Hammonasset Beach State Park is named for the Hammonassett tribe of Eastern Woodland Indians, one of five tribes that inhabited the shoreline area of Connecticut. The Indian word “Hammonassett” means “where we dig holes in the ground,” a reference to the tribe’s agricultural way of life. They grew corn, beans, and squash, and fished foraged and hunted as well. The first colonists arrived in 1639. In 1641 Uncas, a powerful Mohegan Sachem, married into the tribe and the area around Hammonasset was given to the Mohegans as part of the marriage dowry.
He soon sold the land to Colonel George Fenwick, the leader of the Saybrook Colony, who later traded the land to Henry Whitfield of Guilford for use as farmland. The Hammonassetts relocated to the Niantic River area, and were absorbed into the Mohegan Tribe. For more than 250 years the area was farmed. The colonists mainly used the area to gather seaweed and to cut salt-marsh hay for feed and bedding for horses and cattle.
At one time fish oil sheds were built on Hammonasset Beach to boil down fish into oil for paint and linseed oil. Otherwise the land was sparsely used until 1828. At that time a farm was established and a farmhouse built on the site of the present Meigs Point Nature Center. An orchard was planted on Willard Island and corn, potatoes, oats and hay were grown on other higher areas.
In 1898 the Winchester Repeating Arms Company bought Hammonasset and used it as a testing site for their new rifle. Their Lee Straight Pull rifle was mounted on a horse drawn stone boat, from which it was fired into targets on the beach.
In 1919, the Connecticut Park and Forest Commission began to acquire the lands that would comprise Hammonasset State Park. Part of the land that now makes up Hammonasset Beach State Park was purchased from Clarkson Meigs and others, a total of 565 acres, which now comprise the western end of the park. By the end of the year, 565 acres had been purchased at a cost of $130,960.
On July 18, 1920, Hammonasset Beach State Park was opened to the public. It was the 19th Connecticut State Park. The first season attracted over 75,000 visitors. The Parks Commission built a Grand Pavilion and boardwalk as well as a clam shed, consisting of a kitchen and large indoor area for tables and chairs. These were both temporary structures, designed to last only five to ten years when more money would hopefully be available. The Grand Pavilion remained until torn down in 1967, surviving several severe storms, including the Hurricane of 1938. The park nearly doubled in size in 1923 with the acquisition of an additional 339 acres. The park’s reputation drew tourists from across the continent as well as the state.
During World War II the park was closed to the public. Hammonasset was leased to the Federal Government and served as an army reservation and aircraft firing range. P-47 warplanes used targets set up along Meigs Point Road for target practice, being careful to shoot toward the Sound rather than toward the shore. Planes flew over Clinton Harbor, fired at the range and then flew out over Long Island Sound. One plane crashed during practice and remains in the Sound today.
HBSP reopened after the war and quickly began to break attendance records. The stone breakwater at the Meigs Point end of the park was built in 1955. The stones were brought in by truck from quarries in northern New England.