The Niantic River is ideal for beginner and intermediate paddlers. Photo Tom Richardson

Exploring the Niantic River

Text & Photography By Tom Richardson

The protected Niantic River, which separates the Connecticut towns of East Lyme and Waterford, is a well-protected paddling venue, and offers plenty to see along the way. Paddlers can launch for free at the state launch facility in Waterford, near the Niantic inlet, as well as at Kiddie Beach on Keeny Cove.

On the East Lyme side, you’ll find a launch site at Cinni Park, just before the drawbridge, as well as at the end of Grand Street near Boats Inc. For a fee, you can launch and park at Three Belles Marina on Smith Cove (East Lyme side). Three Belles also rents Hobie kayaks.

Note: Inexperienced paddlers must use caution near the inlet, where currents can exceed five knots and boat traffic is heavy.

The below chart shows some interesting historic sites to check out on a circumnavigation of this important estuary.


  • 1) Golden Spur Amusement Park: Site of the world-famous Diving Horses (1905-1924). The horses would jump into the water after climbing a ramp to the top of a 20-foot tower.


  • 2) Boston Post Road Bridge: Car and trolley overpass (1905-1924). Trollies ran daily from New London to the Golden Spur Amusement Park.


  • 3) Beckwith Shipyard site (early 1800s): Jason Beckwith began operation of this shipyard, originally located in nearby Keeny Cove, before the American Revolution. Four generations of the family produced hundreds of crafts, primarily fishing smacks, sloops and schooners. Jason, Jr. took over the business upon the death of his father, and his seven sons worked in the yard as ships’ carpenters. Two of those sons, James and Daniel, ran the yard after their father’s death, while two other sons, Gordon and Elisha, began a second yard at Strait’s Bridge, now known as the Golden Spur area. James and Daniel Beckwith, in response to a demand for larger vessels, moved the original shipyard to New London in the early stages of the Civil War.


  • 4) Oswegatchie Hills: This privately held parcel of land, once a granite quarry, represents what might be the last undeveloped mile of coastal waterfront in Connecticut. Local groups want to protect it as a nature preserve.


  • 5) Quarry Dock (1819): Site of a former barge dock that serviced the quarry in Oswegatchie Hills. Granite from the quarry was used in the construction of many famous buildings, many in New York City.


  • 6) Saunders Point (1650): One of the oldest points of settlement in East Lyme, this site was occupied by the Nehantic tribe prior to the arrival of Europeans.


  • 7) Pine Grove (late 1880s): Site of a former religious tent colony.


  • 8) Old Stone House (1815): Built after the 1815 hurricane, this house still stands on the hill behind Three Belles Marina (formerly Bareuther’s Boat Yard).


  • 9) Smith Cove: Former Nehantic settlement site.


  • 10) National Guard Camp: Active for about 110 years.


  • 11) White Storrs House: Site of skirmish in 1781 between militia and local residents trading with Long Island.


  • 12) Boats Inc.: Former homestead of Avery Smith, developer of Niantic Village.


  • 13) Railroad Tracks: The first single-rail track ran through Niantic in 1852.


  • 14) Rope Ferry Site: Site of a rope-pulled ferry that operated in Colonial times.


  • 15) Wigwam Woods: The shoreline from Keeny Cove to Rope Ferry was known as the “Wigwams,” and believed to be a former wintering area of the Nehantics. Several skeletons have been discovered along the banks following the various recent hurricanes.


  • 16) Trolley Trestle (1905-1924): Former trestle used by trolley that ran between New London and the amusement park at Golden Spur.


  • 17) Beckwith Shipyard site (Revolutionary War era): see above


A trio of osprey observe boat traffic from their nest on a daymarker. Photo Tom Richardson