New sign details dangers of crossing tombolo to Charles Island

A new sign at Silver Sands State Park, near the tombolo that leads to Charles Island, tells beachgoers when it is safe and when it is not safe to walk on the sandbar.

“Walking on the sandbar can be extremely dangerous,” the sign announces.

It tells beachgoers that the sandbar washes over twice a day, producing fast moving currents and undertow.

“This natural, but dangerous, condition claimed a number of lives,” the sign states.

It is a very detailed sign, unlike others that have been posted over the years to warn visitors about the dangers of crossing the sandbar.

“Walking all the way to Charles Island is not always possible,” the new sign advises. “The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection prohibits walking on any portion of the sandbar while it is covered with water. Though it may look inviting, the 1.25 mile round trip walk out and back may take up to an hour — especially with children, the curiosity of shell gathering, and the unstable footing. No crossing to the island is allowed May 1 through Aug. 31 when the island is managed as a Natural Area Preserve for nesting birds.”

The sign explains in detail the role that the tide plays in timing walks on the sandbar. There is even a tide chart clipped to the sign.

Over the years, people have been swept from the sandbar: Several have drowned, including a 28-year-old area man who was swept off the sandbar last July when he was walking on it with a friend.

The new sign explains that people have to look at the tide chart and know when the next high and low tides will occur before traversing the sandbar.

“Your safety is tied to the tide cycle,” the sign says, also advising people that the walk may be longer than it appears — “It is more than six tenths of a mile from the shore to the island, making a round trip of nearly 1.25 miles.”

The sign actually tells people how to make the walk, suggesting that sandbar walkers begin 1 to 1.5 hours before low tide. “By doing this you will be following the tide out,” the sign states.

The sign also recommends people wear life jackets when walking on the sandbar, especially if they are not good swimmers.
The tombolo
Although people call this stretch of land and rock a sandbar, it is a tombolo, different from a sandbar, according to State Geologist Margaret Thomas. She said a sandbar is a coastal landform created by deposits of sand by currents or along the shoreline by waves and tides.

A tombolo, on the other hand, is a sand or gravel bar that connects an island to the mainland, or to another island.

The Silver Sands tombolo, according to Thomas, is 17,500 years old.

It leads to Charles Island, a 14-acre island. Today Charles Island is a bird sanctuary, owned by the state, but it’s had many roles over the years.
The island
“Charles Deal bought the island and was going to put a tobacco plantation out there and that didn’t work,” said former City Historian Richard Platt.

Not much was done with the island in the 1700s, and in the 1800s a man named Harris bought it and built an estate there: That didn’t last. Then it was converted into a hotel called the Island House, and various other names, and those eventually failed too, Platt said.

After the Island House failed, there was a fertilizer factory on the island.

“They were going to make fish oil out of menhaden, and when there was an onshore wind it stank terribly, and the people of Milford hated it, and that eventually failed,” Platt said.

In the early 20th Century the Dominican Brothers from St. Mary’s in New Haven built a retreat on the island, which lasted into the 1930s. Just about the time they left, the place was destroyed by the 1938 hurricane. Next, the United Illuminating Company was going to build a nuclear power plant on the island, but that didn’t happen, and today the state owns the island and it is a bird sanctuary.

Perhaps the most interesting bit of history concerns the legendary pirate Captain Kidd.

According to a number of historical accounts, including the book, “An Historical Account of Charles Island,” by Michael Dooling, Charles Island is one of the places that Kidd was believed to have buried treasure while on his final voyage that started in India and ended in Boston.

Dooling writes: “Over the centuries many people have dug around the island in an attempt to find the treasure.”

Also according to Dooling and other sources, there’s a local legend first published in 1838, saying several people went to the island to dig for treasure, found a box, and then were greeted by a headless ghost that chased them away.

While that is probably just legend, Milford history does suggest that Captain Kidd indeed visited Milford several times.
The walk
Perhaps because of the history and legends, or the fact that this is one of only a few pieces of land connected to a shore by a tombolo, many people walk across it when the tide is low to get to the island. And that is where the danger comes in, because the sandbar is not always bare:  The tide comes in and covers it and brings a strong undertow.

Last year, a 28-year old man walking on the tombolo was swept into the water by the rising tide.

Tragedies reportedly go back years. In the book, “Connecticut’s Seaside Ghosts” by Donald Carter, Carter calls the area between the island and the mainland a “deadly channel” and recounts several deaths, including that of two boys who were swept from the sandbar in 1939 as they tried to cross it.

In recent years, deadly and near-deadly mishaps have taken place at the sandbar.

In July of 2017, a 28-year-old area man walking on the sandbar with a friend, who was swept into the Sound and drowned.

The year before, tragedy was narrowly averted when Milford firefighters rescued two adults and eight children after the group ran into trouble when they were crossing on the sandbar. The group had walked out to Charles Island but misjudged the tide and became overcome with sweeping waters while attempting their return to shore.

The September before, the Milford Fire Department rescued two people from the waters off the beach after they were swept off the sandbar. Fire officials were on the scene, actually training for that exact situation, when the people needed help.

In July of 2015, Milford firefighters rescued three people from nearly drowning there. The three people, ages 23, 20 and 17, were making their way to the island, unaware that the tide was coming in.

In 2011, a 34-year-old Hamden man was swept from the sandbar and drowned. His 9-year-old son was rescued. His widow later asked that the sandbar be closed to people.

In the month preceding that, there were several rescues on the sandbar when people were caught by the tide

Greg Carman of the Milford Fire Department said the department regularly receives calls for water rescues, most associated with people attempting to walk to Charles Island.

Mayor Ben Blake said that city officials met with DEEP last summer to talk about the sandbar and the dangers. Blake wanted to see more lifeguards posted, a sentiment also expressed by State Rep. Kim Rose. Last summer there were limited lifeguard hours because of the cost, which Blake and Rose said was about $40,000 and which they believed was a small price for the state to pay for safety.

“It doesn't cost a lot to fully staff the state park,” Blake said. “We’ve asked many times that this be the case.”

This year there are limitations on lifeguarding hours due to a shortage of lifeguards, DEEP officials said in a press release. Silver Sands, as well as Sherwood Island State Park in Westport and Black Rock State Park in Watertown, may be staffed up to five days per week, rather than seven days per week this year due to the shortage of lifeguards.
Staying safe
Despite some calls for closing the tombolo, Rose said that isn’t practical.

“Trying to close the tombolo would be an almost an impossible feat,” Rose said. “You’d have to put up a chain link fence, but we’d have to fence off the whole beach because people could go around it. So it’s not a practical solution.

“The most practical solution is that people have to pay attention,” Rose added.

The mayor said there is something cool about a tombolo that disappears and then reappears.

“I hope it continues to remain open,” Blake said. “I want it to be open, but we need to take precautions because it is so dangerous.”