The historic lure of fishing Conanicut Island
along the eastern seaboard of the United States. It is 147 square miles in area and extends 25 miles in from the sea. These waters provide excellent habitat for myriad species of aquatic life. Fish are near the top of the bay’s food chain. Some species are year-round residents. However, the ones that are favored by fishermen enter the bay in vast numbers from early spring until late fall.
Jamestown’s location at the mouth of Narragansett Bay provides an excellent shoreline for fishermen who pursue these fish. This is not only true today. Through the centuries, our island’s approximately 26 miles of rocky coastline has been a lure for fishermen.
In his book “Narragansett Bay: A Friends Perspective,” Stuart O. Hale wrote, “Primitive man is believed to have arrived in Narragansett basin in the late Pleistocene, about 6500 B.C. From then until the English colonist came, fishing and hunting and local water transportation in dugout canoes were primary uses.”
William Scranton Simmons in his book “Cautantowwit’s House” states that around 3500 B.C. “fishermen chipped excellent large spearpoints ... and built elaborate fish weirs.” Simmons also mentions that fish-hooks and fishing lines have been found at Indian burial grounds on Southwest Avenue in Jamestown.
Centuries later, in 1643, Roger Williams observed in “Key into the Language of America,” that the Indians “venture to fish in the ocean ... they also fished from shore, used fish traps, or waded into the waters to set or cast their nets.”
The late 19th and early 20th cen-turies find the shores of Jamestown attracting large numbers of sports fishermen. Many of them were guests of the clubs and camps that were established at this time. These organ-izations came complete with club-house and out buildings, such as sta-bles, for the pleasure of their guests.
Probably the most elaborate of these meeting places was the Beavertail Fishing Club. Located sev-eral hundred yards northeast of the lighthouse, it was one that contained more than just a clubhouse. The Nov. 4, 1893 Newport Journal reports the following: “Mr. Osgood of the Beavertail fishing club accompanied by Mr. Benjamin F. Tanner of Newport, visited the clubhouse Friday and arranged for the erection of an additional building on the grounds, to be provided with a dining room on the first floor and sleeping rooms above for the use of the employees of the club.”
The following year we find “Mr. Benjamin F. Tanner is building a sta-ble 20 by 40 feet, for the Beavertail club” (Newport Journal, May 25, 1894). Another popular facility was E.M. Bryant’s Camp: “pleasantly sit-uated on Hull’s Cove, Beavertail, has become a popular resort this summer for those who like to go fishing and be comfortable at the same time” (Newport Journal, Aug. 29, 1903).
The Newport Journal of the early 1900s included some visitors of note who were guests of the fish-ing clubs: “The employees of Ar-mour & Company, and their friends, a party of 20, en-joyed a fish chow-der and clam bake at the Everett M. Bryant’s camp, Hull’s Cove, near Beavertail, Sunday. Fishing and all kinds of sports were enjoyed, and a snappy game of base-ball was played” (July 25, 1903). “Master Harry C. Wright of Jamestown spent Sunday at Mr. Everett M. Bryant’s camp” (Sept. 19, 1903). And in 1905, “ Dr. Edward F. Conklin and Dr. H.W. Gillette of New York were guests at Bryant’s Camp Sunday and caught tautog” (Sept. 15, 1905).
Another destination for fishermen was the Goelet Fishing Club. Special ferryboat service from Newport was sometimes provided. “Mr. Robert Goelet entertained a party at the Goelet Fishing Club at Beavertail Wednesday. ... For the return trip Mr. Goelet chartered steamer Conanicut, the boat making the trip by the south end of Goat Island, coming up through the New York Yacht Club fleet anchored in Newport Harbor” (Newport Daily News, Aug. 17, 1907).
Later that same month, “Mr. Robert Goelet entertained a dinner at the Goelet Fishing Club at Beavertail Sunday, the Conanicut making a spe-cial trip at midnight to carry the party to Newport” (Newport Journal, Aug. 31, 1907). This club also had a stable and “a fine view being obtained from the porch of the clubhouse” (Newport Daily News, Aug. 17,1908). The Peckham Camp at Beavertail was one more place where fishermen would gather. This club appears to be less elaborate than the others mentioned and had a commercial aspect to it. Peckham’s Camp “Consists of seven bungalows fitted only for camp life, three of which are let for a term of years. The rental price is $100 for the season of four months” (Promotional Brochure, probably early 1900s). Other clubs include the Schley Fishing Club and the Burdick Camp. “The Crown Hotel Fishing Club visit-ed Mr. Clarke Burdick’s camp at Beavertail today for a day of fishing” (Newport Journal, Oct 1, 1910). “The Schley Fishing Club opened its house on Beavertail Sunday for the season” (Newport Journal, June 16, 1900). Little information about these two camps was noted in newspaper accounts of the time.
During this era, there was one club that did not have a permanent resi-dence, but rather opted to go where the fish were. “Messrs. D.C. Watson, A.R. Cory, Fred Anthony and Wager Buggs have purchased the street car used for a workshop at the time the moveable chapel was built. They have made some alterations which will convert it into a moveable fishing clubhouse. A small space at the front of the car has been partitioned off for a kitchen, four swinging bunks and two stationary bunks have been built and altogether it will make a very comfortable place. The car was hauled to Beavertail Saturday on its first trip as a fishing club” (Newport Journal, Sept. 30, 1899).
Of course, the main activity of all these clubs was fishing. To give their members and guests a better opportu-nity for a successful catch, fish stands were built. These iron-supported plat-forms extended from the top of a rocky bank straight out over the roar-ing surf. The narrow walkway allowed only one person at a time to reach the end of the stand. From such a perch high above the water they were better able to get their bait to the fish.
In addition to the stands built by the clubs, individuals could also be the owners of a fishing station. “Mrs. Susan A. Dawson has sold to Joseph Wharton her fishing stand, situated on the east side of Beavertail” Newport Journal, Sept. 10, 1904). Even the town of Jamestown had an interest in the construction of these fishing platforms. “The Jamestown Town Council at a short meeting Monday evening voted to ask per-mission from the State Harbor Commission to build four bass stands at Beavertail to increase the fishing facilities on the island” (Newport Daily News, Dec. 26, 1946).
These fishing stands were prized locations to fish from. However, most of the fishermen made their catches back on the rocky shoreline. The most popular rocks were identi-fied by name in maps and a Beaver Tail Company brochure.
At the park, anglers could fish from Lucky Strike, Rip Rap, Old Slippery, or Yellow Dirt. The last one “being the favorite and most covet-ed.” To the north of the park were rocks named Spindle, Lion’s Head, Flat Rock, and the Pulpit. It is easy to imagine the excitement when an angler would arrive at his favorite rock and see stripers in a feeding frenzy close to shore. However, as today, the opportunity to have access to such a place must be tempered with an awareness of the perils associated with these slippery surfaces.
This account in the Sept. 10, 1887 Newport Journal is a tragic example of these dangers. “Mr. Morris Hull, of this place, and Mr. Charles Ray, of Providence, went to the Dumplings fishing Saturday afternoon. Upon arriving at that place, they went upon a rock near the Gully. As the sea was dashing over this rock to a consider-able extent, Mr. Ray became dissatis-fied and decided to go on what is known as the Old Peter rock, about one hundred feet away. Upon his way to that rock, he looked back and saw Mr. Hull where he had left him. It probably did not take him five min-utes to reach ‘Old Peter,’ but on his arrival, and before he had put down his line in the water, he looked over to hail Mr. Hull but could not see him. He immediately ran to the place in company with Mr. Tennant, who hap-pened to be near, but, after a diligent search, they were unable to find any trace of Hr. Hull, excepting his bait pail which was floating in the water. Several parties were searching for the body during the day Sunday, with no traces of it having been found. Mr. Hull was about 48 years old and a son of Mr. George Hull. He was a native of the island and the proprietor of Hull’s express. He leaves a wife and two children.”
The body of Mr. Hull was found about a week later floating near the bell buoy at Brenton Point.
On Oct. 31, 1908 the Newport Journal reported a similar accident. A farmhand, Walter Lewis of Orange County, Va., who was employed by George A. Brown, was washed from the rocks at Beavertail and drowned.
Unfortunately, sometimes the dan-gers of this shoreline can effect more than one fisherman at a time. “Ernest Vieira had gone fishing off the rocks at Horsehead with three companions. A storm-driven wave struck and swept all four into the water. Three were drowned: Ernest Vieira at the age of 42, Manuel Medeiros, and Joseph Mello Sr.; Joseph Mello Jr., the son of Joseph Sr., survived” (Newport Daily News, Oct. 19, 1932).
Accidents were not limited to the rocks of Beavertail. This incident at Knowles wharf has a happy ending. “Friday afternoon, Harold, the five-year old son of Chief of Police Hull, had a narrow escape from drowning. He went to Knowles wharf to fish for mackerel, which are being caught in large numbers at this place. In play-ing about the head of the wharf, he lost his balance and fell in. Fortunately, a playmate, Kenneth Knowles, was coming down to the wharf at the time and saw the acci-dent. Unlike many boys he did not run to call for assistance, but hurried to get the little fellow out, which he managed to do with the aid of the fishing pole. The rescuer and rescued then hurried home to tell their story. Chief Hull presented Kenneth Knowles, who is but seven years old, with a dollar gold piece, which no doubt will be kept in remembrance of the time he saved a little boy’s life” (Newport Journal, Nov. 16, 1901).
Accident accounts at the East Ferry piers were rare. Most reports of the early 1900s focused on the enjoy-ment of catching fish. “Round mack-erel have struck in and every morning the wharves are lined with small boys who are enjoying the sport of catch-ing them (Newport Journal, Sept. 22, 1900). Twenty three years later, we find that the East Ferry “piers are providing good fishing for the resi-dents of the town. Mackerel weigh-ing anywhere from a half pound to two pounds made the fishing rather lively. Large-size flounders and small bluefish were caught in good quanti-ties. Many are taking advantage and it is now a common sight to see 30 to 40 fishing close together” (Newport Journal, Sept. 28, 1923).
Throughout the years most of the fish frequenting the shores of Jamestown are similar to the ones we see today. It is the difference in the quantity and the size of the fish caught in the past that is most strik-ing. “Mr. John E. Watson and Mr. William Gardner captured more than a hundred pounds of blackfish (tau-tog) Wednesday at Horsehead, at the Dumplings” (Newport Journal, Oct. 5, 1889). “It is thought that never before in the history of the island was the town visited in the same length of time by so large a number of people for the sole purpose of fishing as dur-ing the past three weeks, and never before was the fishing as good, as thousands of blackfish have been caught from the rocks during that time. People came from Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, and even, Providence to enjoy the sport. Mr. Watson Sherman Tuesday caught eighty-five, and he was but one of perhaps a dozen persons who caught about the same quantity. ... As yet but few large fish have been captured, from three to four pounds being a fair average of the size, with an occasion-al ten-pounder” (Newport Journal, Nov. 2, 1895).
“Mr. A.R. Cory recently caught 18 pounds, enough to supply his mar-ket for quite a while” (Newport Journal, July 13, 1901). “Captain Wales, assistant keeper at Beavertail light, caught the largest one (black-fish) for the week, a ten pounder” (Newport Journal, Nov. 6, 1909). “Beavertail is again the Mecca of anglers, the largest blackfish of the season caught with rod, reel and line going to Isaac H. Clarke, who hauled an 11 3/4 pounder on the morning of the Fourth of July. The fish measured 26 1/2 inches long with a girth of 23 inches” (Newport Journal, July 11, 1924). Blackfish appear to be the species of fish most desired by the fishermen of this time, as it was the one most often referred to in newspa-per reports. However, striped bass were also a prized catch and quite abundant. “Since the haul of bass at Beaver Tail, fish stories have been as thick as mosquitoes, and a person can safely divide by ten what he hears (Newport Journal, Aug. 27, 1887). Yet most reports do not mention great quantity of these fish being caught, but do speak to their size. “Mr. D.R. Watson, who is at Champlin’s, Jamestown, caught a forty pound bass a few days ago at Beavertail. ... The fish was taken from one of the fishing stands with rod and reel, and was captured after an exciting strug-gle of half an hour” (Newport Daily News, Aug. 2, 1883). “Fishing is good at Beavertail, as is proved by Officer Hull, who captured a 27pound sea bass Sunday” (Newport Journal, Sept. 29, 1900). A few years later even larger bass were landed on the shores of Jamestown. “What is believed to be the largest striped bass caught at Jamestown this year, a 50pounder, went to Harry Potter of Guilford, Conn., a summer resident who is housed at Hull’s Cove, where the catch was made. The striper was brought in with an eel bob. ... The bass measured 51 3/4 inches and 28 1/3 inches in girth” (Newport Daily News, Sept. 23, 1944). The same arti-cle also mentioned what is still thought to be the all-time record for a striped bass taken from our town’s shores. “Arthur S. Clarke of Jamestown caught a 65-pound striped bass at Hull’s Cove in October, 1936. This is believed to be the all time record for Jamestown. The fish was stuffed for exhibition purposes.” This fish can be seen today at the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum in Jamestown. Despite its size, it was not a world record catch.
According to Bob Damico of stripersurf.com, there was a 73-pound striped bass caught off Cuttyhunk Island by Charles B. Church on Aug. 17, 1913. The International Game Fish Association lists the current world record striped bass as being caught by Albert R. McReynolds at Atlantic City, N. J. on Sept. 21, 1982. It weighed 78 pounds 8 ounces.
One fish that is plentiful today was seldom mentioned in the newspaper reports of this era. Bluefish, possibly because it was not a favored delicacy, does not seem to be a species that was often pursued. However, this account in the Newport Journal of Aug. 15, 1891 gives an indication that bluefish were quite plentiful at this time. “Mr. Alexander Tennant caught two hun-dred pounds of bluefish near the Dumplings on Tuesday.” And, just as today, the cyclical nature of bluefish arriving at our shores is evident in these reports: “Bluefish have struck again at Beavertail. Sunday one was taken by Mr. A. Van Pelt . . . the first to be caught at the rocks at the point for six years” (Newport Journal, Sept. 10, 1910). “Bluefish are running bet-ter than they have since before the 1938 hurricane, according to Jamestown fishing authorities” (Newport Daily News, Oct. 2, 1950).
Whereas the bluefish were seldom a fish of interest, the opposite is true of cod. Today, fishermen travel many miles offshore and fish in waters hun-dreds of feet deep to find this tasty fish. This was not the case at the beginning of the 20th century. “Codfish are being caught off Beavertail in large numbers, and a few have been caught from the rocks” (Newport Journal, Nov. 11, 1906). “A 60 pound codfish was caught Wednesday with hook and line in the west bay by Mr. Andrew King” (Newport Journal, Jan. 12, 1907). What a treat it would be if the mighty cod would return to Jamestown’s shores!
Another surprise fish of this era is one found in fresh water. There was an attempt to supplement a native population of trout in the streams and ponds of our island. “One thousand small trout were liberated in the brooks and ponds on the island Friday. The fish came from the state hatchery and are the first to be sent to the island. One or two of the streams already have a few native trout, and the addition of fresh stock should make good fishing in a few years” (Newport Journal, Nov. 19, 1910). Apparently this was not a successful venture. Trout never made any future report, and today we can find no indi-cation that they are present in island waters.
Trout were also stocked in the basement of what is now the True Value Hardware Store. When John Hammond was the owner of this building he decided to use a natural stream of ground water that ran under the store to supply water for a pond in the basement. It is not known how large an area it covered, but it was dug out by hand and stocked with trout (“The Building Boom in Jamestown, Rhode Island, 1926-1931”).
There was also an attempt to provide freshwater fishing to islanders at South Pond. In 1952, Allen Davenport, the owner of the Jamestown Water Company, stocked the pond with blue gills. It was reported that the pond would remain opened “as long as rights of neighboring property owners are respected and the privilege is not abused or water equip-ment damaged” (Newport Daily News, July 31, 1952).
As one might expect, an active commercial fishing fleet trawled the waters around Jamestown. There were references to fishing steamers with all their boats and crews, beam trawlers and traps. And the catch was even greater for them than it was for the shore fishermen. “Mr. George Carpenter at his first haul has secured 3000 herring” (Newport Journal, Apr. 8, 1905). The commercial fleet was also interested in the scup that fre-quented our waters. “The first catch of any amount of scup along the shores of the island was made Monday when about 15 barrels were caught in the Northrup traps in the west bay” (Newport Journal, May 9, 1908). However, the vast number of fish available to the commercial fleet did not always lead to economic suc-cess. “Codfish are running more plentiful in the West bay, but not in sufficient numbers as to make trawl fishing profitable at the present price of about 3 cents per pound” (Newport Journal, Jan. 16, 1909).
And as early as 1898, we can read about a fish market that was to be built in town for those who preferred to buy fish for their tables. “Adolphus H. Clarke is putting up a building on the corner of Howland and Narragansett avenues, which he proposes to use as a fish market” (Newport Daily News, Mar. 5, 1898). Today, this very same building has been restored as the Randall Art Gallery. In the late 1920s, Tollefson & Dewick had a seasonal fish market on Conanicus Avenue: “Tollefson & Dewick have decided to open their fish market on Conanicus avenue each Thursday and Friday during the spring” (Newport Daily News, May 10, 1928), and “Tollefson & Dewick have closed their branch fish market here” (Newport Journal, Sept. 29, 1929).
In the middle 1900s, there was a period of several years when Beavertail was closed to the public. However, by the early 1950s it once again became a destination point. “Some 6,557 automobiles visited Beavertail between May 30 and Aug. 30 carrying an average of 20,000 people. These cars represented every state in the union, Mexico and Canada. Beavertail, which is a restricted area and opens only during the summer months closed Aug. 31 two weeks ahead of schedule, because of the dangerous condition of the roads which were washed out in Hurricane Carol” (Newport Daily News, Sept. 27, 1954).
Newspaper reports of this era concentrated on fishing contests and derbies. These were sponsored by clubs and associations as well as bait shops with the express purpose of attracting sportsmen to local waters. The first ones of note were in 1948 when the Jamestown Business Men’s Association “met at Richardson’s Bait Shop on Conanicus Avenue. ... It was reported that the largest bass which was caught to date was by Harry Locke weighed 18 3/4 pounds and the largest black fish caught by John Peters weighed 7 1/4 pounds” (Newport Daily News, Oct. 8, 1948). The following year, the Jamestown Rod and Gun Club sponsored a striped bass and surf contest and, “the Newport Chamber of Commerce and a group of Jamestown businessmen ... also conducted a fishing derby. Prizes were $100 for the largest striped bass, and $50 for the largest tautog” (Newport Daily News, March 14, 1949).
Vic’s Tackle, located on Green Lane, sponsored a weekly fishing contest. Reports of winners were only recorded for the 1950 fishing season. Some of the winners announced in the Newport Daily News that year were: Manuel S. Cabral, Everett Wright, Robert K. Jenkins, Arthur S. Clarke, Emeline Cabral, George Cadorette, Ted Kaiser, Arthur Lathan, and James Simon (Newport Daily News, June 9, 1950; July 7, 1950; July 10, 1950; August 4, 1950).
Years later, in 1975, we continue to find the Jamestown Businessmen’s Association sponsoring a fishing con-test. That year’s winner was “Joe Tiexiera for a 35-pound bass caught from a boat” (Newport Daily News, July 17, 1975). This group of busi-nessmen also appears to have begun the tradition, which is carried on by the Jamestown Striper Club today, of having a contest for youngsters at the Jamestown reservoir. The first one found was in 1975, for children 5 to 14 years old. First prize for the largest bass went to David Bramen (sic, Newport Daily News, Aug. 19, 1975).
Fishermen are always seeking access points to improve their chances of success. The building of the Jamestown Bridge in 1940 offered one such place, as fishermen would use its walkway to get to the deeper waters that might hold large striped bass or bluefish. By the 1970s, as automobile traffic on the bridge increased, this site became a point of controversy. For those of us who drove over the bridge at that time, we remember well the sight of striped bass laying on the walkway next to the fishermen. We also can recall the presence of lures and lead sinkers that sometimes could be seen all too close to our windshields. Rather than ban-ning fishing from the bridge, a thoughtful alternative was proposed. “The need for a catwalk for fishermen on (the) Jamestown Bridge as a safety measure for motorists and fishermen is of prime concern of Kenneth C. Abrahamson, Democratic candidate for Town Council in the May 4 elec-tion” (Newport Daily News, April 16, 1977). The state had already acknowl-edged the wisdom of this idea as early as March of 1974. “State officials today announced plans to construct a 1,000-foot-long platform or catwalk on the North Kingstown end of the Jamestown Bridge” (Standard Times, March 7, 1974). However, just in case these plans fell through, in April of that same year, we find in the state legislature that “four separate bills would ban fishing from the Jamestown Bridge” (Standard Times, April 4, 1974). Plans for the platform did continue and the state Department of Natural Resources (today called the Department of Environmental Management) presented an “artist rendition of how the fishermen’s walkway will look when completed on the Jamestown Bridge. ... The state hopes to have the project completed by the start of the 1975 fishing sea-son” (Standard Times, April 11, 1974). Obviously, the platform was never built.
Any article about fishing does not seem complete without a whale of a story. This excerpt from the Oct. 26, 1901 Newport Journal says it quite well. “Sunday Mr. James Alderson caught the biggest fish ever secured off this island, and can discount any fish stories that the Beavertail fisher-man can tell. He was out in his skiff, north of the West ferry where the creek enters into the bay, and his attention was attracted by the blow-ing and thrashing about of a big fish. He rowed out beyond where the fish was and managed to drive him towards the shore. ... When measured it was found that he was 21 feet in length and his tail measured 5 feet and 9 inches across. It was decided by some fishermen that the catch was a grampus whale and would probably weigh 4,000 pounds. The whale was towed to Newport by steamer Henry T. Sisson and will probably be exhib-ited. It is probable that the whale, which was undoubtedly a young one, had been injured in some way, other-wise his capture would not have been so easy.”
Let us be certain as we continue the ongoing task of redefining our island that we do not forget our rich fishing heritage and we forever share the jewel of Narragansett Bay with those seeking fish for food or sport. May there be many more fish tales arising from the shores of the island of Conanicut.
Hale, Stuart O. “Narragansett Bay: A Friend’s Perspective.” Marine Advisory Service, NOAA/Sea Grant, University of Rhode Island, Marine Bulletin 42.
Maden, Sue. “The Building Boom in Jamestown, Rhode Island, 1926-1931. Buildings, Builders, People Associated with the Buildings, A Glimpse of Life in this Era.” Jamestown, R.I.: West Ferry Press, 2004.
Simmons, William Scranton, “Cautantowwit’s House. An Indian Burial ground on the Island of Conanicut in Narragansett Bay,” Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1970.