2008-08-14 / Letters to the Editor

Remember feat of 50 years ago

Recently we all celebrated the 232nd anniversary of America's independence. July 2-4, 1776 were momentous days when 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were prepared to lose everything they owned, including their families and assuredly their lives.

Moving ahead to 1956, seventeen Jamestowners, led by Dr. William W. Miner, courageously took on the giant Commerce Oil Company, an out-of-state group who had planned to build a "state-ofthe art" oil refinery and series of storage tanks on the northern half of the island. The great majority of islanders wanted this refinery and were prepared to fight even though they thought this legal battle to be a shoe-in and an easy victory. Boy, were they wrong!

However, very few islanders understood the grit of the now famous men and women along with a fearless lawyer who worked tirelessly with no pay. Just as the revolutionary patriots changed the course of America in 1776, this determined group led by attorney Cornelius C. Moore of Newport changed the course of history in Jamestown.

The story of this heroic feat is recorded in the book "Dismissed with Prejudice, The epic battle against construction of an oil refinery in Jamestown, Rhode Island," published in June of 1994 by Mary Steams McGaughan and her husband Terrence F. McGaughan.

It is a book that every Jamestowner should read especially all those like us who own a home on the site chosen by the Commerce Oil Company. Can present day Jamestowners imagine that this small band of patriots took on a giant oil refinery project that was supported by the majority of the citizens of Jamestown, the town council, town solicitor, the governor, and the legislative leaders? What possessed the small but mighty group to even attempt to overthrow the powers that "ran things in town"? To the majority of citizens this band of pariahs could not possibly fulfill their mission. But, as we all know, no one could believe that David would conquer Goliath either.

Commerce Oil Company, unsuccessful in trying to locate a large refinery in Portsmouth, attempted to locate their facility in Jamestown. They slowly began to option all the land they could with the help of the town leadership. This development was seen as saving Jamestown from its economic lethargy. Commerce felt that siting the refinery would be a slam-dunk and millions of dollars would be made by everyone who promoted this travesty of justice.

Does pride go before the fall? Well in this case it did! The evil that this refinery could have caused to our environment and the complicit arrangement of the town leaders with the Commerce leaders will forever be cast as the crudest faux pas by our town leaders before and since this horrible four-year battle. The amount of money spent by both Commerce and the town leadership was never recorded and even today no one knows the full extent of the financial burden of this long and arduous court battle.

Suffice to say this band of seventeen stalwarts and the pro bono lawyer eventually won the battle in federal court with Judge Edward W. Day delivering the verdict that was shocking to all concerned. The majority was saddened and the minority was gladdened.

The verdict, "Dismissed with Prejudice" on Jan. 1, 1959, was the shot heard around the bay. As we celebrate the various holidays to recognize famous events in our history, I am suggesting that we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the momentous verdict in January 2009, 50 years after the decision by this courageous federal judge and the victory of the hearty band of 17.

It is time for all Jamestowners, especially those homeowners living in the northern part of the island that would have been the site of Commerce's oil refinery, to start a fund-raising effort to, in some way, commemorate the famous seventeen who fought to keep Jamestown green as it is today. The area includes 700 acres including all land north of Carr Lane and south of Conanicut Park.

I sincerely recommend that the Jamestown Press lead the way in pointing out that this island event that changed the course of what could have been is worthy of a commemoration of some kind.

We all can be proud.

Anthony & Diana Travisono Wright Lane

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