Woodmont’s iconic flagpole must be replaced

The flagpole at Signal Rock in Woodmont, between Crescent Beach and Anchor Beach, is more than a landmark. It’s a tradition.

The flagpole dates back to around 1900. Over those 118 years, the staff and the flag that it waves have been the backdrop for wedding photographs, graduation photographs and many more milestone markers in Milford people’s lives. It graces the cover of postcards that date back to the early 1900s.

Today, the flagpole is showing signs of its age. Rot has made it necessary for the old pole to be replaced, and Borough of Woodmont officials are looking at how to do that.

Paul Bastiaanse, a steeplejack with Valley Restoration in Torrington, has scaled the flagpole several times over the years to repaint it or make restorations for the borough. His father did it before him. But Bastiaanse said it’s not safe to climb it anymore, and recently told borough officials that it’s time to start looking at a plan to replace the pole.

“It’s rotting from the inside out,” said Bastiaanse, adding that there is wood rot in several places. The last time he climbed the pole, using ropes and a wooden support, he noticed it start to sway after he got to a certain height.

The flagpole isn’t in danger of falling, he said. At some point, someone drilled a hole into the rock for the pole, and secured it with concrete. About 20 years ago the borough replaced three original braces that provide additional support with solid steel braces — it was the third time since 1976 that the pole underwent a major repair.

Bastiaanse said it’s just not safe to climb it anymore.

“It’s a wood pole. It’s out in Long Island Sound,” he said, explaining that it wasn’t going to last forever.

But it did last a long time, if records are correct.

Back in the 1800s, the State Shell Fish Commission used existing landmarks — such as flagpoles, church steeples, lighthouses, water tanks, etc. — to serve as surveying points to mark the oyster lots in Long Island Sound, according to Katie Krauss Murphy, author of the book “Woodmont on the Sound.” The flagpole was used as one of those markers.

The late John Volk, who was director of the Bureau of Aquaculture for the State of Connecticut, gave Krauss a copy of some of the official records, which are on file at the state Bureau of Aquaculture in Milford, and which explain the maritime history of Signal Rock and the flagpole.

The records say that in 1881 there was a post about eight feet tall on the rock, and that a flagpole was erected around 1900. It is believed to be the same pole that is there today, but that is a little uncertain because of a record that says the pole erected around 1900 was 30 feet tall, but in 1910 it was measured as 50 feet tall — although the numbers could have been recorded incorrectly.

These various landmarks were called “signals” for the oystermen: Thus Signal Rock, according to Volk’s notes on the subject. Of course that isn’t the case anymore. Joseph Gilbert, owner of the shellfishing company Briarpatch Enterprises in Milford, said today the oystermen have GPS and other tools at their disposal.

Volk told Krauss the current flagpole is made of cedar, about 12 inches in diameter and was probably originally about 80 feet tall, most likely the mast on a sailing ship, with a yardarm and cross-rigging, before it was retrofitted and mounted on Signal Rock.

Krauss said the pole came down in the 1940s, but was then put back on Signal Rock in the 1970s.

“For many years the pole flew the flag proudly, but it fell into disrepair in the late 1940s,” Krauss said. Borough Warden Ed Bonessi said borough members believe the hurricane of 1938 ripped the pulleys and flag mechanism off and broke up the granite.

The pole remained unused until 1976, when the Woodmont Board of Burgesses voted to restore the flagpole for the United States Bicentennial Celebration.

Bonessi said he was devastated when he got news of the flag pole’s nearing demise, but he said it will definitely be replaced. It’s too much of an iconic part of Woodmont to let it go.

But the borough still has to decide what will replace it and how to pay for it. Bonessi thinks it might be a tricky project because it’s out there on a rock, and he thinks it might be quite expensive. He said fundraisers may be arranged to help with the cost.

Bastiaanse estimates it will cost about $10,000 to replace the pole with a hinged fiberglass pole that would look much like the one there now, then purchase a new gold ball to place atop the pole, like the one that is on the current staff. If the borough chooses that route for replacement, Bastiaanse doesn’t foresee a challenging job, despite the water.

With a “hinged pole”, the pole is mounted to a metal plate that connects to another metal plate that would be secured to the rock. The pole could be removed for maintenance, rather than climbed, he said.

Bastiaanse said a fiberglass pole would last 40 to 50 years, depending, of course, on whether severe storms take a toll on it.