Bell Island at 100
The glassy water parts like mercury as I nose the kayak away from East Beach toward the mooring field of sailboats in Wilson Cove. A thin pane of rose-tinted light is opening up behind Tavern Island over the Norwalk harbor. Dawn off Bell Island is a spiritual time. Life stirs from the water and marsh grasses. There’s a wren’s trill, suddenly overridden by the hoarse croak of a great blue heron wading near rocks that once supported a turn-of-the-century beach-club jetty. Off the stern comes a thumping splash—too big for baitfish, must be a blue, I think.
Sure enough, seconds later a school of bunker are boiling up water on the port side. I wish for a second I’d brought a rod. But I’m practicing a morning ritual too. Mine is a daily paddle to check an osprey nest on a dock off Wilson Point, and then on to a second osprey nest near the Manresa power plant. Somehow I feel that if the osprey are doing well, I, Bell Island, Rowayton, and a lot of places nearby will have a good day too.
If this sounds like a lead-in to an L.L. Bean catalog, it should. Although Bell Island, a small enclave on the beachfront side of Rowayton, hasn’t been a “real” island since it got a footbridge in 1885, it still feels like one. Whether it’s a morning paddle, a power walker’s meeting point, or a place to silently gather thoughts before getting the kids ready for school and plunging into the morning commute, the place offers solace.
“Once I cross the Bell Island bridge I feel like I’m coming home each night to my favorite vacation spot,” says Carolyn Wall, a longtime Metro North commuter. “The New York day just evaporates.”
This morning my thoughts turn to Doctor Hank Gloetzner, who died in June at age ninety-five. Hank came to Bell Island at age five, went to local schools, served in World War II, and returned to practice medicine in downtown Norwalk for the rest of his life. He lived in a simple house on Yarmouth Avenue, walked the narrow streets daily, and, for many of us, defined the real nature of the place. Hank said Bell Island attracted special people who believed in a tight-knit community and worked to preserve it. “The island is not the passways, not the beaches, not the parks, it’s the people,” he liked to say. “The ones who don’t like that kind of life leave; it’s been going on as long as I’ve been here.”
Although Bell Island in recent years has been a story of large, new Nantucket gray-shingled houses on lots where quaint beach-front cottages once stood, you’ll still find families gathering for a burger, salad, and pizza supper on the seawall most summer evenings—BYOB, of course. And while German luxury cars now vie for parking space on the tight streets, with a sprinkling of Ferraris, Maseratis and even a Benteley coupe thrown in, the main mode of transportation is walking.
Last August Bell Island celebrated its 100th anniversary—affording a time for recollection. Captain H. John Bell, the first recorded owner, lost the island in bankruptcy to British creditors in 1837. Timothy and Joel Foster of Bethel then took over the debt years later and developed the island in the late 1800s for summer visitors. Their lots were deeded with a temperance clause that said “no intoxicating beverages” could be stored or sold. By the Roaring Twenties the island had a speakeasy, a brothel and late-night carousing through the summer. There was a semi- pro tennis club where Boye Park is today. Women carried umbrellas and bathed in full skirts and blouses. After WWII more permanent year-round residents began to arrive, and by the 1980s young couples bought in to raise families and gentrify the shorefront. Today about 120 families live there. The older kids are off to college, replaced by a swarm of preschoolers who take over the playground and beaches every afternoon.
Given outside pressures, can the island handle its influx of wealth and still maintain its character? “Bell Island will always be evolving,” says Bill Tims, a real estate broker who has spent his life there. Now that it’s a neighborhood of high-end houses, people naturally want to put their personal stamp on their places. But they also come here to be part of a big and special family. I think that tradition endures.”