Tombolo(s) of Connecticut

I have an odd affinity for tombolos. I don’t know why. It’s completely irrational. Even one of the earliest Twelve Mile Circle articles focused on the phenomenon.

I’ll stick with a definition I drafted back then and quote myself.

A Tombolo is a narrow neck of land that forms between the mainland and an island, or between two islands, as sand and sediment deposit between them. Waves hit a landform at a specific angle determined by surrounding currents. Over time this can build up to a sandbar or sand spit. If there happens to be an island or a rock nearby, and if the sediment builds up at exactly the right angle, then the two can join as one. Vegetation may take hold on the new land and further anchor a tombolo into place.

What’s the deal with Connecticut though, and why did I cryptically title the article parenthetically? It’s due to a persistent rumor, folklore, assertion or whatever that only a single tombolo exists in the state of Connecticut. Steve of Connecticut Museum Quest and I discussed this occasionally over the last four years; not intensely, just as a curiosity that arose periodically.

I’ve learned to be skeptical whenever is see claims of the "only" whatever, probably because the 12MC audience always proved me wrong whenever I made an assertion like that. I’ve been humbled so many times. On the other hand, Connecticut is a really small state. It had an air of plausibility. The story came up again from one of Steve’s readers so I decided to see if I could either prove or remove the "single Connecticut tombolo theory" for good.

Charles Island

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Charles Island in Milford became the centerpiece of the claim, the supposed magic tombolo singularity.

Charles Island Tombolo Connecticut 337 AD
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Admittedly, this seemed to be a great example of a tombolo and a highlight of Silver Sands State Park.

The early history of Silver Sands focuses on Charles Island. The Island is connected to the mainland by a sand/gravel bar (tombolo) that is submerged at high tide. Captain Kidd is reputed to have buried his treasure on the island in 1699. The only remains on the island are of a Catholic retreat center from the 1920’s-30’s

There were all sorts of supernatural claims about Charles Island, about it supposedly being haunted and evil with all sorts of wild ghost stories and no evidence to back them up. The Wikipedia page was particularly embarrassing with a completely unreferenced section called "Legends of hauntings, treasure and a curse."

Was this the only tombolo in Connecticut, though? No. Not even close.

Menunketesuck Island

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Steve’s reader mentioned Menunketesuck Island, off of the coast of Westbrook. It followed the same pattern as Charles Island, albeit considerably more obscure, with a similar sandy connection to the mainland accessible only at low tide. Personally, I thought this one seemed to be just as legitimate as the tombolo at Charles Island.

Bushy Point

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Might there be others though? Yes! Yes, there were others.

I uncovered Bushy Point at Bluff Point State Park in Groton. As the park website described it,

State holdings include a north-south strip of the mainland, a portion of the headland bluff fronting the Sound, and the tombolo or sandspit forming a beach of nearly one mile in length. The beach terminates in a small, rocky island called Bushy Point.

I’ve marked the USGS location with an arrow because there are so many other geographic features nearby. Drill down though, and notice the sand deposited between mainland and island.

Captain Harbor Tombolos

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After pondering the likelihood of three Connecticut tombolos between mainland and tied-islands, I turned my attention to island-to-island tombolos. I recalled my adventure with Steve last summer during our Connecticut Extremes Adventure, as we searched for the state’s southernmost point on Great Captain Island. I swore I saw a tombolo although I couldn’t tell if it was natural or man-made.

In fact there appeared to be at least three tombolos in Greenwich’s Captain Harbor once I looked at the maps a little closer.

Great Captain Island

Great Captain/Captains/Captain’s Island. I took this photograph during our brief stop. Notice the causeway. Did the causeway come first or was it used to solidify an existing sandbar? The Town of Greenwich provided an explanation,

The island is a remnant of a glacial moraine. It contains a diversity of rock types- gneiss, schist,
granite-with a very large glacial erratic on the southern side. The Eastern and western sections are
connected by a tombolo – sand or gravel bar.

That led me to believe the tombolo formed naturally and was later enhance and preserved by the causeway.

Island Beach and Wee Captain Island. I had the same suspicion here, and again the Town of Greenwich came to the rescue,

Island Beach formerly known as Little Captain’s Island… lies about 3,500 feet due east of the larger Great Captain’s Island, and is connected by a 600-foot long tombolo, or intertidal sand bar, to Wee Captain’s Island, a privately-owned half-acre island off its easterly side.

Calf Island and Shell Island. This tombolo existed within the same proximity. Calf Island was part of the Stewart B. McKinney. National Wildlife Refuge. The Calf Island Conservancy explained:

At 31.5 acres, Calf Island is the largest offshore island in Greenwich, CT. It is located directly south of Byram Harbor, approximately 3,000 feet from the mainland, and is connected at low tide to the Greenwich Land Trust’s Shell Island.

I then looked at various Connecticut islands and shoreline farther along Long Island Sound and spotted numerous likely candidates. I didn’t have time to research them individually, however, I’m sure it could be done if the ones I’ve already mentioned didn’t seem sufficient. That’s a polite way of saying I began to get bored with it and others should feel free to pick up the charge.

Governors Island

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Not every island connected to mainland would qualify as a tombolo. A tombolo, by definition, is formed by wave action. I found a recent article in the Hartford Courant, A Journey To A Windswept Island In Goodwin State Forest, that claimed that Governors Island was a tombolo.

After a brief walk east along Estabrooks Road, I returned to the forest and Pine Acres Pond Trail, which runs along the entire eastern shore of the pond. After its shadowy start in a deep pine forest, the canopy opens overhead as the trail winds past a large swamp and across swaths of huge rocks to the tombolo – a spit of land that connects to Governor’s Island.

I don’t think the pond would be large enough to generate the necessary wave action to create a true tombolo. I’ll bet it’s a pretty spot, just maybe not a tombolo. I’m thinking sediment washed downstream rather than waves.

Nonetheless, I think I found sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Connecticut doesn’t have a tombolo (singular) it has tombolos (plural).

4 Replies to “Tombolo(s) of Connecticut”

  1. The greatest of all Tombolos would have to be one that spans an international boundary and joins two nations. So does such a thing exist? Well maybe, maybe not.

    India and Sri Lanka are joined – or are they?

    What a tenuous bridge this must be.

    1. I actually wanted to post about that very one. International or not, it’s still a great piece of geography (and one immortalised in myth as well, as Rama’s Bridge).
      The Curonian Spit, a landform of similar shape and size on the northern edge of Kaliningrad Oblast (an exclave of Russia), is also international (half of it is in Lithuania), but it probably isn’t a tombolo (as, for one, there’s no islands involved). However, there’s a kind-of personal connection for me in that I probably would be there next Tuesday 🙂 (in fact, I probably would be there next Tuesday whether that would be the 13th or the 20th – it’s about the most interesting place in the vicinity).

      1. I turned out to miss it on the 13th (weather was too awful, and we were too busy). 20th is still a possibility.
        Of course, tomorrow I probably would visit the Vistula Spit, which is a very similar and if anything more interesting landform… but that is worth a separate comment in itself (likely to a different article/post).

  2. someone commented about how weird it is that the plural is indeed “tomobolos” rather than “tomboli,” as it is of Italian derivation. Just to add more confusion.

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