Updated work offers more insight into Milford’s Charles Island

MILFORD — Michael Dooling first visited Charles Island as a teen — captivated by the bell tower and the tales of Captain Kidd’s treasure.

Dooling’s interest was further piqued years later while in college, when he met his wife Joan, who was then a Devon resident, who passed on more tidbits about Milford and the mystique that looms over the small but storied island.

“Although there are about 75 small islands off the Connecticut coast, none can compare to Charles Island in terms of its rich history and its uniqueness as a nesting area for shore birds,” said Dooling, an author and former Republican-American news librarian and former archivist at Mattatuck Museum.

This interest prompted Dooling to keep digging into the island’s lore, and the result was his first published work, “An Historical Account of Charles Island” in 2006. The popular book was nominated for the Homer D. Babbidge Award for best work on a significant aspect of Connecticut history.

“When I started buying and selling antiquarian books, I acquired a 1929 pictorial booklet from the Aquinas Retreat on the island,” Dooling said. “That solidified my interest and I started to accumulate related articles. When I left my ‘real job’ in consumer research at Schick Razor, I decided to continue digging into Charles Island’s history and organize the information. It ended up being my first book.”

The original book traces the history of Charles Island, which was discovered by Adriaen Block in the 17th century, reputedly used by William Kidd as a burial site for part of his treasure, was home to a 19th century summer resort, provided a tranquil setting for a Dominican retreat in the 20th century, and is now a bird sanctuary.

But even Dooling knew that there was more to reveal — that’s why he recently released an updated version of his first book on Charles Island.

The updated book delves into tales of a nudist colony on the island that never was and the island’s place in the history of flight when Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport used it as a testing site for one of his flying machines.

Dooling said the book also tells of the testing of a torpedo by the U.S. Navy, the Hermit of Milford Beach, a rumrunner who paid his debt to God, and a mysterious woman in white who purportedly walks the sandbar connecting the island with the shore.

“During the ‘COVID winters,’ my wife reminded me of all the information I had found and wondered whether I had enough to write a new edition of the book,” Dooling said. “Since it was first published, huge amounts of historical material have been digitized and are available online. Newspapers, magazines, journals, and photo collections can now be searched quickly for information about everything.”

Dooling said one of the most interesting sections of this updated version revolves around the nudist colony.

“So many people mentioned to me that such a colony existed on Charles Island that I had to flesh it out,” he said. “I learned quite a lot about Leo V. Voss, who started that story, before he arrived in Milford and after he left.”

Dooling said a Connecticut museum has in its collection a sculpted stone, referred to as a birdstone, created by the indigenous people in what became Milford.

“Pottery and other artifacts have been found in Milford dating back 3,500 years, though the date of the birdstone is uncertain,” he said. “It was found on Charles Island in the 1970s.”

The updated edition also touches on how the island, sandbar, and Milford Harbor were used by the U.S. Navy to test a torpedo in 1884.

Dooling has authored four other historical books including “Clueless in New England: The Unsolved Disappearances of Paula Welden,” “Connie Smith and Katherine Hull; Milford Lost & Found”; “Seaworthy Timber: The Life & Times of New England Sea Captain Aaron H. Wood”; and “The Haunting on East 27th,” a true story of an investigation into a house haunting in New York City in 1862.

“In college I enjoyed writing papers and essay questions,” Dooling said. “When I was a graduate student in psychology, I started collecting and dealing antiquarian books.”

Before long, he said, he discovered unique items he decided to keep — a seaman’s diary from a clipper ship, letters from author Sinclair Lewis, and the pamphlet from the Aquinas retreat, to name a few.

“Part of being an historical writer is trying to find unique topics that haven’t been written about,” Dooling added. “In the book trade unique material had fallen into my lap and I started writing articles using my collection as primary source material. That grew into writing several books.”

Copies of “An Historical Account of Charles Island” are available in Milford at The Canvas Patch, the Ships Store, and Milford Pharmacy & Home Care.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com