Great Captain Island is about one mile off Greenwich’s coast. It is the southernmost point in Connecticut where you can still be on land.
Great Captain Island, at seventeen acres, is the largest of three island group off the coast of Greenwich, Connecticut. Little Captain (also known as Island Beach) and Wee Captain, connected to Great Captain by a sandbar, are the other two islands.
If you don’t own a boat, you have limited opportunities to visit Great Captain’s Island each year. But if you make it out, you’ll have a one-of-a-kind experience.
A Brief History of Great Captains Island
According to local legend, the names of the islands come from a gold and silver treasure buried there by the famous pirate Captain Kidd. While no one has ever discovered the treasure, locals claim it’s buried near the tide line on the southwestern tip, close to Kidd’s hometown. That said, it’s more likely the islands are named after Captain Daniel Patrick. He was a settler in Greenwich and the town’s first military commander in the early seventeenth century.
King George III of England titled the islands to John Anderson in 1763. However, Connecticut Yankees were already resentful of the Crown at the time. When Anderson cut down some trees, the Bush family of Greenwich sued him for trespassing. Unsurprisingly, a Connecticut court ruled in favor of the Bushes. The New York Legislature, in turn, designated the island as a part of the New York town of Rye in 1788. Over a century later, a commission granted Connecticut permanent jurisdiction over the islands.
Great Captain Island sits among a slew of small islands, ledges, shoals, and other maritime hazards. And all this near the main shipping lanes of Long Island Sound. So it didn’t take long for authorities to recognize it was an ideal location for a lighthouse. In 1829, Congress set aside $5,000 for the federal government to buy land on Great Captain Island. The purchased land was on the southeast part of the island and measured three-and-a-half acres.
Because both Connecticut and New York claimed ownership of the islands at the time, they were required to release the land to the government.
The 1900s to Today
During prohibition, bootleggers used the island to dilute smuggled liquor. They then brought it back to the mainland for resale to many thirsty customers.
Starting in the 1920s, a private beach and casino operated on the island until it mysteriously burned down one night in 1947. The owners filed a lawsuit against the Coast Guard, claiming that one of their flares lit while searching for a downed pilot destroyed the complex. In 1951, the Coast Guard paid the owners nearly $20,000 in damages.
Today, Great Captain’s Island is a bird sanctuary where white egrets used to nest in high numbers.
Things to do at Great Captains Island
A day trip to Great Captain Island is a unique experience. Unlike some of the other, more accessible, islands in Long Island Sound, this one is much more rustic. Be ready to carry in what you need, and carry it back out with you.
Great Captain Island Lighthouse
The original construction crew did a poor job constructing Great Captain Island Light in the early 1800s. And so the building was replaced in 1868 by a new granite dwelling with an attached lantern. The lighthouse has a similar style to other local lighthouses:
- Sheffield Island in Norwalk, CT
- Morgan Point in Noank, near to Mystic, CT and Groton, Connecticut
- Old Field Point Light and Plum Island in New York
- And Block Island North in Rhode Island
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1970.
The Town of Greenwich purchased the property in 1973. Full-time caretakers maintained it until the lighthouse became too dilapidated in 2003. A successful restoration effort completed in 2009. In 2012, the lighthouse tower received a non-navigational 4-second flashing green light.
In 1991, the National Register of Historic Places added the Great Captain Island Lighthouse to its list. The lighthouse is currently occupied by a family who serve as lighthouse keepers.
Great Captain Island Beach
Enjoy the crescent-shaped beaches that line the coast of Great Captain Island. On the western side of the island, you’ll find picnic tables, grills, restrooms, and posted swimming areas.
September 11 Memorial Plaque
In the late 1990s, a fund-raising campaign launched called “Return the Light” to rebuild the lighthouse. It had fallen into disrepair, again. Ben Fisher, who championed the cause, was among those killed years later in the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center Towers. During the renovation, a bronze plaque with Fisher’s name was placed on a rock near the lighthouse in 2010. The plaque also included the names of 12 local residents and 14 people connected to the town. The majority were employed at the World Trade Center Towers, which are a short commute from Greenwich, and two were on the hijacked planes.
The Natural state of Great Captain island
The island is still largely wild today. During their annual migrations, your can see egrets, herons, osprey, and other bird species nesting or resting. A trail system has been established for visitors.
Great Captain Island is an important bird area in Connecticut. It is home to great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, and black-crowned night herons. In the early 2000s, the number of herons and egrets in the state’s largest rookery collapsed. Scientists theorize that the rookery suffered several punches from:
- Human disturbances
- Competition from cormorants and a great horned owl living on the island predating on them
- And pollution in Long Island Sound waters
The island’s status as a crucial habitat for these species remains uncertain.
The island is open all year, with a ferry service in the summer. There are no public tours of the lighthouse or the island.
How to Get to Great Captains Island
Great Captain’s Island is open year-round from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., with a ferry service running during the summer months. For many years, the ferry was only available to Greenwich residents and their guests. Luckily, it is now open to the general public.
The Greenwich ferry operates from the second week of June to the second week of September. The town ferry boats:
- The Island Beach
- Indian Harbor
- And Islander II
Leave from Greenwich Harbor’s Arch Street Dock. Only by boat can you get this far south. During the summer months (June through September), a public ferry runs from the ferry dock at Roger Sherman Park. The ferry service varies with the tides, only leaving at high tide and for a few hours on either side. Be sure to check the ferry schedule.
The ferry is quite small and can only accommodate a limited number of passengers. That said, the views of shoreline Greenwich mansions as you ride the ferry from the harbor to the island are spectacular.
Hotels, Inns, and Places to Stay near Great Captains Island
Hotels in Greenwich, CT, offer modern comfort and historic charm in downtown Greenwich, close to the ferry dock. Delamar Greenwich Harbor is a luxury hotel with beautiful views of Greenwich harbor. It’s on the other side of the harbor from the Arch Street dock. Stanton House Inn is a charming mansion bed and breakfast in a lovely building built in 1843 with an seasonal outdoor pool and gardens. It provides a peaceful retreat close to Greenwich Avenue. Both places offer a unique experience for relaxing and enjoying downtown Greenwich.
Discover more things to do in Greenwich, CT aside from Great Captains Island
The affluent town of Greenwich, Connecticut, offers a variety of things to do. Specialty shops, art galleries, and recreational parks, as well as summer concerts, are open for both residents and visitors. You’ll enjoy the drive here, close to the New York border, near the Big Apple. Many opulent and beautifully landscaped homes line the roads.
And you can take the ferry to Little Captain’s Island, better known locally as Island Beach. A former amusement park, Island Beach is still delightful, without carnival rides.
Greenwich Point Park is a waterfront recreational park on a peninsula with clean, sandy beaches. It’s a popular spot for swimming, fishing, boating, and other water sports.
The Bruce Museum promotes arts and science to enrich visitors’ lives.
Be sure to download a free copy of the Greenwich, CT, Visitor’s Guide. It has all the best attractions, activities, and things to do in Greenwich, Connecticut, including the best Greenwich parks.