Captain Kidd, who is said to have buried treasure on Fishers Island, was just the first of many buccaneers to invest in the place; later pirates had names like duPont, Whitney, Luce and Firestone.
But any of you can still make easy money off the island. Try out this bar bet: Name the Long Island community you have to leave the state to enter. Pay up only if someone says Fishers Island. Shaped roughly like a fishhook, 11 miles long and never more than half a mile wide, it is slung under the Connecticut coast out in the Sound four miles from New London. But it is some 15 miles northeast across the water from its government in the Suffolk County town of Southold. New York and Connecticut fought for title to the tiny island for two centuries, until 1879 when New York produced an ancient document from the Duke of York that the Nutmeg State couldn’t match. Call Fishers from Suffolk, it’s a local call. From nearby New London, it’s long distance.
Getting there isn’t easy. There is no direct ferry service from Long Island to Fishers. You take an hour-and-a-half ferry ride from Orient Point to New London, change boats and chug another 45 minutes to “the Rock,” as the locals call their isolated home.
On a September day, with Hurricane Floyd storming up the coast driving sultry weather north, the Cross Sound Ferry was just another commuting Wednesday, packed with business people going to Connecticut and points north, families taking a late summer vacation and students starting school in Boston. The New London terminal was modern, bustling, efficient. But down the waterfront, the Fishers Island ferry was quiet, with no terminal, just a few cars and trucks lined up in a muddy yard. A handful of people waited for the rusted old bucket that would take us across.
On board were construction crews and landscapers, some hung over from whatever nightlife New London features. There was a man hauling stones for a private estate, mocking his buddy who was trying to light a cigarette in the wind with shaky hands. Nearby was a young man in pale white slacks, a pink polo shirt, yellow socks and brown velvet loafers. The loud guys standing in work boots and the young fellow in the uniform of the Protestant leisure class was Fishers in a microcosm. About 280 year-round residents work to maintain the comfort of about 4,000 summer people of vast and venerable fortunes. Captains and crews get along well, from all reports, both realizing their mutual dependency.
Fishers has always been a vacation spot, used by the Pequot tribe as hunting and fishing ground and as an escape from hot summers. It was named by the explorer Adrian Block in 1514 when he passed through this narrowest part of Long Island Sound, where it races to meet the Atlantic. A certain Mr. Fishers was a favorite member of Block’s crew.
There is no supermarket, no ATM, no bar (except the VFW hall), one restaurant and an inn with just a few rooms. There is no movie theater after Labor Day, no UPS or Fed Ex delivery, no video store, no fast food, a coffeehouse that opens once a week.
“There’s some rigor to living here,” said Kathleen Koehnen, superintendent of the K-through-12 school, in her bright office. It is one of the finest public schools in the state, blessed by a stable and wealthy tax base. Seventy-five students are educated by 14 teachers, one of the best ratios in the world. “Rigorous,” Koehnen continued. “But lonely. And the people who live here want to live here. If they don’t, they go off. You can’t say that about many other places.”
Allison Scroxton, 21, bagging groceries at the one small shop, said, “We all are kind of happy when the summer ends. There’s a sense of relief. And then come spring we’re all eager for the people to be back and summer starting.” A woman, hearing Allison’s last name, said, “I didn’t know you were a Scroxton.”
“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Browne.” Their conversation, with its air of distant cordiality, in sharp accents, could be from another century— the lady conferring with the tradeswoman.
The year-rounders live on the west end, about one-third of the island, while the remaining two-thirds is tracked by narrow, winding roads where extraordinary estates and a world-class golf course and country club are hidden by trees, bushes and stone walls.
Summer ends on Fishers with the suddenness and finality of a door slamming. The man in velvet loafers and Mrs. Browne might be the last birds of summer. The yacht club’s tethered boats looked asleep. The clubhouse was open but empty, chairs stacked against a glass case of cups and trophies. There was no one, not on the grounds or on the network of docks. No one working on boats. The silence was interrupted by the creak of wood and rattle of chain.
In a small cemetery, Dan Cole was doing “tree work.” The fit, red-haired 31-year-old was in a Red Sox T-shirt and shorts. “It’s real quiet in fall and winter,” he said. “The churches do social things sometimes.” That might be too often for him. As he buckled his harness, preparing to climb with a saw, he added, “I like working alone. Working on trees can be art, you know, shaping them, sculpting them.” As he carves out meaning from his solitude.
The evening ferry was crowded. Work crews lugged six-packs aboard, quickly setting up a game of stud before the boat disembarked. The dealer’s chant tolled the cards, “Jack no help, trey to the fives …” A prim couple sat quietly, dressed for a night on the mainland. The ferry cut out through a warm rain, scattering gulls and cormorants. On a hill above the ferry dock two teenage girls shared an umbrella and watched. They waited until the boat was just about to clear the western end before turning their backs and walking away.