Fairfield Now - Summer 2009
Class of '71 profile
Bruce Williams: History in your own backyard
By Virginia Weir
Sometimes the most interesting history is right in your own backyard. Or, rather, right off your own dock.
When Bruce Williams '71 graduated, he wasn't sure what he was going to do with his history degree - only that he enjoyed investigating and poking around in the past, especially the local history of Black Rock Harbor and the surrounding area of Bridgeport, Conn., where the Williams family has lived and worked in the fishing and marine industry for three generations.
A modest, soft-spoken man, Williams had been a day student at Fairfield, happily living at home and helping in the family's successful lobstering business. After college, he had an oyster business of his own, which piqued an interest in the vessels of the trade. He connected with Mary Witkowski, head of Historical Collections at the Bridgeport Public Library, and their mutual interest in Bridgeport's history led to co-authoring two books: Bridgeport on the Sound and Bridgeport (Arcadia Publishing, 2001 and 2006).
In 1983, with his father, Kaye Williams, as the leading entrepreneur, the family business became a Connecticut tourist landmark when they opened Captain's Cove Marina, turning a former landfill into a pleasant place to spend an afternoon or evening. With a full-service marina and boat repair shop, restaurant and bar, and a boardwalk of eclectic gift shops, the "Cove" is one of very few waterfront properties in Connecticut open at no charge to the public.
"You can come to the Cove and just relax and watch the boats come and go," said Williams.
Life at the marina is not very glamorous, but always busy and usually interesting. Everyone - including Williams' wife, Karen, and their three children - has played a role.
"At the Cove, 'vice president' means you're in charge of whatever it is you're working on that day," Williams laughed.
Within a year after the Williams opened Captain's Cove, they purchased the HMS Rose - a replica of an 18th century British frigate. The beautiful tall ship had been badly neglected. The Williams family set about creating a foundation to refurbish the Rose to its former glory, and in doing so reinvigorated an appreciation for tall ships and the sailing life. In 2000, the Rose was purchased by filmmaker Peter Weir and made her film debut in 2003 as the tall ship in Master and Commander.
Because of the Rose, Captain's Cove is now known as a stopping point and winter haven for tall ships - and for many other unusual vessels, such as the Unicorn, a sail-training ship just for women, or the Lightship Nantucket, which marked the limits of the dangerous Nantucket Shoals from the 1930s to the 1960s. Tours of the vessels are sometimes offered.
Since 1997, Williams, who is a licensed U.S. merchant marine captain, has developed his own close-up tour of Black Rock Harbor on board the Chief, an ex-U.S. Navy liberty launch. The trip passes by Penfield Lighthouse - said to be haunted by a lighthouse keeper who drowned in 1916 - and the posh peninsular neighborhood of St. Mary's by the Sea. He maintains a close relationship with the Fairfield Historical Society, which regularly charters the tour. After the tour, visitors can visit the Dundon House, a historical landmark that Williams saved from demolition in 1991 and restored into a small museum.
"We're now known as the marine history people," Williams said of the family enterprise. "Who knew that degree would come in so handy?"