FIRE ENDED CENTURY’S WORTH OF RIVERFRONT WINING, DINING
CHARLES STANNARD – THE HARTFORD COURANT
September 14, 1999 Old Lyme
Walking along the boardwalk at the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Marine and Fisheries Headquarters, one could easily forget this peaceful riverfront property was once the home of a landmark shoreline restaurant and banquet hall called Ferry Tavern.
The use of the property changed forever in a flash fire that ended more than 100 years of tradition when it ignited on the evening of Jan. 23, 1971. The fire leveled Ferry Tavern, an establishment that many area residents still remember fondly.
Ferry Tavern was the last and most successful of a series of establishments on the site at the end of Ferry Road, which for decades was also home to a ferry service across the river between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook. Many passengers on the steamboats that plied the Connecticut River in the late 19th century would order dinner and drinks at the tavern.
The tavern’s oldest section was built in 1835. The building expanded to three stories and developed a reputation as a speakeasy for bootleggers and gamblers during the 1920s and 1930s. It was severely damaged in the great hurricane of September 1938 and stood vacant for the next eight years.
The arrival of Joseph Viveiros, a native of the Portuguese Canary Islands and World War II veteran of the Bataan Death March, began the glory years of Ferry Tavern. Viveiros and his brother, James, purchased the tavern in 1946 and quickly turned it into one of the most popular restaurants in the state.
Ferry Tavern was hopping from the late 1940s into the 1960s, with patrons arriving by boat and car. Open year-round, the tavern hosted hundreds of weddings, employed more than 100 people, and often served more than 1,000 dinners in a single night. It was cited by Life magazine in 1957 as one of the five best restaurants in New England.
Former employees, such as former Old Saybrook First Selectman Larry Reney, say Viveiros was a great boss. Reney said he was offered a beer and hired on the spot as a waiter when he asked Viveiros for part-time work in 1958 to supplement his salary as a new social studies teacher in the Old Saybrook school system.
“You didn’t work for him, you worked with him,” Reney said. “It was a fun place.” Alice Stannard, an 83-year-old Old Lyme resident and my aunt, said her 15 years as a waitress at Ferry Tavern were the best of her working life. “Joe Viveiros was so good to us, it was just like an extended family,” she said.
Viveiros sold the tavern in 1969 to two New York City men, Eric Klingvall and Tony Goncalves. He continued to live in Old Lyme and later ran the Castle Inn in Old Saybrook before his death in the late 1970s.
Business slowed for Klingvall and Goncalves during 1970. According to published reports, the two partners, who are now dead, had reduced their insurance coverage of the building and were thinking of closing for the winter in the weeks before the fire.
Alice Stannard, who was working at the tavern the evening of the fire, recalled spotting smoke coming from an electric socket only minutes before the second floor burst into flames. According to one account, the fire was reported by the man stationed in the control room of the nearby railroad bridge.
Firefighters from Old Lyme, Lyme, Old Saybrook, Flanders Village and Niantic fought a losing battle with the blaze through the winter night. The next day, Ferry Road was jammed as hundreds of former patrons drove by to view the ruins. The 12-acre property became a bone of contention for Old Lyme officials in the years after the fire.
Plans for a $5 million condominium, restaurant and marina complex were blocked by the zoning commission in 1973. Acquisition of the property by the state was delayed for nearly a decade after former Gov. Ella Grasso, a summer resident of Old Lyme, blocked a $575,000 appropriation to purchase the site that had been approved by the State Bond Commission in December 1974.
The state acquired the property in 1986, paving the way for construction of the DEP facility and boardwalk, completed in 1992.