Category Archives: The Ferry Tavern Restaurant

Connecticut News Story

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.

The Ferry Tavern – Memories

There once was a time when people from elsewhere associated the Town of Old Lyme with Artists, the Congregational Church, Duck Hunting, Barbizon Oak, Sound View Beach, and of course the old inn, the Ferry Tavern. The river ferry was supplanted by a bridge but the old tavern building still served townspeople and nostalgics who remembered. Ferry Tavern boasted a bar, a restaurant and a hotel mostly for newlyweds and other romantics. I can remember the ceiling of one room plastered with dollar bills.

My family had been living in Westchester County, New York, about 100 miles to the west. I needed a place to stay when I was duck hunting and certainly the Ferry Tavern was close to Great Island on the Connecticut River and nearby the protected Lieutenant River meadows were perfect when the weather was really bad. Accommodation for my big Labrador Retriever was easily resolved by the Ferry Tavern room clerk who simply said, “Once you register for your room, we don’t care who you sleep with.” And this is how I first became acquainted with the culture of Old Lyme. Hunting was good.

The dog and I were comfortable with the room and within a few years my wife Edith and our four daughters all moved to Old Lyme, having bought the home of Anstruther Clifford from his son Arthur. This house on Whippoorwill Road had been the home of Arthur for the previous twenty-five years, but everyone in these parts called it, still called it, “Anstruther’s house.” Later we moved to Duck River Lane off McCurdy Road. I bought that house from Mrs. Blanche Craven but neighbors told me that is properly known to be Mrs. Shartell’s place. When I inquired if it would ever be my house the answer was, “Never.”

Well, anyway our eldest child eventually came home from college with a degree and an engagement ring. Her name is Edith Ann, daughter of Edith May, who was the daughter of Edith Haradon. So we had a church wedding and a reception party – dinner – at the Ferry Tavern on December 27, 1970. A good time was had by all and then on January 23, 1971, the Ferry Tavern burned to the ground. There was plenty of nearby water, water wasn’t the problem, the problem was communication. No guests or employees were staying at the Inn that night of the fire and there were no nearby occupied homes to sound an alarm.

The first to report the fire was the Connecticut River railroad bridge tender, I believe his name was Schmittberger. He called using his railroad telephone reporting to his rail boss, located, I believe in Clinton. The bridge tender identified himself and said, so I’m told, “Structure fire. Foot of Ferry Road.” Certainly cryptic but remember, this was not strictly railroad business. The railroad dispatcher then on the Bell System Telephone called the Saybrook Fire Department and reported the message. Probably ten minutes elapsed before the first responder called back that the fire was on the east side of the river, Lyme. So Saybrook called Lyme and the Lyme dispatcher inquired, “Elys Ferry Road or Brockways Ferry Road?” and Saybrook replied, “No, that’s Old Lyme, do you need their number?”

Well, by the time Old Lyme finally arrived at the scene the old building was fully involved. We put some water on it, but the building was past saving.
After the embers had cooled, who shows up at our house but one of the owners of the Ferry Tavern, he was relatively new in town. New in Town means that he had no ancestor living here 300 years ago. He presented me with a very detailed bill and I remarked that he could be so precise. He said that fortunately he took all those records to his home, hence they didn’t burn. I paid him in full. He then remarked that this was the third time that he lost his business in a fire.

Now the property is part of a State Marine Fisheries facility.