From the revolution to restoration, the Conanicut Battery lives on
Driving past Mackerel Cove and Fort Getty, Pat’s Pastured Farm goes by on the right, with horses and sheep grazing contentedly and free-range turkeys fattening up for the holidays. Soon after the farm, a small, nondescript road called Battery Lane flashes by, unremarkable and very easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.
At the very end of the lane, however, lies a hidden gem that I will bet many Jamestown residents have never heard of but is a very important part of the history of Rhode Island.
The Conanicut Battery lies to the south of the large, wellmaintained parking area that welcomes visitors. It lies within a small 22-acre site owned by the town and maintained by the Friends of Conanicut Battery. Built by Rhode Island militia in 1776 by order of the Rhode Island General Assembly, the original fort was likely simple and crescent-shaped, designed to protect six to eight heavy cannons and their men from cannon fire from seagoing vessels.
Constructed on what was then farmland on the side of Prospect Hill – the highest point on Beavertail – the cannon could defend the West Passage from ships within a one-mile range. In December of that year, British soldiers sailing to Newport observed that the battery had been abandoned after the cannon was relocated to Newport. The British soldiers took over the site, reconfiguring the battery and digging the ditches deeper to allow it to also be defended from ground assault.
There are records of an August 1777 skirmish between the British and 200 Americans, where the Americans traveled from North Kingstown via rowboats. There was also cannon crossfire between the British, who occupied the battery, and a French warship on July 30, 1778.
After the Revolution, the area reverted to farmland until World War I. But in 1916 the U.S. government acquired the area and built six underground bunkers. For the remainder of WWI and all of World War II, the bunkers were used as the command center for gun emplacements built in Jamestown, Newport, and the Dutch Island to watch over and protect the bay.
There are three major trails from the parking area, all of which are well maintained and easy strolls. To the north, there is a fairly new, wooded trail called the Fallen Maple Trail. Although a short hike, it’s wooded along the entire length and would be a good place to spot deer, foxes, coyotes, birds, or other woodland creatures. The highlight of the trail is a giant fallen Maple, split down the middle but clinging to life. For those tree climbers out there, this tree is perfect.
Looking south from the parking area, the Prospect Hill Trail branches off to the left and the main battery trail is to the right. Between the trails is the first of many informative signs, with information about the history, site layout, and preservation efforts. The main trail runs straight to the battery itself and is very level and smooth, allowing easy access to those with disabilities or young children. The Prospect Hill Trail, where the bunkers can be found, is slightly more hilly but also very well maintained. Keep a lookout for a beautiful Weeping Beech tree on the left, its branches sweeping the ground.
Slightly further on, the first three bunkers are accompanied by another informational sign, showing how the bunkers were used by soldiers to keep an eye to the sea. After the connector path, which attaches to the battery field, there is another slight rise with the other three bunkers situated on top. To the left the Giant Boulder Path, not surprisingly, leads to an easy-to-climb boulder. Following the trail to the right, over a stonewall that remains from the farming days, the battery lies to the west in a large field. Both to the north of the battery and at the end of the main trail, more informative signs help to make history come alive. It’s a very powerful feeling to be standing where, in 1776, the Rhode Island Militia first broke ground with picks and shovels to create a defensive position, protecting the bay with cannon.
The site containing the Conanicut Battery is only 22 acres but holds a wealth of history. There are few remaining Revolutionary War-era forts, most having been leveled or severely eroded, making the Conanicut Battery a very special site. In addition, World War historians will learn a lot about coastal defenses by visiting the command center for gun emplacements along Rhode Island’s coast and learning about how that firepower was effectively employed.
It is also a great place for those who are simply ready for an easy walk or a quiet picnic overlooking the sea. With history spanning from the Revolution straight through both World Wars, the battery is well worth a visit.
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