2011-09-01 / News

History of Fort Getty: German POWs to the circus by the sea

BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN


Above is an aerial view of Fort Getty as it appeared in 1955 after Jamestown’s acquisition of the land. The property was first offered for $9,500, but the town eventually purchased the land for $5,500. Above is an aerial view of Fort Getty as it appeared in 1955 after Jamestown’s acquisition of the land. The property was first offered for $9,500, but the town eventually purchased the land for $5,500. The early history of Fort Getty indicates that Jamestowners had some clear opinions on what to do with their newly acquired park: nothing, then everything. But during the last 17 years, the exuberance that once inspired a remarkably wide range of Fort Getty uses has been replaced with indifference and inertia.

The inertia has been particularly obvious in Town Hall, where a procession of councils has ducked the principle recommendations in the Fort Getty Master Plans unveiled in 1994 and 2006.

The first of the plans recommended, among other things, the addition of recreational facilities and a variety of options to increase public access to the scenic park. The second plan advised the addition of a sailing facility and underscored the access issue by recommending a decrease in the number of RV campsites and a shift in their location away from the western side of the hill.


Rhode Island National Guardsmen, seen here in 1913, were the original “campers” at Fort Getty. In 1967, the Town Council adopted an ordinance reversing the ban passed a year earlier on overnight vehicle camping at the park. Rhode Island National Guardsmen, seen here in 1913, were the original “campers” at Fort Getty. In 1967, the Town Council adopted an ordinance reversing the ban passed a year earlier on overnight vehicle camping at the park. But the layout of the 40-acre park remains almost exactly as it was in 1977, and most of the upgrades and other projects recommended by the Master Plans have been held in abeyance.

Meanwhile, community events at Fort Getty have dwindled to a small handful, which is a sharp departure from the way it was during the park’s first 25 years. Jamestowners once flocked to Fort Getty for spectacles like the July 4 fireworks, which were said to draw as many as 3,000 people; and enormous festivals like the original Family Days, which attracted as many as 5,000. Other major events included the “Big Top” and a traveling zoo, but there were also “niche” events, such as car racing.


Jamestowners host a steak fry for the Swedish America’s Cup team at Fort Getty in the summer of 1977. The Swedes kept two boats at Fort Wetherill and nearly 500 people came to the party. Jamestowners host a steak fry for the Swedish America’s Cup team at Fort Getty in the summer of 1977. The Swedes kept two boats at Fort Wetherill and nearly 500 people came to the party. The popularity of the park in the 1960s and 1970s belies the opposition to its 1955 acquisition. But here’s the reality: A substantial percentage of Jamestown residents didn’t want to spend $5,500 to buy the property.

And then, despite its success as a public park, Fort Getty was eyed for purposes which would have permanently precluded its recreational use. For example, a group of residents argued that the park should be used for the town’s proposed sewage treatment plant. And a council president wanted to relocate the campers to Beavertail and develop Fort Getty as a large-scale marina.

Those are just two indications of the controversy that always seem to swirl around Fort Getty. A third example was the sharp opposition to a Fort Getty playing field.

“We proposed to clear the woods near the gatehouse for a soccer field,” former Recreation Department Director Matt Bolles told the Press. “But it seemed like everyone was up in arms over the idea and it was shot down immediately.”

Aware of these frequent disagreements and the necessity for infrastructure repairs, the current council seems determined to end the Fort Getty debate by deciding on a plan for the park, once and for all.

The next step in that process will be taken on Tuesday, Sept. 6, when the council selects a group of current and proposed uses for economic analysis. It remains to be seen if this step will one day be remembered as the springboard for a final Fort Getty plan. So, a look back at the genesis of the park and its uses would seem to be timely.

This chronicle isn’t meant to be “definitive” or all-inclusive. Rather, it’s a patchwork quilt of historical details stitched together from newspaper reports, reminiscences, and town records indicating the diversity of Fort Getty uses in bygone years. The Press would like to thank the Jamestown Historical Society’s Sue Maden and Rosemary Enright for their invaluable research assistance.

The acquisition

The most unusual use of Fort Getty – before or after it became a municipal park – was the “re-education” of German POWs who had opposed Hitler and his regime. The “students” were trained to serve as civil administrators in the areas of Germany occupied by American forces after World War II, and there is still a remnant of their presence: The stone gateposts at the entrance to the park were built by some of those POWs.

In 1948, when all of its German “students” were repatriated, Fort Getty was classified as surplus property. In 1950, the General Services Administration offered the property to Jamestown for $9,500. In 1951, while negotiations were still in progress, the Korean War broke out and the offer was withdrawn. Three years later, the property was re-offered at a price of $5,500, and the decision on its purchase was put to Jamestown voters at the Financial Town Meeting of June 12, 1954.

Although the acquisition proposal passed, the margin was remarkably slim: 159-114. The Press was unable to find any specific reasons for the opposition, but several native Jamestowners said it didn’t surprise them. One said, “The town was probably in tough financial shape, and, let’s face it, New England Yankees are tight.”

One year later, on June 2, 1955, the GSA conditionally deeded the park to Jamestown. Under the condition, the town had to maintain the property as a “public park” for a period of 20 years or risk losing it to repossession if it were used for any other purpose during the probationary period.

The condition would have been a significant issue if Jamestown had tried to site a sewage treatment plant at the park before June 1975, but, as things turned out, Fort Getty fell out of the running for that use.

The first rules for the town’s new park went into effect on July 25, 1955. They were simple enough: pay $1 for a daily parking pass unless your car had a beach sticker, and enter at your own risk. By the time the rules were issued, there were already 30 boats tied up at the Fort Getty dock on any given day, and vandalism was becoming a problem – which sparked a council debate on hiring a night watchman.

‘Vroom Vroom’

On July 22, 1957, the Town Council – on the advice of the Police Advisory Commission – granted the Narragansett Sports Car Association permission to use Fort Getty Road for the purpose of “testing the speed of cars” – although it’s unclear why anyone would want to test the speed of an MG Midget when there were plenty of “hot rods” available for that kind of entertainment. Several residents recalled that the “testing” would start at the stone gate posts and end near the dock.

What’s next for the park?

Early in 1958, the council directed the Board of Recreation to survey the park and estimate the cost of “recreational possibilities.” The board’s chairman offered preliminary advice: build fireplaces on the concrete foundations left over from the Army facilities; build at least two restrooms; and set up picnic tables and benches near the fireplaces. One of the other board members said the town should charge $2 per day for non-residents to help limit “the terrific amount of traffic” that entered the park during the previous season.

‘Vroom Vroom’ Part II?

In April 1964, a car group with a slightly different name – the Narragansett Sports Car Club – held the first of its Fort Getty “time trials,” which were held annually for at least the next 10 years. Given that sports cars are uniquely adept at turning left and right, it’s possible that the cars were running around the perimeter of the park instead of limiting their “trials” to quarter-mile runs, but the Press was unable to find out if that’s what they were doing – or when, and why, the “trials” ended.

Overnight camping banned

In 1966, the Town Council prohibited anyone from spending the night at Fort Getty. Under its decision, which was aimed at “beach buggy” owners, the park had to close from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. It isn’t clear what “beach buggies” are, but they seem to be similar to “dune buggies.” The “beach buggy” enthusiasts told the council that they went to Fort Getty for the purpose of night fishing, and argued that they “weren’t wanted” at the park because they were only paying $1 a day in fees.

But Town Building Inspector John Rembijas told the council that the anglers were “stringing clothes lines” from buggy to buggy, and that the vehicles were in “critical” shape. That led Town Council President Albert Lyons to point out that there was a town ordinance against “’sleeping in trailers, tents and vehicles,’” which persuaded the council to adopt a motion requiring the park to close at night.

Campground petition

A month after the “beach buggy” decision, 112 residents petitioned the council to set up a campsite at Fort Getty. The petition was presented by a businessman who argued that the town could charge a fee for overnight camping, thereby providing income to maintain the island’s beaches and repair the Fort Getty dock. The council responded by assigning the Recreation Department to study the proposal, and Lyons parried an allegation that police officers were harassing campers. “People can’t expect to set up camp in every town they visit,” Lyons said.

Overnight camping permitted

In 1967, the council adopted an ordinance reversing the ban on overnight vehicle camping at the park, and the town initiated plans to build a bathroom facility.

In September 1969, an estimated 150 camping vehicles came to Fort Getty during Labor Day weekend, prompting town officials to post a gatehouse sign saying “No more room.” It was the largest-ever influx of camping vehicles into Fort Getty.

Family Day Draws 5,000

Labor Day weekend of 1969 also marked the second annual Jamestown Family Day, which drew an estimated 5,000 people to Fort Getty. The event, which ended with a fireworks display, featured every imaginable opportunity for “family fun.” Although a modest facsimile of the event has been revived by the Recreation Department, it’s unclear why the hugely popular festival event ever faded away, in the first place. One resident told the Press, “These kinds of things just peter out, especially if people don’t step up to lead them, and no one much notices when they’re gone.”

John Doty, a Jamestown native who worked in various town departments, told the Press that the extension of the RV camping season beyond Labor Day might have had an impact on Family Day, but he wasn’t entirely sure what happened to the event. He speculated, however, that the July 4 fireworks, which also attracted thousands of people to the park, might have been moved because of concerns about embers landing in the RV campsites and starting a fire (which actually occurred during the Family Day fireworks in 1976).

Former Town Council President Mike Smith told the Press that mounting liability costs – particularly for an event which included activities like greased-pole climbing – might have been a factor in the original event’s decline, as well. Commercial campground proposed

In December 1969, a Kampgrounds of America franchisee offered to lease Fort Getty from the town and develop a campground with 100 campsites. The proposition wasn’t supported by the council, but the idea might have been the seed that sprouted into 100 campsites eight years later.

Big Top by the Sea

On August 1, 1972, the Royal Wild West Circus came to Fort Getty, drawing a crowd of 1,500 to the Big Top. One resident told the Press that she recalled a neighbor returning from the Fort Getty circuses with “elephant dung,” ensuring that her flowers were the most dramatic on the island. Doty said, “They used to have the ‘Big Top’ on Lawn Avenue before they built the school, and then it went to Fort Getty.”

Sewage treatment?

The location of the town’s proposed sewage treatment plant was one of the most divisive controversies ever to hit Jamestown. Fort Getty was one of two sites selected by the town in 1973. (The other location being Eldred Avenue.) Shortly before a town vote on the sites, a group of East Shore Road residents mailed letters to everyone on the island, urging residents to vote for Fort Getty.

Under the motion enabling a referendum on the choice, there had to be a “clear majority” for the winning site. Eldred Avenue received 389 votes to Fort Getty’s 364, indicating that 51.6 percent of the voters “clearly” preferred Eldred Avenue.

But there were 118 fewer votes than the total number of people who turned out for the referendum, which raised a question about the “clarity” of the majority. It was also noted that turning a voting lever didn’t lock the other two, with one of the three levers allowing residents to vote for “none of the above.” Because of the discrepancies, the results were thrown out, and Fort Getty was never again proposed for the sewage treatment plant.

The first (and only) wedding

Since a number of Jamestowners have expressed support for a banquet facility at Fort Getty, it’s worth pointing out that a wedding was once held at the park and, as far as anyone knows, there hasn’t been another one, since.

It happened in July 1974, when a band of Gypsies towing 25 trailers drove into the park, followed by a “flood” of locals who wanted to see them. During the week the Gypsies spent at Fort Getty, they invited locals to join in their festivities, which reportedly included a wedding.

Campers to Beavertail?

In April 1975, Lyons – who was in his final year as Town Council president – argued that the town should relocate the RV campground to 26 acres of town-owned land at Beavertail and offer Fort Getty for marina development. Lyons pointed out that a marina lease would provide the town with additional income as well as recreational opportunities, but Councilor Anthony Vieira responded to the idea by saying the Fort Getty ordinance should be amended to include a prohibition against trailer camping at Beavertail. A Hull Cove resident who came to a subsequent council meeting expressed venomous opposition to the Beavertail proposal, which died, anyway.

Beer at the park?

In March 1976, the council considered the possibility of allowing campers and picnickers to bring beer into the park. As an indication that the campground was becoming an established fixture at Fort Getty, a comment from former Town Council President Mike Smith is illuminating. “It almost comes under the heading of drinking in your own home,” said Smith.

America’s Cup

In 1977, the Swedish America’s Cup syndicate kept its contender, Sverige, and its trial horse, Columbia, at Fort Wetherill (whose cove had to be dredged). In just one of the many gestures exemplifying their support for the team, Jamestowners treated the Swedes to a summer “steak fry” at Fort Getty, attracting 500 people to the party.

Reduce the campground?

A controversy over campsite density dates back 32 years. In 1979, the Waterfront Authority advised a reduction in the number of RV campsites from 100 to 75. The authority – a precursor to the Harbor Commission – said reducing the number of sites would increase the value of the campground for both the town and the campers.

The council declined to reduce the number of campsites, and the density question has remained open ever since.

Gas crisis crunch

As of July 1979, revenues from transient RV camping were falling behind the pace set in 1978 – a decrease that former Town Administrator Bob Sutton attributed to the spike in gasoline prices. Sutton said he hoped the town would recoup the $591 shortfall by the end of the season, indicating that, despite the comparatively small amount of revenue that the camp was generating at the time, the income was still important to the town. In 1977, the “full time” season, which started on May 27, was extended to Sept. 6 – with full-season passes selling for $500.

This year, the “full time” season runs from May 19 through Oct. 3. Full-season passes, which cost $3,700 apiece, provide the lion’s share of the income from the campground – although there’s additional revenue from nightly RV passes (which cost $40 apiece). The economics of the park will help inform the council’s decision on two issues: first, the future uses of the park, and second, the costs to repair and upgrade the RV campground’s infrastructure (which could run as high as $1 million).

Because the decisions on the future uses of the park will involve their contributions to town income (if any), as well as their costs to the town, it seems appropriate to conclude this look back at Fort Getty’s early history with a snapshot of last year’s costs and revenues.

Revenue
Seasonal: $310,800
Transient: $47,754
Wait list: $1,010
Total: $359,564
Direct Expenses
Electricity: $16,733
Water: $9,351
Trash: $6,355
Electrical Repairs: $8,023
Hallman: $6,494
Repairs: $4,400
Total: $51,356
Personnel
Gatehouse: $32,125
Clerical: $25,934*
Total: $58,059
Total expenses: $109,415
Net revenue: $250,149
Net less personnel: $308,208
Approx.net income: $281,300
Tax rate impact: 14 cents
Tax increase average without
Fort Getty revenue: $56.00
*including non-park duties
Source: Town Administrator and
Town Finance Director

























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