonasset means, “where we dig holes in the ground.” Located on Long Island Sound in Madison, the State of Connecticut flagship state park that bears this name was once a sacred place for Native Americans to hunt and fish…

There has been much recent discussion among archaeologists in Connecticut on the chances of finding a predisturbed or moderately disturbed (reused) coastal weir – for eels or alewife.  Many feel the best chance of discovering them is during the stream walk surveys, especially when a 17th/18th century period ice pond is drained on the headwaters of a tidal stream.  The Cove River site in West Haven is thought to support such Native American fisheries and much information is already on file.  Other areas are certain to exist. 
 The “Vee” wall stone alewife traps are easily distinguishable from their location often between two slow moving stream sections that are relatively narrow.  That leaves about a half mile (depends upon slope) between tidal waters and headwaters which was usually a “kettle pond” or deep ponds created as the last ice sheet retreated north about 10,000 years ago.  Alewife needed to reach salt ponds, coastal features that frequently contained “short runs” and “kettle ponds” spring fed are those more often associated as “short runs.”  Alewife would also return into main “stream” larger rivers that would break off into smaller streams, the so called “long runs” each spring as they returned to spawning habitat.  Often these small traps simply look like stone walls built in the stream bed resembling a “vee” apex pointed downstream.  They gathered stream flows to fill it is thought a series of graduated pools allowing fish to ascend into a trap. 

A similar stream survey of Alewife Cove New London/Waterford (the name does give away its former significance) found that the easterly side contained tons of winter street sand and below a layer of approximately six feet of sand lie buried quahogs.  Interviews with area residents (The Alewife Cove Watcher program 1985) indicated that hard-shell clamming occurred here in the 1920s but by 1985 tons of winter street sand had washed into this region of Alewife Cove.

[1] 1 According to Emil Miller, former park resident, the location of the Grand Pavilion was largely decided by the trolley rail line into the park; straight to the beach was the least costly route. Personal Communication T. Visel, 1968 circa.

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