2010-11-11 / News

Life on the island before and after the bridges

Conanicut Grange Report
By Bob Sutton

Norma Walsh, a life-long Jamestown resident and a woman of incredible enthusiasm and youth, has nothing but fond memories of a time when there were no bridges connecting the island to the rest of the world.

Norma grew up during the second quarter of the 20th century in a house just off Narragansett Avenue on the east side of the island. She remembers her childhood roaming the island, swimming at Potter Cove and as a high school student running down the streets of Newport after school to catch the ferry back to Jamestown. As a child she recognized the isolation of the island, but when she thinks back to her adolescence she now has fond memories filled with fun and freedom.

Her father owned and operated Jamestown Garage, a business on Narragansett Avenue that provided mechanic service and winter storage for the automobiles of summer residents. Rather than subject themselves, and their cars, to the state’s convoluted and disconnected road systems that existed at the time, the summer residents left a car in Jamestown. They took a steamship or train back to their homes when the summer was over. Norma’s father would service these automobiles and store them in his large garage during the winter months, which is now the Conanicut Marine Store. She can remember the chauffeurs sitting on a bench outside the garage chatting about their winter exploits, their employers and other interesting things happening in the larger world.

During Norma’s youth, ferries were steam powered and had been since 1873. Prior to 1873, there were ferry connections to Newport and the mainland to the west, but ferries were sail powered, slow and relatively small. Because of the unpredictable winds and sea conditions, trips to and from Newport and the mainland were more spontaneous than scheduled and with very few comforts, something of an adventure for the traveler.

Sail-powered access to the island created very real limits on Jamestown’s growth at a time when much of the rest of Rhode Island was experiencing the Industrial Revolution and growing fast. The 1870 census counted 378 people living on Conanicut Island, scattered around the island’s 45 farms and 5,500 acres of good farming soil. A visitor to the island at the time wrote that he “considered the beautiful island with its industrious and agriculturally skilled inhabitants and its location, a delightful place.”

Access to Jamestown has always been a defining element in its growth and its way of life. Sail-powered access insured and mandated an insular, agricultural, sustainable island life style.

Steam power allowed dependable, scheduled and more comfortable access and opened the island to summertime residents and visitors, increasing the population and broadening island employment opportunities beyond agriculture, like the construction of summer cottages and hotels and the service industry jobs that came with the new businesses.

The Jamestown Bridge, which opened in 1940, allowed yearround access from the mainland regardless of weather and introduced a more suburban residential development and facilitated commuting workers to off-island jobs.

Then, in 1969, the Claiborne Pell Bridge, or simply the Newport Bridge, was erected, which insured year-round access to and from Newport. Then the new Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge and Route 138 connector opened in the early 1990s. This solved safety and traffic problems and broadened Jamestown’s residential appeal, but at the cost of significantly higher real estate values. Huge development pressure was placed on the remaining agricultural land.

Jamestown’s development as a reaction to transportation improvements represents a microcosm of what happened throughout the state and the nation. The effect that steamboats and eventually bridges had on Jamestown aren’t much different than the effect the construction of the interstate highway system had – and continues to have – on big cities and small towns throughout this state and the nation. The population suburbanizes and residents commute to jobs many miles from their homes, causing local farms to disappear.

Fortunately, Conanicut Island has great natural beauty and even more fortunately it has had residents who recognized their responsibility as caring stewards for the next generations. The Narragansett Tribe, who arrived in canoes thousands of years ago, recognized the island’s agricultural value and its beauty as a summer camp and sacred burial ground. From the 300-plus years of European settlement of Conanicut Island, there are countless examples of island residents working to defi ne and preserve the character and beauty of the island for those who follow. This sense of responsibility continues to this day as witnessed by the results of a recent islandwide survey, in which residents indicated their primary interest as protecting the natural beauty and rural character of the island.

For a while, after the Newport Bridge opened, there was a moment in time reminiscent of Norma’s childhood memory of the chauffeurs sitting on a bench outside her father’s garage. On most sunny summer afternoons, the old ferry boat captains and workers would sit out on an old bench at the East Ferry Landing. One can imagine that they told themselves the same old stories of harrowing moments, or terrible weather, or brushes with jazz festival celebrities. They were all smart men with highly skilled successful boating careers and they most likely recognized that they had played a valuable role in the life of Jamestown; but now, time and circumstance has intervened.

It is the unanticipated consequences of our actions that are always the devil in the detail. As we live out our moment in time as stewards of beautiful Conanicut Island, and with increased interest in the nutritional value of locally grown food, it is important that we support and perpetuate local farming and that the highly skilled professional farmers remain outstanding in their field, not the next ones sitting on an old bench on Narragansett Avenue.

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