Jewell pens a history of the Rowayton waterfront
Published 4:16 pm, Thursday, October 7, 2010
Fairfield resident Karen Jewell begins the introduction to her new book, A History of the Rowayton Waterfront: Roton Point, Bell Island & the Norwalk Shoreline, by citing the title from a Norman Rockwell painting, "Looking Out To Sea."
Jewell, herself, has looked out to sea from many perspectives: sailor, dock master, yacht charter/sales broker, boat cleaning entrepreneur, columnist and now author. With her new book, the author offers informative, entertaining and at times poignant and revered glimpses of the Rowayton waterfront and Norwalk shoreline where people have boated, sailed, fished and lived.
They have been entertained by gathering oysters or lobsters from the coastal waters or by laughter from the former Roton Point Amusement Park. The salty air has brought a feeling of exuberance for generations.
Jewell writes, without "the `old salts' the connection to the past would be lost and with it the foundation for our future."
Just days after the official release of her book, Jewell sat on the back deck of her small cottage in Fairfield discussing her joy in having the book, which she has been writing since last April, finally published. She will be doing a book signing/discussion at the Westport Barnes & Noble i on Tuesday, Oct. 12 at 7 p.m.
While she acknowledges there are a number of history books about Norwalk, she believes her soft-cover, 128-page format offering an historical account of the Rowayton and Norwalk waterfront is something that anyone would want to pick up and read. Specifically, she says it gives the next generation a little history told, in a collection of vignettes introducing readers to rumrunners, a missing 200-foot steamship, a national scandal and the notorious "Long Island Express" hurricane of 1938 that almost destroyed Roton Point, at that time, home to the famed roller coaster,
Through first-person narratives, Jewell offers historical perspectives including that of the 1938 hurricane in which Rowayton resident Joesph Kilbourne describes the water looking like "10 feet of absorbent cotton."
Kilbourne had been at the Palace Theater in South Norwalk watching a double feature of "Dracula" and "Dr. Frankenstein's Monster" when the hurricane roaed into town.
Jewell offers another first-person narrative in the voice of Bob de Courcy who many years ago reminisced to Clive Morrison, the former commodore of the Rowayton Yacht Club, about Hickory Bluff and Bell Island during the first one-third of the 20th century.
The author devotes a chapter to Roton Point where in 1928 merry-go-round salesman Neville Bayley purchased an existing park and grew the park into one of the most popular amusement parks in the region. Jewell writes how the park expanded to include a roller coaster, carnival rides, bowling alleys, weekly fireworks, beauty pageants, big bands, dance competitions and dining that could accommodate 500 people at a time.
Sending a postcard from the Roton Point Amusement Park was so popular that the park installed "writing stations" on the park grounds "to allow guests to be able to purchase, write, stamp and put their notes to friends and family in the mail all at once," Jewell writes.
Local residents and boaters today especially will enjoy reading about the early history of Rex Marine and Norwalk Cove Marina, in which Jewell gathered much of the information through interviews with Bill Gardella, Sr., one of the five sons of the marinas' founder Louis J. Gardella, whose own personal interest in buying a boat at cost in the 1930s led to his first step in establishing his marina.
The Gardella Trucking Company owner bought his boat at cost and opened his marine shop in a former gas station on Route 1 with one eye on the lookout for a waterfront property, which turned out to be the old Seal Shop Oyster House on Water Street where Rex Marine was established. He partnered in a restaurant at the site and then eventually expanded his marine business to East Norwalk where he founded Norwalk Cove Marina. Today, says Jewell, both marinas "continue to thrive as full-service yachting facilities and are both owned and run by the Gardella family."
One of the most informative, surprising and curious chapters is "Mysteries and Treasures," which leaves the reader with much food for thought and mysterious plot lines that could make great movie scripts. This chapter focuses on a missing ship, the curse of Captain Kidd and a bounty of precious jewels, the latter which deals with a train wreck that occurred off the Norwalk River railroad bridge.
Here's the scenario. A train is approaching Stamford with Thaddeus Birke, a prominent English importer of fine jewels and precious stones aboard. He's on his way to Boston accompanied by two wooden trunks full of diamonds and pearls and gold and silver jewelry that he is planning to show to prospective buyers. While the train heads toward Norwalk a steamship is preparing to pass under the railroad bridge. The operator activates the drawbridge system to allow the steamship to pass through. As he did so, "he was shocked when he turned and saw the New Haven Railroad train traveling at top speed down the track straight for the open bridge.... Jewell relates what happens next in her chapter.
"I fell in love with the history. There've been books written about Norwalk but not the focus of the waterfront and the early history," says Jewell, who has been writing a weekly column, titled "Water Views" for The Norwalk Hour the past nine years.
She also writes a column, "The Stamford Sailing Scene," for the Stamford Times, a weekly newspaper.
The experience in writing her column has expanded her own knowledge and perspective of the Connecticut coast with topics such as "Haunted Ships and Sighting," "The Art of Sailing" and "Learning the A, B, Seas."
In addition to her columns, Jewell, a native of Stamford, contributes to the Mad Mariners.com, a boating website and is a photographer concentrating on coastal photography.
She is former dock master of the Stamford Yacht Club, Brewers Yacht Haven and Norwalk Cove Marina.
"Learning more intimate insights was invaluable and gave me a much better sense of that time in history," Jewell says.
"This has been a terribly fun project for me and to think it is finally in my hands."