July 18: Hammonasset State Park Opens to the Public


Hammonasset Beach State Park, Connecticut’s largest public beach and one of the state’s most popular attractions, first opened to the public on this day in 1920.  Located in Madison, Hammonasset features a continuous two-mile-long stretch of sandy beaches that line a shoreline peninsula that juts southward into Long Island Sound.

Before opening to the public in 1920, the nearly 1,000 acres of land comprising Hammonasset Beach State Park had been used by Native Americans, English colonists, and even the U.S. military in a wide variety of ways.  Prior to the arrival of English settlers in the 1630s, local Indian tribes had used the flat, broad swath of coastal land as a place to fish and grow crops of corn, beans, and squash; the name “Hammonasset” roughly translates to “place where we dig in the ground.”  In the 19th century, the Winchester Repeating Arms company (based in nearby New Haven) used several hundred acres on Hammonasset’s Meigs Point peninsula as a test range for larger and long-range firearms; shooters would board boats and fire at targets set up in front of the sand dunes on the shore.

A panoramic view of one of Hammonasset’s many beach vistas.

In the 1910s, several state governments across the country — including Connecticut — started to prioritize the purchase of land for public use or conservation, a national trend which would culminate in the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.  In 1919, the Connecticut Park and Forest commission purchased 75 different parcels of shoreline property in Madison and cobbled them together to form a contiguous area of 565 acres.  Only July 20th the following summer, Hammonasset Beach State Park first opened to the public, attracting over 75,000 visitors in its inaugural year.  The new state park was an instant hit with state residents — in its first eight years, attendance skyrocketed from 75,000 people to 75,000 vehicles carrying an estimated 300,000 visitors.

With the exception of a few years during World War II — when the park was temporarily closed to the public and repurposed as a federal army reserve station and aircraft base — Hammonasset has remained a favorite summer destination for Connecticans for nearly one hundred years.  The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (which is responsible for daily park operations) estimates that the park now attracts over a million visitors each year.

Further Reading

Hammonasset State Park Serves the State and its Residents,” connecticuthistory.org

Elizabeth Normen, “A Brief History of Hammonasset Beach State Park,” Connecticut Explored