Thimble Islands | Tour Connecticut's Vacation Retreat
Captain Bob Milne’s tours of Connecticut’s Thimble Islands are big on legend, lore, and history—but what he doesn’t tell you also reveals island truths.
Slide Show: Thimble Islands
Captain Bob is talking about rocks. Again.
Wearing a microphone headset and perched up in the bow of his 48-passenger tour boat, the Volsunga IV, Captain Bob points out the granite rocks of Cut-in-Two, then adds a critical detail: Tom Thumb carved his initials into those stones more than a century ago. The passengers murmur appreciatively; it’s a small, lulling sound, like waves against a hull. Then we pass Dogfish Rock, and Captain Bob points out that it’s one of the few manmade islands hereabouts—created by piling rock upon rock hauled from the mainland—and he uses this fact to launch into a brief disquisition into how owning an island could raise the status of members of the gentry during the late Victorian era. Near Bear Island, once home to an active quarry, he tells us that the island’s distinctive stone can be found today in the Lincoln Memorial, Grant’s Tomb, and the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lips purse into the universal “who knew?” expression, and heads nod.
Captain Bob is Bob Milne, a lifelong resident of Stony Creek, Connecticut. He’s the owner and operator of Thimble Island Cruises, leading 45-minute tours through these islands throughout the summer. It’s a little-known fact, but animating rocks is one of the skills honed by good tour guides. They can take something inert and uninteresting and inject a bit of wonder into it. They mine rocks for murmurs.
We motor on, and Captain Bob points out Governor Island, now populating it with one Mr. Weed, a businessman and avid gardener who lived there during the early decades of the last century. He paints a vision of a white-goateed gentleman puttering around the harbor in an elegant mahogany steam launch and wearing a white captain’s cap. “And the name of Mr. Weed’s boat was …?” Captain Bob trails off in a question. He awaits an answer, which isn’t forthcoming from the two dozen passengers this morning. “The Sea Weed, of course,” he says. A muffled groan arises, and Captain Bob waits for it to subside before adding, “If you’re overthinking it, you shouldn’t be on this boat.”
One of the most common descriptions of the Thimbles—an archipelago of some 100 to 300 islands (the number depending on the tide and your own definition of an island, as opposed to a rocky outcropping) just off Stony Creek—is that they look like a piece of Maine that somehow broke free and drifted south before running aground in Long Island Sound. That’s a hard description to improve upon. Like their granite cousins to the north, these islands are craggy and stoic and come in eclectic shapes and sizes—some round like igloos, some long like bony fingers.
Two dozen of them are capped with houses: some small; others that seem out of scale, like a large hat sitting precariously atop a head. Many were built as island getaways for the affluent, who arrived by steamship or train from New York, or by streetcar from New Haven, about a dozen miles to the west. The Thimble Islands—named after the thimbleberries that grew on them, not their diminutive size—didn’t attract top-tier robber barons, but rather their court followers, including bankers and brass-mill owners. “We were a notch below Newport,” Captain Bob says.
Captain Bob is nearing 54 years old and grew up on the mainland in Stony Creek, when it was still more or less a blue-collar working waterfront, a poor-cousin coastal neighborhood that’s technically part of the town of Branford. He was one of six kids; he stayed as his siblings all moved away.