reprinted with permission from Black Point Phone Directory
Black Point is one of nine beach communities encompassed in the village of Niantic, which is in the Town of East Lyme Connecticut, on the south-central coast of the state on Long Island Sound. The name “Niantic” means “point of land” and Black Point is located at the tip of a peninsula of land that reaches into Niantic Bay. The area around present-day Niantic was occupied by the Niantic Tribe, which because of war and disease, allied itself with the more powerful Tribes in the area, the Narragansetts and Pequots. The Dutch arrived and began trading in the early 17th century, but the English Puritans who arrived in 1630 drove them out, caused a rift in the area’s Indigenous people, and wiped out most of the Niantic tribe in the Pequot War of 1636-37. Black Point was part of an important water route in southern New England used by colonists and traders. Missionaries came to the village to convert its inhabitants, an effort that intensified in the 1740s with the “Great Awakening”. From Long Island’s eastern-most village of Montauk, boats would put in at Old Saybrook and then stop at Black Point/Niantic on their way east to New London, and north up the Thames River.
The origin of the name “Black Point” is unclear, but likely refers to the water around the point. When coming in by boat the dark rocks around the point give the impression of the water being very black. At one time Niantic Bay was also called Black Bay. The area first called Black Point included Crescent Beach and other areas almost as far north as Main Street.
The first inhabitants of Black Point were Native Americans. When the European Colonists first settled Saybrook in 1635, they found the Western Nehantics already in what is now East Lyme, Waterford and areas as far west as the Connecticut River. In the summer, the Nehantic tribe camped along the Black Point shore to fish and grow crops and in the winter, moved inland where game was plentiful. By the mid-1770’s most have married into the Mohegan tribe and moved to Wisconsin, where many descendent still live. In 1770, it was reported that only about 40 Nehantic families remained what was left for their reservation located in the Crescent Beach area.
The first record of a house being built at Black Point was that of Christopher Christophers around 1673. Eventually, through marriage, the house and land were deeded to the Manwaring Family. The house was later bought by Robert Gorton in 1817. Saltmarsh hay was grown on Black Point for the growing region. In 1858, William Gorton built a dock on the east side of Black Point where vessels could load hay for other ports and return with molasses and other goods. Later on, the Gorton House was purchased by Norman Bond, who would eventually develop Old Black Point (separate from the Black Point Beach Association). This house is still in existence and is located along West Lane, near the southern tip of Black Point.
Around 1700, the Payne Farm was built on what is now Sea Spray Avenue (near the intersection with Sunrise Avenue). The house at 38 Sea Spray Avenue still exists and was recently renovated. Most of the land comprising our Association was originally part of the Payne Farm.
The dominant figure in the 20th century development of Black Point was James Jay Smith, who came from New York with the intention of developing the Connecticut shoreline. Smith’s company was instrumental in the development of numerous beach communities, including Black Point, Cornfield Point, Grove Beach, Point O’Woods, and Old Lyme Shores. Smith had a model, which he used in each community, including a clubhouse and small market. This became a very attractive approach to entice families to invest in modest beach cottages along the Connecticut shore.
Jas. J. Smith was born before the Civil War in Chicago and early on became a land speculator and developer there. That land petered out and he moved westward where land was cheap and even free.
He also became an agent for the Union Pacific Railroad and Smith would take trainloads of immigrants and others interested in moving west to the new frontier. Around the turn of the century Smith learned that the Pennsylvania RR was going to put a tunnel under the East River to Long Island. Smith knew thatthere would be a land boom on Long Island so he began to buy land there and subdivide and sell it.
Jas. J. Smith, with his son, Avy, came to Connecticut in 1909. A doctor told Jas. that he was working too hard and to get out to the country for a rest. Accordingly, he bought a farm in Saybrook. But he didn’t rest…he figured the Connecticut shore was ripe for development of summer homes. He started on Groton Long Point, divided the land, set up an office and brought people out in horse and buggies.
In 1924 the Smiths purchased the Payne Farm here at Black Point with the exception of the house and five acres. He then sold lots, built cottages and this became a resort for people from Hartford and Springfield. He added tennis courts and a club house. Prior to 1923, Black Point and the other eight beaches which comprised the East Lyme Council of Beaches, were largely undeveloped. They consisted of open land and wetlands, which were difficult to develop. Gradually, some wealthy mill owners and other affluent Connecticut residents brought their employees to Black Point to clean the beaches.
Subsequent to their purchase of the Payne Farm, the James Jay Smith Company started developing Black Point. They created a model home and sold lots for $200, $300, or $600. The more expensive lots were situated nearest to the water.
The Smiths allowed one store, which for many years was operated by Mr. Wollschlager who knew all the residents as the market included a summer branch post office. There was a well water supply and distribution system, but it would be shut off in the winter. When a few people began to winterize their cottages, they were forced to dig their own wells. Also, since the lots were small, septic systems became a problem. When the Town’s public water and sewer systems were extended to Black Point in the 1980’s, more homes began to be winterized and occupied year-round.
As more homes were built in the Black Point Beach Club it became its own little community. Here everyone practically knows everyone else, picnics, parades and gatherings are held. It joined Pine Grove, Saunders Point and Giants Neck and the other beach areas as a great place to live.
Since the 1950s Black Point has been celebrating the beginning of the summer season with a 4 th of July Parade. The “kazoo band” has been one of the highlights, which spotlights older residents, who have been part of the ensemble since they were young men. The parade is followed by an afternoon picnic at the Clubhouse.
Black Point Beach Club is perhaps best known for their “club program”, a recreational program for children, which has been in place for decades. About 95 children currently participate, learning to swim, doing arts and crafts and enjoy the playground and other athletic activities on the Clubhouse grounds.
Since 1950, Black Point has had a Women’s Club, which meets every Tuesday night, sponsors educational and informative lectures often featuring local interests and social events for members as well as the Black Point community. Not to be outdone, the Men’s Club built a bocce court a decade ago and hosts various activities at the Clubhouse (6 Sunset Avenue), including setback and cornhole, and bingo tournaments, and evening bonfire “beach bashes”.
In 1981, Mary Cahill helped organize the East Lyme Council of Beaches. The most critical issues for the Black Point Beach Association, which were successfully solved by this organization, was the design and construction of municipal water and sewer systems in the mid-1980s. The work solved the long-time, chronic problems with failing and overload individual septic systems.
The Black Point beach community is a political subdivision of the State of Connecticut and operates as a quasi-municipality through its own Board of Governors. We have our own set of governing by-laws including building and zoning requirements. There are nearly 600 residential properties at the Black Point Beach Club Association. The only commercial property within community is the Black Point Market, located at the corner of Sunrise Avenue and Nehantic Drive. The original James Jay Smith Company real estate office still exists on East Shore Drive but was sold in 2022 for residential use. The Black Point Beach Association also owns an approximate 4-acre parcel at the corner of Woodland Drive and Sunset Avenue. Built in 1955, the Clubhouse is located on this parcel along with two tennis/pickleball courts, a playground, Gaga Pit, and bocce court. The Association also owns and maintains two clay tennis courts on Nehantic Driver near Sunset Avenue. Beach right-of-ways are controlled by the Association off East Shore Drive as well as a 25-space parking lot on Whitecap Road.
1. Living on the Shoreline, Summer 2010 Issue; Based on interviews with Mary Cahill and Paul Wollschlager.
2. Liz Hall Kuchta, East Lyme Town Historian.
3. Dartmouth College Library Digital Collections.