Written records of Gooseberry go back to 1602 – yes, that was before the Pilgrims made their famous landfall about 30 miles from here – when Bartholomew Gosnold explored this area giving the Elizabeth Islands their name and planning, then abandoning, a settlement on Cuttyhunk. In fact, as early as 1702 we have a map of the island that contains all the features you’ll find there today, including the sandbar where the causeway was eventually built.
Today Gooseberry is covered with dense, low brush that keeps people either on the beaches, or on a central, one-lane dirt road that goes out to the two concrete towers just past the half way point. These towers – and several small foundations almost entirely hidden in the thick brush – are the only man made structures on the island now, but they tell a story of a very active and not too distant past.
The towers are relics of World War II coastal defenses and the foundations tell the story of a very active and quite large summer colony. You’ll find several details on the summer Colony in “Gooseberry Summers – A Boy’s Story.” But even in 1950, the era covered by that story, the towers were receding into memory. They served as lookout and “fire control” towers for large coastal guns during WWII.
Carlton “Cukie” Macomber, a friend and neighbor who has lived in Westport forever and knows everyone and everything about the town, told me that when these towers were erected they were disguised to look like part of a farm. There was a farm house and barn and the tower looked something like a silo next to the barn. The guns themselves were more inland in protected bunkers, not even in Westport, but in Rhode Island just to the west. Now the towers serve as billboards for nincompoops of limited artistic talent who think they can improve on the scenery with spray paint.
Still, I’m kind of glad they haven’t been simply torn down. They’re an eye sore – but also a reminder of what we were and they make me wonder if we really were worried during WWII that German soldiers were going to land on Horseneck Beach? Yes, I know German spies were landed at a few locations during the war – in fact, Cukie was in the Coast Guard Reserve during WWII and regularly patrolled the beach at night with another Westporter to guard against saboteurs landing there. They carried a pistol, a submachine gun, and a 20 pound search light they were ordered not to use! Fortunately, they never saw anything.
And I know German submarines operated in the waters off our coast, but 11 of the 12 merchant ships sunk “off” the New England Coast were at least 50 miles out. We certainly couldn’t spot even a surfaced submarine more than a few miles out. Cukie says there was also a copper cable that went underwater from Gooseberry to Cuttyhunk and was apparently used in some sort of system to detect submarines entering Buzzards Bay. There were both Army and Navy installations on Gooseberry and one night Cukie was called out there as a volunteer firefighter to handle a fire in a Quonset Hut. He remembers the water in the hoses freezing because that night the temperature hit a record low – 27 degrees Fahrenheit below zero! It was so cold that winter (he thinks it was 1943) that Buzzards Bay froze solid for the only time in memory and a story was making the rounds that someone had driven a Model A Ford across to Cuttyhunk, eight miles away!
Probably the nearest war action came in 1945 when a German sub sank a ship just three miles off Point Judith, RI in the western end of Rhode Island Sound and was, in turn, sunk off Block Island by a veritable fleet of Navy destroyers that rushed to the scene. The large guns, whose fire was directed from the towers at Gooseberry, played no part in this action. They were frequently put on alert and loaded, but were never fired at an enemy, and only a few practice rounds were fired according to a book called “Defenses of Narragansett Bay in World War II.” Still, it’s a fascinating little piece of history which ends with some of the bases that had been built in RI being used as a controversial educational unit in an attempt to teach democracy to German POWs.
I love Gooseberry for it’s natural history, but the uninhabited island is the only one I’ve known. On any given day you’re likely to get a wealth of bird life in different categories: Ever present gulls cruising the skies and resting on rocks; sea birds who have come out from the rivers and marshes or in from the ocean; shorebirds, many of them migrants going back and forth to their arctic breeding grounds; song birds, such as huge flocks of swallows who seem to use this as a jumping off point in the fall; and raptors – marsh hawks and falcons in particular. I’m also discovering that there’s a good variety of butterflies here and I know in the past I have stumbled across huge numbers of migrating Monarch butterflies in early October.
But Gooseberry was for many years the home of a thriving summer colony. When I first arrived in Westport in 1965 I used to notice several concrete foundations as I walked Gooseberry and there were many more paths going out from the central road. But the paths have grown over for the most part and you need to search real hard to find the foundations today. I assumed they represented a summer colony that was wiped out by the hurricanes of 1938, 1944, and 1954 – but that wasn’t quite the case.
Gooseberry was apparently used to graze sheep in the 19th century and you could cross over to it quite easily at low tide using the sandbar that stretched out from Horseneck Beach at the location of the current causeway. In the 20th century it was owned by Alvin Waite of Salters Point and in 1913 he began work on the causeway – work that would take until 1924 to complete. In 1929 he sold the island to Nickolas S. Saliveros. (Later, his brother, Kostas, is also listed as an owner.) Saliveros apparently rented small lots of land to people who wanted to vacation on Gooseberry and some of these folks built substantial summer cottages. By 1954 there were 81 buildings – cottages, shacks, and Quonset Huts – on the town tax roles – all on Salilveros land.
Cukie says his father worked on a farm and one of his jobs was to go down to Gooseberry and gather seaweed. They had to go down near low tide, then they would let go of the reins and let the horses find their own way across the sandbar which was still under water. They would gather the seaweed and head back before the tide came in. The entrance to the current causeway was known then as Horseneck Point and there was a lifesaving station there, which has been restored as a historical site. I imagine the major building on Gooseberry came after the causeway was built, but again, I’m not sure when – but I suspect at least some were built in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Seaweed also figured in a long-standing controversy over the causeway that as early as the 1930s saw the town debating appropriating funds to provide some sort of sluiceway under it. Folks on Horseneck Beach argued that the causeway blocked the free flow of water and thus led to smelly, red seaweed accumulating on the beach and also contributed to the rockiness of East Beach. Others who had lived in the area before the causeway argued that storms always brought in the seaweed and the rocks and the causeway had nothing to do with it.
I have found some interesting pictures and notes on the Westport Historical Society web site. Here are the key dates.
1913 – 1924
First causeway to Gooseberry finished.
East beach road tarred.
West Beach Road tarred.
Accoridng to a 1935 newspaper article Saliveros built and occupied a 7-room house and about a dozen “beach houses.” He “intends to build many more soon, and to improve the island as a summer resort.”
Hurricane – rated among the costliest disasters in life and property in U.S. History. Worst hit area Horseneck Beach and Westport Harbor.
Hundreds of summer homes destroyed and 22 lives lost. (Did this impact Gooseberry – it must have if there was anything there to impact. It certainly did change the shape of East Horseneck Beach – before the storm it was much wider with impressive construction on it. )
Gooseberry Military Installation put in under emergency measures following attack on Pearl Harbor. Land taken by eminent domain; causeway enlarged. The Army and Navy installations were surrounded by chain link fence that also separated one from the other.
What land did the military use? All of it? Some of it? As I understand it, it was 6 acres – a relatively small chunk out of an island of 73 acres. (You can still see some remnants of the fence that enclosed the military area, including what looks like metal parts in the ground for a gate as you trun from the main road towards the towers.)
Hurricane Carol does extensive damage in area.
According to a January article in the New Bedford Standard-Times the State plans to take over Horseneck and Gooseberry and make an improved beach, recreation area, new road (RT88) and new bridge are applauded by the town.
State takes Gooseberry over as part of the Horseneck Beach Reservation.
State uses town tax evaluation of property on Horseneck Beach and Gooseberry as of January of 1954 to figure cost - 140 buildings and land on West Beach is valued at $455,250. “Saliveros brothers were taxed on a valuation of $58,700 for their 81 buildings and 67 acres on Gooseberry neck.” (1954 tax rate was $40 for $1,000 valuation.)
Westport is to be paid a sum equal to the taxes for five years and Westport residents would get free parking at the beach and Gooseberry. (I assume the money was paid – but free parking on Horseneck beach? Not to my knowledge. Of course, this is just from a newspaper account – not an official agreement.)
A history – of sorts in pictures
- East Beach Bathers. From East Beach looking toward Gooseberry Island. Note the rolling surf line breaking at the bar between Gooseberry Island and Horseneck Point and no causeway. The dark rise on Gooseberry is supposedly a sheep shelter. According to the 1895 map of Westport, the two-story structure at Horseneck Point is Beach View Cottage; the single story structure is the Life Saving Station which still exists on that site. Note the bathing costumes on the women. The lobster trap and small tub suggest the gentlemen had a lobster dinner in mind. (Posted by Jack DeVeuve at October 7, 2003 12:19 PM)
The above picture and caption are from the Westport Historical Society Web site and obviously it was taken before 1924 when the causeway was put in – but beyond that, you have to guess at the date.
There’s a large rock to the west (right) as you enter the causeway and this is called “Bar Rock.” The “bar” referred to in that name is obviously the sandbar which can be seen in this old picture from the Lee’s Collection.
- I love this shot – and it’s the only one I have found that shows the connecting sandbar well. My guess is it was taken somewhere around 1915-1920. My reasoning is that work on the causeway began in 1913, but wasn’t finished until 1824. Those rocks on the sandbar look as if they are the beginnings of the causeway. The picture appears to be an old postcard. Click image for larger version.
This next one we can pin down – it is the fall of 1908. Because we know that is when the cruiser USS Yankee sank, having grounded on Hen and Chickens due south of Gooseberry. That’s the cruiser you see in this picture looking like a building on the island! There are many more details in a story at the end of this entry.
- Here’s a sweeping shot from Horseneck Beach to the west of Gooseberry. If the island looks higher than it should, I believe it’s because it is built up – that is – there are buildings there and – I believe – the lookout towers. So I assume this was taken in the 1940s or early 50s. (Click image for larger version.)
OK, this next is the picture which really started my head spinning. Gooseberry with telephone wires and buildings. You’ll find this one explored in detail in the post “Gooseberry Summers.” Bottom line: I think it was taken about 1957 and the buildings in the right foreground are huddled together because they are about to be moved off the island as part of the state takeover.
- This came from the Westport Historical Society archives and it is from there I got the date of 1954 – which judging from the cars looks about right, but I think may be a few years early. What were all these buildings? I have a partial answer from Cukie who says there was a dance pavilion and several rather flimsy summer homes. Could have some of these buildings been part of the military installation? Yes, but I suspect the better date for this is about 1957 or 1958 and several of the buildings are in the process of being moved off the island after the state takeover
Here’s a second picture from the same era – 1950s – taken looking along the west side of Gooseberry. The current parking lot would be just to the left in this shot.
Finally, here’s the story of the raising – and resinking – of the Yankee, as detailed in the New York Times. (Or you can download a pdf file here 104814983.)