JHS exhibit portrays a town that could have been much different
The Jamestown Historical Society is exhibiting a group of pictures, which depict a variety of proposals that would have changed the face of the island. Last week’s report on the exhibit, which is set up at Lawn Avenue School, focused mostly on military and industrial proposals. This week, the Press looks at ideas floated by the town and private developers.
The JHS exhibit is entitled “What Might Have Been: For Better or Worse?” One of the most striking pictures in the exhibit is a map of lower Narragansett Bay, with a thick line zigzagging across the bay. The portion of the line traversing Conanicut Island represents a canal that would have cut the island in half.
According to a Jamestown Press article co-authored by JHS director Sue Maden, a canal route was originally surveyed by Joseph Totten (who designed Fort Adams) in the late 1820s. A canal would have allowed ferryboats, which were sailpowered at the time of the survey, to travel a much shorter route between Saunderstown and Newport.
But the first proposed ditch wasn’t dug because its projected cost of $50,000 was considered far too high. A second, more formal proposal emerged in 1854, when a transportation company was established to build both a rail spur (connecting Saunderstown with the Stonington rail line) and a Jamestown canal. But it’s believed that funding problems again thwarted the project.
Steam-powered ferryboats started plying the East Passage in 1873, but Jamestown was still viewed as an “obstacle” by New Yorkers traveling to, or heading home from, Newport. So, in 1887, a railroad company again proposed to build a canal in Jamestown. In 1894, with the proposal languishing, the state’s General Assembly passed a resolution asking Washington to finance the dig. But the feds said no, and the canal proposal died.
But not without one last gasp. On June 21, 1938, or just before the state assembly OK’d the construction of the Jamestown Bridge, the Newport Herald published a letter from a Newport resident who warned that the bridge would impede commercial shipping and argued that a canal should still be built. But Jamestowners were, by then, vocally opposing a canal – and that was the last anyone heard about the idea.
Although it wouldn’t have altered Jamestown as much as a canal, a proposal for a tidal marsh that the canal would have crossed – Great Creek – sparked some strident opposition. The idea, which was proposed in 1959, was a 160-boat marina; the opposition was led by the Jamestown Garden Club, which threatened a lawsuit.
As the exhibit poster explains, the town’s deed to Great Creek required the marsh to be used for passive recreation or wildlife preservation, and the garden club was determined to fight any commercial use of those waters.
The developer backed down without much of a fight, and that was the last time anyone proposed a Great Creek marina. But the brevity of the dispute makes it noteworthy in the annals of Jamestown disputes. In fact, by 1959, the town had tried, and failed, to replace its crumbling municipal building for 35 years – and the effort still had nearly 46 years to go.
By the early 1920s, it was clear that the Southwest Avenue municipal building had become inadequate for its many uses. So the town hired an architect to design a structure that incorporated the Fire and Police departments in addition to town offices. In 1927, the proposed firehouse wing was built on Narragansett Avenue, where it still houses the town’s Fire Department. But the town hall piece was left unresolved.
“They never really decided where [the multiuse structure] would go,” JHS Secretary Rosemary Enright said, adding, “If they put it on Narragansett Avenue, it would have meant buying more properties.”
Maden said that once it was clear that the multiuse proposal had stalled, “the Fire Department took the lead and built the firehouse they have to this day.”
But the inadequacy of the Southwest Avenue building only worsened over time, which led the Town Council of 1949 to pass a pair of resolutions in support of referenda to address the problem. One of the questions would have proposed an expansion of the existing structure; the other question would have proposed a conversion of the recreation center into a municipal building. However, for reasons unknown, neither question was posed during the Financial Town Meeting of 1950.
The town revisited the problem in 1962, with a professional study recommending several solutions – including, of course, a brand new building. But, once again, the discussions reached an impasse.
Consequently, the town launched some nominal renovation work at Southwest Avenue. In a 1977 interview with the Newport Daily News, Harold Shippee – the council’s vice president in 1967 – reflected that, “Ten years ago, there was no hope of building the type of building needed to house the town offices.”
In 1977, however, there was another opportunity to break the impasse: a referendum on the construction of a new municipal building. The question asking voters if the town should proceed with construction passed by nine votes, but the vote on a second question – this one asking if the town should issue a bond to pay for the building – ended in a tie.
In January 1978, the town held a second special town meeting to ask the bond question again: This time, the financing was turned down by a 2-1 margin, leaving the town hall problem unresolved for another 27 years. So, with each year of the controversy, the decision against building the structure proposed in the early 1920s proved evermore fateful.
However, not all of Jamestown’s failed proposals were controversial. In fact, one of the well-supported ideas would have become a signature structure if it had been built: the Conanicut Club.
Construction work on the country club and its golf course, which could have become the “Pebble Beach” of the East, actually started in 1927. The resort would have encompassed nearly 400 acres on the north end, featuring an enormous, Spanish-style clubhouse with towers and arches. A Press article co-authored by Maden reprises a quote from the project engineer, who said, “Every effort would be made to make this not only a golf course, but a work of art.”
But it definitely wasn’t going to be publicly accessible “art.” In fact, a Conanicut Club prospectus said members of the club could transfer their memberships to others – but only if the prospective members were “acceptable” to the governing board.
So what became of this grandiose endeavor? Maden’s article says, “We have no facts about what stopped the project, but can look at the year [it was halted], 1929, and speculate. It would not seem unreasonable to guess that the stock market crash… put an end to the ambitious plans.”
The JHS exhibit will remain in place for the rest of 2011.