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Former Alderman Greg Smith has started a Facebook campaign to name the boardwalk at Silver Sands State Park after Doris Gagnon, a woman who lived at the park in a trailer and ramshackle sheds for many years before she died.
“Join our group (and invite your friends) to support naming the boardwalk at Silver Sands State Park after Doris Gagnon, which would be a little bit of justice and a great ending to her story,” Smith’s Facebook post says.
The issue of naming the Walnut Beach section of the boardwalk came up in 2010, and at that time some people thought that section of the boardwalk should be named for the late Walter Farley, a former alderman and community activist; Joseph Garbus, another former alderman who was instrumental in bringing about many improvements to the Walnut Beach area and is still working to do so.
At that time the name Doris Gagnon also surfaced: Gagnon is the woman who refused to leave the area when eminent domain and beach redevelopment forced people to leave their homes. Gagnon moved back to Silver Sands in a camper after her house was demolished and lived there for years before she died.
But Park, Beach and Recreation Commission Chairman Dan Worroll said the idea sort of fizzled out because there were a number of people deserving of the honor.
The Silver Sands part of the boardwalk is a separate entity. While the two boardwalks connect to create one, the Silver Sands part is owned by the state and the Walnut Beach part is owned by the city.
It is the state portion at Silver Sands that Smith and his wife, Christine, want to name for Gagnon.
“My family lived near East Broadway,” Greg Smith said. “We were moved to make way for the redevelopment when I was very young. We landed on Laurel Avenue, where I lived until I was 17 and joined the Navy. I can tell you many personal anecdotes of Doris and the area, but so can many others.”
Indeed many others can.
For more than two decades, Gagnon made headlines locally and nationally, usually accompanied by a photo of her with a chicken tucked under one arm.
Her Silver Beach house had been knocked down to make way for redevelopment, and she protested the razing until the day she died.
“Gagnon had claimed the state illegally demolished her former house near the park in 1971 and seized the land through eminent domain,” according to a 2012 article in the New Haven Register. “She refused the state's offer of $15,000 and began living at the park without running water, a flushing toilet, phone or electricity. She demanded that the state build her a new home.”
Doris Gagnon was 77 years old when she died Sept. 19, 1994, after an ongoing battle with cancer. Within days, her little compound of sheds, chicken coops and trailers was cleared away from Silver Sands and the sandy ground neatly raked over.
In a Milford Mirror article from 2001, writer Kathleen Schurman lamented the fact that there was no marker left to remember the local squatter who had been part of Silver Sands Beach for so long.
“A stranger passing by never would have known the feisty squatter had spent the previous 23 years living in ever-changing, makeshift quarters on the beach overlooking Charles Island,” Schurman wrote. “Her ashes were scattered amongst the beach grasses and sand, where they have long since been tilled into the landscape as Silver Sands State Park has finally been developed.”
The Smiths think there should be some kind of tribute to Gagnon.
“Growing up along Long Island Sound, in the stretch from Milford Harbor to Milford Point, was, and still is, a unique Milford experience,” Greg Smith said. “Doris Gagnon's fight for her rights is a major part of the history of the area, and it would be a shame if she were not remembered. Many people I have spoken with over the years think naming the Silver Sands portion of the boardwalk, which runs right through ‘her’ property, would be an appropriate tribute to Doris.”
Greg said Doris Gagnon was a unique lady, especially for her time: A single woman standing up to government and powerful interests, living by her convictions, under hardship; never surrendering her belief that what she was doing was right.
“Doris Gagnon, in the opinion of many, played a key role in the development of Silver Sands and Milford, and she should be remembered for her enormous contribution to the character of the area,” Smith said.
Smith's Facebook page is called “Doris Gagnon Boardwalk at Silver Sands.”