Historical society presents Jamestown that could have been
Much of Conanicut Island would look different – and life here would have been permanently altered – if some long-ago ideas had been turned into bricks and mortar. The Jamestown Historical Society has put up an exhibit of pictures illustrating a few of those proposals.
The exhibit at the Lawn Avenue School is entitled “What Might Have Been: For Better or Worse?” It will remain in place for the remainder of 2011.
The question mark at end of the title alludes to the subjectivity of opinions on what would have been “better” or “worse” for Jamestown. For example, a resident recently shared his contention that the Commerce Oil refinery – which was nearly built on the northwest side of the island – would have “provided jobs for everyone and kept our taxes way down.”
That may be true. But it’s also true that, during the mid-1950s, heavy industry viewed Mother Nature as an ungated dump, so it’s hardly a stretch to imagine that the Jamestown Shores’ groundwater would have gradually turned into lighter fluid.
And, as the JHS exhibit points out, the eastern side of the island would have participated in the industrial tsunami as well. That’s because crude oil would have been pumped to the refinery from supertanker docks on the East Passage. But, because a group of residents decided to wage what was arguably the nation’s first high-stakes environmental battle, the project was delayed long enough for the powers behind Commerce Oil to pull the plug, although they attributed their surrender to economics.
The grassroots victory came in 1956 – or six years before “Silent Spring” sparked America’s environmental movement. However, as the JHS exhibit points out, there was another major proposal that could have posed serious risks to Jamestowners: a foot-and-mouth disease laboratory.
Although most islanders probably aren’t familiar with FMD (unless they raise livestock or have seen the Paul Newman movie “Hud”), the disease was regarded as a lethal threat in 1946 – when the U.S. Department of Agriculture first proposed a research facility to develop a vaccine – even though there hadn’t been an outbreak since 1929.
The USDA was looking for a 400- to 500-acre site: enough land for the lab facilities and corrals for the test animals. After being turned down by California, Texas and New York, the USDA refined its criteria with a stipulation that the land had to be separated from mainland areas by deep water. The three finalists that met that criterion were Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay and Rhode Island’s Prudence Island. But a local lobbying group known as the Jamestown Forum asked the department to add Jamestown to its list.
The island’s American Legion post was also supportive, appointing one of its officials, Major John C. Rembijas, to manage a committee promoting the proposal.
In 1949, Rembijas was quoted as saying, “As good Americans and as people who have the utmost faith in the government, we [do] not feel that any department of the government would bring anything to our community that would be detrimental.”
The government was, however, planning to bring lots of dollars: $35 million for construction and $3 million per year for operations, maintenance, and salaries for the projected 400 employees. Aware that the USDA would seek a $5.5 million appropriation to buy Prudence Island land (and prepare engineering studies), the forum and other Jamestowners suggested for the department to review such local sites as a 267-acre tract north of the Jamestown Bridge. Another proposal encompassed all of the land south of Mackerel Cove.
But a majority of Rhode Islanders, including Gov. John O. Pastore, was dead-set against a microbial research facility anywhere in the state, which fell out of the running in 1954, when the Army deeded its Plum Island, N.Y., property to the USDA.
The facility that the USDA built on the island, which is five miles from the Connecticut coast, is known as the Animal Disease Center. It’s also alleged to be the source of Lyme disease, although the Department of Homeland Security (which now runs the place) scoffs at the allegation. Nevertheless, whistleblowers assert that there have been atmospheric releases of unidentified germs from the Plum Island lab, so it might not have been the best idea for Jamestown – notwithstanding the assurances from Rembijas.
Other local proposals for government facilities involved Dutch Island, which is technically part of Jamestown. Dutch had been the site of the Army’s Fort Greble, which – as the exhibit points out – was obsolete by World War I. “Attempts to attract the Coast Guard Academy in 1926 or the Marine Nautical Training School in 1938,” says the exhibit text, “were unsuccessful.”
Those attempts, said the historical society’s Sue Maden, were more involved than idle speculation. “The town put together plans and sent representatives down to Washington to promote Dutch Island,” Maden said.
Back in the late 1890s, however, the military was much more interested in Jamestown, and one of the island’s existing facilities, Fort Wetherill, had been proposed for a major expansion. The plan to enlarge the fort required land acquisition, and one of the properties that seemed to be targeted for taking was Horsehead-Marbella:thedomedmansion owned by Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Wharton.
Wharton retained an architect to draw up plans to replace that house in case the property was taken. In fact, he also purchased nearly 300 acres of land near Beavertail to site a potential replacement. But the military left his East Passage property alone, and the Highland Drive mansion remains standing as one of the island’s signature structures.
Another military acquisition permanently prevented the development of another Jamestown treasure: Beavertail State Park. A portion of Beavertail first fell into the U.S. Navy’s hands in July 1941; the following year, the service acquired an additional 118 acres, demolishing the cottages, which were sprinkled over the promontory, according to Rosemary Enright of the JHS.
Enright added that Beavertail’s cottages and rudimentary roads dated back to the late 19th century. In 1895, there were plans proposed to subdivide and develop the land, but – luckily for all those who enjoy the ocean-side retreat – the proposal never went anywhere, allowing the land to remain readily available to the Navy, which eventually deeded the land to the state.
Asked why the subdivision idea never gained traction, Enright said it wasn’t seriously embraced by the Town Council. “It was just pie the sky,” she said.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series of articles on the JHS exhibit. Look for the second part in the Oct. 6 issue.