Fishermen once called Beavertail home
From the late 19th century until World War II, the southern part of the Beavertail peninsula was primarily a private playground for fishermen and outdoorsmen. At first, sheep grazed in the fields of South Beavertail Farm, and the unpaved road was blocked by gates and fences that enclosed fields and marked property lines. As the century neared its close, house lots were created along the eastern shore just north of the lighthouse.
Elaborate “fishing camps” were built. Casting platforms — long narrow piers from which to fish — stretched over the rocks so the shore-bound fishermen could more readily cast for striped bass. Eliza N. Alexander built her summer cottage, Grey Ledge, in 1895. Fifteen years later, it was turned into a teahouse, drawing visitors who were interested in scenery rather than fishing.
In 1899, a development containing more than 200 acres was platted on the old South Beavertail Farm. Three roads ran north and south through the new Ocean View plat: Cliff Avenue paralleled the western coast, Ocean Avenue paralleled the eastern shore, and Beavertail Road ran through the center.
Albert Peckham of Little Compton — perhaps encouraged by his brother Amos who lived in Jamestown — bought almost 2 acres in Ocean View. The eastern point of his triangular lot was about halfway between the two coastlines and approximately 200 yards north of the lighthouse, close to where the three roads converged. It wasn’t waterfront, but the land’s agricultural use had kept the whole area cleared. Both the East and West passages were accessible.
Peckham died in January 1906 and left the Beavertail land to his four sons: William, Gideon,
Walter and Rufus. William paid his brothers
$10 and other “valuable considerations” to acquire sole title to the land. His development became known as the Peckham Camp. At least one cottage was built on the plot before 1907, but whether Albert Peckham, his wife and their six children spent summers there is unknown. In 1908, William and his wife, Inez, built six cottages. Three more were later constructed for a total of 10.
The cottages were arranged in a V shape. A line of six cottages paralleled the West Passage along the platted, but never developed, Cliff Avenue. Slightly to the east, a line of four cottages paralleled Beavertail Road. In the middle of the V was a white wooden well house with a crank and a bucket on a rope. A long unpainted wooden garage with a dirt floor sat on the triangle’s north side. It had 10 stalls, one for each house. The stalls were separated only by a few boards to brace the roof.
In the 1910s, the cottages rented for $100 for the season of four months. An early advertisement describes the cottages as “bungalows fitted only for camp life. Most all cottages have large pleasant rooms, with broad verandas, hot and cold water, set tubs, open fire places, and are heated by steam or hot air.”
The cottages were not insulated. Despite the advertised heating systems, they were seldom used in the winter. John Martin’s stay at the camp over the Washington birthday in 1907 warranted a news item that quoted Beavertail lightkeeper William Wales. It was the only time in 20 years that visitors had been there Feb. 22, Wales said.
The bungalows at the Peckham Camp continued to be leased out each summer until the beginning of World War II. The same families returned year after year, and in some cases, generation after generation.
On Dec. 4, 1941, the U.S. Army established Fort Burnside. The 185-acre fort encompassed most of what had been platted as Ocean View, including the Peckham Camp. A little over a year later, on Jan. 5, 1943, Inez Peckham — now a widow — sold the land to the federal government for $15,500.
The cottages went with the land. They were used by the armed forces for a while. A soldier stationed at the Harbor Entrance Command Post recalled staying in one. “A blizzard shut the highway one winter day and we were marooned in those uninsulated shacks for a few days, shaving with melted snow and enjoying the petty annoyances.”
After the war ended in 1945, the military’s use of its Beavertail land changed dramatically. The installation was renamed the Naval Radio Station Newport. Over the next two decades, 25 radio antennas were erected, each connected to one or more of 30 transmitters, and Beavertail became a Navy communications hub.
The old summer cottages at the Peckham Camp were useless. Rather than tear them down, the government offered them to Jamestowners. At least three were moved farther north on the island, one as far north as Beacon Avenue. The one designated as T-4 by the military was moved to 12 Elm St. and was finally demolished in 2008.
This is the first installment in a two-part article on Peckham Camp. A first-hand account from a former camper will be published in the Feb. 18 issue.