Theresa Allen often drives from her home in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Old Lyme to enjoy one of the few public beaches in Connecticut: Sound View, which is only 100 feet long but sees wide use during warm months. “It’s an easy ride, only an hour and 10 minutes,” Allen says as she relaxes on a beach chair, watching the gentle waves roll in and gazing out at a distant strip of Long Island.
“This is one of my go-to spots,” she adds. “It’s one of my favorite beaches in Connecticut. The water is very clean; it’s pristine.”
But there’s another thing she likes about Sound View Beach: “It’s got two bars near the water,” referring to the restaurants Kokomo’s and The Pavilion. “When I started coming here 20 years ago, we used to really party!”
Indeed, Sound View has seen more than its fair share of bar-hoppers, bikers, bootleggers, beer brawls and striptease dancers (Busty Hart among them). During its heyday in the ’40s and ’50s, the Sound View crowd rattled the residents of Old Lyme, a generally staid group of folks who prefer a quiet, tame environment. “For decades, Sound View has been the Rodney Dangerfield of beaches: comical, a bit schlubby and getting no respect at all,” Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson write in their 2010 book Rum Runners, Governors, Beachcombers and Socialists: Views of the Beaches in Old Lyme.
“But that seems to be changing,” the authors added; Sound View has been recognized by the state as “A Connecticut Historic Place.” And the long-time residents who populate three dead-end streets leading to the beach say it’s become far less rowdy and much more family friendly. They play up the historic carousel, the Independence Day parade, bingo nights and the popular doughnuts sold on weekends at the Community Center.
Allen and the thousands of others who flock to Sound View can thank Harry J. Hilliard, an avowed socialist who in 1892 began buying up 44 acres of the old Swan Farm and selling small parcels for $25 each. This was affordable for the Greek, Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants who also were attracted to the beautiful natural setting but had been denied access.
Hilliard did something truly radical and revolutionary for a conservative state where towns restrict use of their beaches: he deeded Sound View Beach to “the unorganized general public” for its perpetual use. “I rather like the idea of equal opportunities for all, special privileges to none,” Hilliard said.
Sound View’s residents are proud of their history. If you stroll down Hartford Avenue, the main strip, you’ll see colorful banners on lamp posts proclaiming: “America’s first public beach.”
The people of Revere Beach in Massachusetts beg to differ; they claim their much-larger expanse is the country’s oldest public beach. But Lampos asserts that he and Pearson “did a rigorous study” for their book. He notes that Revere Beach didn’t open until 1896 — four years after Hilliard got started.
“Sound View was a great place to grow up,” says Dennis Melluzzo, past president of the Sound View Beach Association. “And it was the only place [in Old Lyme] where the middle class could go to the beach. Old Lyme is old Yankees. Sound View was built by blue-collar immigrants of a lower social status.”
Melluzzo admits “it got kind of salty” on Hartford Avenue during the ’40s through the ’70s. “We had arcades, a roller-skating rink, dance halls and restaurants to beat the band! There was a strip joint in the Branmor Hotel and 11 bars.”
Melluzzo remembers seeing Westerns and “B” movies at the Strand, one of two movie theaters then in the neighborhood. If you went to the Colony Theater you bought your tickets from a young Ella Grasso, who spent her summers at Sound View. She had met her husband Tom Grasso (who ran the Colony’s projector) when he was a lifeguard. He later became a teacher, while she was elected governor.
Although the Grassos always spoke fondly of their days at Sound View, the beach community was rocked by a murder in August 1944. A Navy man from Groton picked up a young woman, strangled her and dumped her naked body behind a billboard. For many years afterward, parents had even more reason than before to tell their kids: “Don’t you ever go to Sound View!”
Nevertheless, for dec-ades many mothers and fathers have taken their kids to the Sound View Carousel. Built in 1925, it showcases 20 hand-painted horses and two chariots. Generations of young riders have eagerly reached for the brass ring, entitling them to a free ride.
Jerry and Dee Vowles have run the carousel and adjacent ice cream and beach attire shops since 1988. The Vowles and their patrons are especially happy to be back at the carousel this summer after being denied the opportunity last year by the pandemic. The carousel operates daily 7–9 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day.
The Sound View Beach Association (soundviewbeach.com), a volunteer nonprofit group, offers bingo on Wednesday nights and sells doughnuts on weekends in the summertime from its Community Center on Hartford Avenue. Association President Gail Fuller oversees the sales of those renowned doughnuts, which are baked in Hartford. Her volunteers sell up to 60 dozen of them on weekend mornings. People start lining up as early as 6 a.m. for the 7 a.m. opening. Often the doughnuts are sold out by 8:30. (You can pre-order by calling 860-463-6906.)
The Independence Day parade resumed its tradition in July. “It’s a real hometown event,” says Frank Pappalardo, who chairs the town’s Sound View Commission. “Kids ride in it with their decorated bikes.”
There are outdoor concerts this summer, held at 7 p.m. at the beach’s flagpole. The final two are Aug. 5 and 19.
If you want to hit the beach at Sound View on a sunny weekend, you’d best arrive by 9 a.m. “We have capacity limits and parking fees are strictly enforced,” says Pappalardo, noting Sound View has a little over 100 parking spots.
“We certainly do have a colorful history,” Pappalardo adds. “But we’re looking at where we’re going, not where we’ve been.”