Hammonasset Beach State Park, Connecticut’s largest public beach and one of the state’s most popular attractions, first opened to the public today in 1920. Located in Madison, Hammonasset features a continuous two-mile-long stretch of sandy beaches lining 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 used the flat, broad swath of coastal land 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.
In the 1910s, state governments across the country — including Connecticut — started to acquire land for public use or conservation, a national trend that culminated in the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. In 1919, the Connecticut Park and Forest Commission purchased 75 parcels of shoreline property in Madison and cobbled them together to form a contiguous area of 565 acres. On July 18th the following summer, Hammonasset Beach State Park first opened to the public as the state’s 19th state park, 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 closed to the public and used as a site where P-47 fighter pilots did airborne target practice — Hammonasset has remained a favorite summer destination for Connecticans for the last century. 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.
“Hammonasset State Park Serves the State and its Residents,” connecticuthistory.org
Elizabeth Normen, “A Brief History of Hammonasset Beach State Park,” Connecticut Explored