As Milfordites, we may sometimes take our long coastline for granted. The beach is always there awaiting our company, be it a walk along the boardwalk, taking a dip, or casting into Long Island Sound angling for the big catch. But way back when—before air conditioning—Milford was (ital)the destination every summer for tens of thousands of visitors looking to beat the summer heat.
In the late 1800s, the ability of tourists from the likes of New York and Boston, to travel along the Milford shore was greatly enhanced by the construction of the Milford railroad station and the installation of the town’s system of electric trolley’s. This new-fangled mode of transportation made exploration easy, and so visitors found Milford quite inviting during the summer months. What had once been a simple agricultural and shell fishing hamlet soon become a popular destination for those seeking the quiet calm of cool, salt water breezes off the Sound.
As the seasonal influx of bathers increased, so did the cottages along the beach, sprouting up as demand for rooms with a view grew. Hotels, inns, and rooming houses offering lodging for out of towners soon dominated the shoreline from Wildermere Beach to Woodmont. The Sound View, Island View, Pembroke, Idlewood, Franklin House, Harrison Park, and Atlas hotels hosted the swanky set while boarding houses offered rooms for rent to those on a budget.
Milford’s entrepreneurial spirit was in full swing. Local merchants and business owners were quick to cater to the tens of thousands who flocked to Milford’s shore…keep them migrating back year after year. Movie theaters, ice cream parlors, amusements, dance halls, bait & tackle shops, skating rinks, and bathing suits-to-let (yes, rented bathing suits) were all available to tourists with money to spend. General stores offered anything a visitor may have forgotten, as well as trinkets to remember their time here. Postcards of Milford were mailed far and wide, often expressing the tried and true sentiment “Wish you were here.”
Local farms and fishermen prospered as well as their bountiful harvest kept restaurants fully stocked. Pop-up farmer’s markets may seem like a new phenomenon, but the concept is ancient, and more than a century ago visitors to Milford took advantage of the wagons, carts, and cars full of fresh foods sold to famished folks on corners along the shore.
Anglers enjoyed the waters from a different perspective, renting boats and tackle and buying up bait in an annual quest to catch a trophy fish, or, more than likely, dinner.
After the turn of the century, for a truly remarkable experience, visitors could spring for an aerial view of town. A small airport—a.k.a. a grass field—hosted enterprising pilots offering a true thrill ride over the beaches of Milford and the mysterious Charles Island.
Ladies sporting sunhats strolled along the piers (perhaps a straw hat made in town by the Mitchell Manufacturing Company), while their kids clamored to ride the carousel and grab the brass ring. Dad’s told tales of the one that got away, and families feasted on fresh fish and enjoyed countless amusements, maybe even a movie at the Colonial Theater.
Though tourism isn’t as robust today as in its heyday, Milford still welcomes visitors in many of the ways it did in the past. You can still rent a bicycle, a boat, or a kayak (but alas, not a bathing suit). You can enjoy homemade cold treats from ice cream parlors around town, and dine al fresco at any number of great restaurants. Free outdoor concerts offer music for all to hear, and the boardwalk stretches into the horizon, ready for a stroll in straw hats. And the beach…well, what’s better than a cool refreshing dip in the water on a hot day? Perhaps a stiff summer breeze so you can fly a kite.
Like the past where Milford played host to tens of thousands of travelers on summer trips, seasonal visitors still travel from across the country, and the globe, to enjoy the place we call home. Welcome them as Milfordites always have…and be sure to enjoy the shoreline pleasures that tourists travel to our town to experience.
—Susan Carroll Dwyer