East Lyme Historical Society

Our Town

Town History

In the southeastern part of the state along Long Island Sound in New London County is the Town of East Lyme. It was first settled in the mid 1600’s and incorporated as a Town in 1839.  East Lyme has two villages, Flanders in the northern part and Niantic along the coast. The town consists of 34.8 square miles and rises from sea level to almost 500 feet in the north.  It is dotted with many hills, streams and lakes. The population in the 2020 census was 18,693, but it almost doubles in the summer with people who own cottages and summer homes.  Interstate 95, the former Connecticut Turnpike, travels west to east through the northern part and runs almost parallel with the Boston Post Road (Route 1). The Town seal shows a scallop shell as East Lyme is home to the famous and popular seafood the Niantic River scallop. In 2009 Money Magazine placed East Lyme 75th on their list of “100 Best Places to Live.”

The Early Years

One of the first recorded events to take place in this area occurred in 1646-1647.  A young couple from the Saybrook Plantation to the west wished to marry.  A great snow fell and the Magistrate from Hartford, who was to marry them, could not travel.  A runner was sent to the Pequot Plantation (now New London) to see if John Winthrop, a Magistrate there, would perform the ceremony.  He agreed, but as a Massachusetts official he could only come as far as Sunkipaug stream as that was the boundary between the Massachusetts and Connecticut Colonies. The parties met at the stream and with Winthrop on the east bank and the couple on the west the wedding took place.  Winthrop then named the stream Bride Brooke and this event was later recorded by him in the Connecticut Colonial Records. In 1924 descendents of Jonathan Rudd, the groom, erected a monument at the site of the wedding.

The Early Settlers

The early residents of this area settled in the northern section setting up their farms.  By 1718 the people had grown tired of the long journey to the church in Lyme for Sunday services.  They petitioned the General Assembly of the Connecticut Colony for their own church and it was granted.  They held their first service in 1719 and the area then became known as the Second or East Ecclesiastical Society of Lyme. Though the first church buildings no longer exist, the burial ground laid out at the same time can still be visited.  It contains the graves of many of the early inhabitants. The first minister was Reverend George Griswold (1692-1761). His family was one of the first to settle in the area and owned thousands of acres.  He was an early graduate of Yale and his Commencement Salutatory written in Latin is the oldest document of its kind at Yale.  He ministered at the church for over 40 years.  He was also commissioned to preach to the Nehantic Indians which he did once a week for over 20 years.


The northern section of the area along the Boston Post Road was the first to be developed in the early 1700’s.  They set up their farms and dammed the streams and rivers for saw and grist mills.  Soon other small mills used for fulling wool, making cotton roping and wicking, and wood turning were established.  The area was named Flanders in honor of the woolen industry in Flanders Belgium.  The area along the coast had few homes and was referred to as “The Bank.” There the people harvested salt hay from the marshes for their cattle and seaweed for fertilizer. 


Men from the area took part in The French and Indian War and the farms sent food and supplies to aid in the efforts, and when the first alarm of The Revolutionary War reached southeastern Connecticut some local men headed off to Lexington, Massachusetts. Among those who remained were British sympathizers, known as Tories.  Many records tell of secret meetings of British Soldiers coming ashore at night to meet with these people to gather information and get supplies. Ezra Lee (1748-1821), a local patriot, took on the daring challenge in 1776 to pilot the first American submarine, a small wooden barrel shaped vessel. By pumping in water it could sink under the surface and then with a small hand operated propeller move about.  The Turtle, as it was called, was taken from Lyme to New York harbor where an attempt was made to attach an explosive device to a British ship.  Though it failed in its first attempt, a later explosion caused the British to move their ships out of the harbor.

East Lyme Becomes a Town

Though the people had formed a separate parish in 1719 they still had to travel to Lyme for the town meetings and in 1839 they petitioned the state to become incorporated as East Lyme. The town was formed from parts of Lyme and the part of Waterford that was along the west bank of the Niantic River.

In the early 1800’s shipyards were set up along the Niantic River. During the War of 1812 the British were searching along the coast and all the rivers for ships which they would destroy.  Jason Beckwith, owner of a shipyard, moved all his boats into a cove and hid them behind a row of saplings stuck in the mud.  From a distance it looked like the bank of the river and his vessels were saved. 

By the 1840’s men were setting sail to “George’s Banks” off Massachusetts to fish. At its busiest there was a fleet of over 40 schooners and sloops sailing from the river. Seeing the need to preserve the fish and the abundance of lakes in the town, Avery Smith, who owned much of the land along the Niantic Bay, began an ice business around 1841. Men harvested the ice from the lakes in winter and moved it to ice houses at the shore where the vessels on the way back from “George’s Banks” could ice down the fish on their way to the New York Fish Markets. 

The early settlers had noticed the abundance of granite rock in the hills and by 1815 the first quarry was started.  Many other quarries followed throughout the century and the rock was shipped to ports from New York to South Carolina to be used in construction. This industry attracted many stoneworkers from England who settled nearby.

In 1851 the railroad was constructed along the shore and the southern part of the town was developed. Businessmen and bankers riding the trains noticed the beauty of the shoreline and began building summer homes in the area.  Churches also set up summer campgrounds with the Spiritualists opening up the Pine Grove area in 1882 and the Baptists locating at Crescent Beach. Over the years other areas were developed as more city people came to the shore by steamboat and train to escape the summer heat and the population continued to grow.

As the center of the Town shifted to the south, many rooming houses, hotels and stores were opened, not only to accommodate the town people, but the immigrant workers at the mills and quarries and the summer visitors.

Around 1881 the Connecticut General Assembly was looking for a site to set up a state Military Camp.  Eighty-five acres of land was purchased from the Smith family along the Niantic River for the camp. The site is still used by the Connecticut National Guard as a training facility. For many years the camp was named for the current Governor of the state.

The Twentieth Century

At the turn of the 20th century an amusement park was set up along the Boston Post Road in Flanders at the head of the Niantic River.  The Golden Spur Park became a destination for people from New London who took the trolley to the site, famous for its dance hall, skating rink and merry-go-round.  Weekends featured attractions including diving horses and fire divers, with many family and company outings enjoying the river from boats and canoes.

In 1915 The State Farm for Women was opened.  Located on 895 acres along Route 156 this prison was established to give women in trouble a place to find a new life.  It operated as an actual farm, growing its own vegetables and fruit, and raising livestock for milk and eggs. Now called the York Correctional Institution, it remains the only women’s prison in the state. 

In the 1930’s the state purchased the old Niantic Menhadden Oil and Guano Company plant at Rocky Neck and with the help of the WPA and CCC workers constructed a large pavilion of native rock and timber.  Today this 710 acre park with its beautiful beach and campgrounds is enjoyed by many. In the northern part of town an area now known as the Nehantic State Forest was also set aside in 1925.  This was the first State Forest in New London County.

World War II brought some unwanted attention to the Town, when a young man from East Lyme was arrested as a spy.  William Colepaugh, age 26, became sympathetic to the Nazi cause and after spending time in Germany he secretly returned to the United States.  He and a German colleague were dropped off by submarine along the Maine coast.  They made their way to New York, but were shortly arrested and sentenced to be executed.   President Harry Truman changed their sentences to life in prison then to 30 years. The German was finally returned to Germany and Colepaugh was paroled after 15 years.

Houses Open to the Public

In 1660 Thomas Lee built a home on the Indian trail, now Route 156, just east of Bride Brook. The Lee family lived there until the late 1800’s.  In 1914 it was purchased by the East Lyme Historical Society and has been open to the public since then.  It is said to be the oldest wood frame house in Connecticut still in its original primitive state.  It is open during the summer months for tours.

Thomas Avery built a farmhouse on Society Road in 1845 and sold it to William H.H. Smith in 1877, who worked in the Department of the Navy under President Lincoln. William used the house as a summer home and had his brother Herman and nephew, Frank Harris, manage the house and farm. After his death the men, along with their wives, continued to run the farm. The farm and house were bought by the Town in 1955 it is now known as Brookside Farm and is open during the summer months. 

In 2012 the town purchased the property and house at 62 Plants Dam Rd. Now known as the Samuel Smith Farmstead this house, built in the late 1600’s. is a prime example of early colonial life and farm life. It is also open to the public in the summer with other special programs throughout the year.

Some Notable Early Residents

Samuel Comstock (1747-1827) was a teacher at the Little Boston School in the late 1700’s Along with the regular lessons he taught Latin and surveying.  He also taught navigation to the many men who sailed from the area.  His son Dr. John Lee Comstock wrote a book titled A System of Natural Philosophy which was published and used by many schools here and abroad well into the 1800’s.  The school still stands today and is on the property of the Thomas Lee House on Route 156 and open during the summer months. 

Moses Warren Jr. (1762-1836) was a surveyor who traveled to the Western Reserve of Connecticut now Ohio.  There along with Moses Cleveland he mapped the area.  In Ohio there are many Connecticut town names along with Warren and Cleveland Ohio.  Moses Warren’s saddle bags and instruments are in the possession of the East Lyme Historical Society.

Dr. Vine Utley (1763-1836) arrived in Flanders in 1806 and practiced medicine in his home on the Boston Post Road until his death.  He was noted for his promotion of the Smallpox vaccine and contributed many articles to the first American medical journal.  Though a country doctor, he corresponded with Dr. Benjamin Rush and President Thomas Jefferson.  Journals he kept of all his patients during his practice were transcribed in 2008.  In those books he describes patients, by name, their illnesses and how he treated them.

By Elizabeth Hall Kuchta

Copyright Connecticut Humanities