2008-01-17 / Island History

Jamestown Historical Society News

By Rosemary Enright

A museum-quality vault for the storage and protection of our papers, photographs, and archival material has been a dream of the historical society and one of the major goals of our ongoing Capital Campaign. Our archivists - including the late Mary Miner - and collections committee members carefully measured the current collection and defined the space needed for its storage. They advocated a large expansion capacity because they felt that one of the advantages of a repository would be to encourage members of the community to donate more material of historical importance to our care.

The vault in the basement of the Town Hall has just been completed and it is already yielding this hoped-for result. We have just received 250-year-old financial records from the building of the second Beavertail Light.

A 250-year-old gift

The original lighthouse on Beavertail, built in 1749, burned down in 1753 and was replaced immediately by a stone structure. In August 1754 in "the Reign of our Sovereign George [the Second] by the Grace of GOD, of Great-Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c," the Rhode Island General Assembly directed the colony's treasurer to pay £4,000 for the building of the Beavertail Light. Over the next three years, the moneys were paid out to John Stevens and Joseph Jacob. The final payment, with interest, was acknowledged on May 10, 1757.

These transactions are recorded in two documents that were donated to the Jamestown Historical Society this past December by Tot Wright. Tot linked his gift of these unique documents specifically to the completion of the repository. He had, he explained, bought the papers several years ago because he was interested in keeping them in the Jamestown-Newport area. He knew that at some point he would donate them to an appropriate organization, but hesitated to select one because he was concerned about environmental security. Water, fire, and excessive light are the most dangerous enemies of documents, and he wanted to be sure the documents would be well protected from these dangers as well as being properly cared for and made accessible to the public.

With its new vault, the Jamestown Historical Society satisfied his requirements. The vault has an independent heating and air-conditioning system, shelving and storage cabinets designed for archival storage, and a non-water fire-suppression system. A research area in the vault allows anyone interested in Jamestown's history to study the contents of the collection. Our collections catalog at jamestownhistoricalsociety. org brings descriptions and, when available, photographs of individual items to computers anywhere.

Jamestown Bridge gifts

The society has received numerous other gifts over the past few months. Because of our Jamestown Bridge exhibit at the museum, many of this year's donations related to the bridge. Henry Fletcher brought us a rivet he had rescued when it fell - still whitehot from the forge - to the Jamestown shore during the construction of the bridge in 1939-1940. Jessie Dutra gave us a copy of her bridge demolition poster, and John Doty donated a laminated montage of demolition photos.

Perhaps the most exciting addition to our Jamestown Bridge collection came from the Vieira family. From mid-1959 until the bridge was turned over to RIDOT in 1969, the E.R. Vieira Company of Jamestown was under contract to perform the bridge maintenance. During each summer, Ernest Vieira filed monthly reports with the James- town Bridge Commission and a firm of engineers hired to inspect the bridge. Each report consists of descriptions and photographs of the maintenance work being done. Ernest Vieira of Georgetown, Mass., and Joan Weaver of Newport donated copies of these reports that had been retained by the Vieira firm, including 50 reports and over 800 photographs detailing the task of maintaining the bridge over this 10-year period. Mary Vieira Ragland, the donors' aunt, was instrumental in the transfer.

These are only a few of the new additions to the collection. Visit our website to search the catalog for archives, objects, books, and photographs of specific interest to you. We also list all new gifts in our bi-annual newsletter.

We hope our new storage and research capability will persuade many of you to share unique items that illuminate the history of our island.

Open House delayed

We had hoped to have an Open House for the museum and the vault this month. Weather and common sense have intervened. The railings are not yet on the museum steps or the handicap access path. Crossing Narragansett Avenue to go from one building to the other can be hazardous at any time of year, but presents extra hazards in the winter. We are looking forward to a spring party.

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