I don’t know why Connecticut got rid of “We’re Full of Surprises.” I liked it much better than “We’re Closer Than You Think.” It was funny, an (unintentional, probably) admission that some of the surprises were less than positive, and, I realized when I started to investigate our tiny state more, it was true. I’m amazed that more people don’t drive off Connecticut back roads into trees, their necks craned the other direction, saying, “What the heck was tha-?” “We’re Closer Than You Think” is just insulting. For people who live in Wyoming, Connecticut is probably just about as far away as they’d predict. But maybe, since the state has dropped it, Waterford could claim “We’re Full of Surprises” for itself.
Because, as I recently learned, Waterford once had...an airport! Of course this will not come as a shock to longtime residents or anyone who’s paid close attention to Waterford news over the past few decades. They will know, as I did not, that today, the former airport site lies empty, the victim of years of legal disputes, a Ponzi scheme, big ideas unfulfilled, and deals gone nowhere. (When I read this, I was relieved to learn that New London is not alone in its ability to create this kind of debacle.)
But once, not that long ago, it was a busy airfield, home to about 30 small private planes. It had two runways, first grass, then gravel, and finally asphalt, each about 2,000 feet long. There were also commercial flights to destinations like New York, Block Island, and Nantucket. There was a flight school. Once, a flying car - automobile on the road and airplane in the sky - landed there. The 1940s and ‘50s seem to have been a heyday of experimental aircrafts; the one that flew to Waterford was probably an Aerocar, with detachable wings and tail.
The airport was built in 1945 by Russell Corser, on the old Whitman family dairy farm. It was sometimes called the Waterford Airport, sometimes New London Waterford Airport. It was a popular place to stop, and well-liked by the aviators who landed there, until it closed in 1988. Noise complaints and re-zoning made the operation of the airfield virtually impossible. The last vestige of the farm, the dairy barn, was burned by the Fire Department in the mid-90s.
The site is right by the highway, a perfect location for any of the office parks it almost became over the years. Where Parkway South ends, just before the barricade that prevents you from driving into the unpaved unknown, you can see a small corner of the 328-acre space. It’s overgrown with unruly bushes and grass, and a billboard rising up out of it advertises available lots. When I drove by, an upside-down couch lay by the side of the road, as if too tired to venture onto the property.
Aerial photos show the property over time, the two runways crossed near the top like skis, tiny planes dotting the grounds. In the later photos they resemble negatives, or ghostly impressions of runways, one marked with an “X” to indicate that it is closed to traffic. Now, the property is simply a forgotten pot on the back burner of a development company. Despite being close to everything, there is a remoteness to it. Over the years, three bodies have been found there.
But it still counts as a surprise. And as a reminder that this town was once a destination that didn’t require a long trip on the highway to reach. Waterford, for about 40 years, really was Closer Than You Think.