2011-12-08 / Island History

Jamestown Historical Society News


BY ROSEMARY ENRIGHT BY ROSEMARY ENRIGHT Jamestown’s resort era began in the mid-1870s, when steam ferries between Conanicut Island and Newport made the town more easily accessible. In the late 1880s, the ferries across the West Passage to Saunderstown also changed from sail to steam. With the advent of steam ferries, Jamestown became a summer vacation destination. A new permanent exhibit in Jamestown’s Town Hall celebrates the history of Jamestown in the resort era.

When the first steam ferry began its run, fewer than 500 people lived on Conanicut Island. Within 25 years, that number had doubled. And during the summer months, 2,000 to 2,500 visitors joined the year-round population. Over 1,000 visitors could be accommodated at one time in hotels, inns and boarding houses. Other visitors built or rented cottages. Many of the summer people came in late June and stayed into September to escape the sweltering heat that made large cities almost unbearable in the days before air conditioning.

In the JHS exhibit in the back stairwell of Town Hall, enlarged photographs from the society’s collection show the major hotels. At the stair landing, two photographs of the East Ferry area – one from 1898 and one from 1926 – show the prospect that greeted the traveler arriving on the ferry from Newport.

Above the photographs are original wooden signboards from the JHS collection. The two signs from the Bay Voyage Hotel – the only hotel from the era that is still in operation – illustrate how the hotel appealed to a changing clientele. A large sign for the Bay View evokes the hotel’s huge tower that dominated the corner of Conanicus and Narragansett avenues. The much smaller sign for the Harbor View Inn was appropriate for the homelike building that stood in the shadow of the Bay View – on Conanicus Avenue north of Knowles Court. Above the pictures on the landing is the chimney plaque from Winswepe, the home of the Beavertail Golf and Country Club on Beavertail Road.

Jamestown’s resort era ended in the 1930s when the combined effects of the automobile and the Great Depression changed the way people vacationed. Without customers, the hotels disappeared. Several were lost to fire, others to the wrecking ball. The last of the hotels that stood near the East Ferry landing in 1900 – a very dilapidated Bay View Hotel – was torn down in 1985.

Adams Taylor, who was also responsible for the JHS’s exhibit of the Land Agreement document on the first floor in Town Hall, designed and installed the exhibit. A gift from Trum and Sallie Richard of La Jolla, Calif., furnished the funding. Mrs. Richard, a descendant of H. Audley Clarke, who owned Winswepe, also donated the Winswepe sign. The society is most grateful to them all. If the next time you come to Town Hall you park in the rear and enter through the door to the back stairs, you will see the exhibit along the stairs to the second floor. It is well worth the extra steps.

Conanicut Battery

While Conanicut Battery Historic Park is a town park, the JHS has taken on the responsibility of maintaining the historic elements within it. On a stormy day this past October, students from Providence College under the direction of JHS’s Dennis Webster repaired washed-out sections along the main trail into the battery with stone dust, and clipped the growth that was beginning to obscure the connector path to Prospect Hill. Thanksgiving weekend friends of the Conanicut Battery, led by Larry McDonald, spent their Saturday morning cutting vines and brush along the trails that wind through the park.

Keeping the earthwork parapets of the 235-year-old Conanicut Battery clear of vegetation is a particularly sensitive task. The large lawn mowers the town uses to cut the field cannot be used on the contours of the earthworks because they would cut into the mounded earth. Hand mowers can be used on parts of the battery but are insufficient against the briars and bushes that take seed in the ditches.

Two years ago, the historical society, with the help of a state grant sponsored by Sen. M. Teresa Paiva Weed, implemented a plan developed when the battery was reclaimed in 2002 to plant native grasses on the battery. These grasses develop deep roots and can hold the earthwork in place. Since planting the grasses, the historical society has been planning a controlled burn of both the grasses and the woody invaders that obscure the details of the battlements. The burn will encourage the grasses to grow even more strongly. At the same time, it will – at least for a time – get rid of the undesirable woody growth.

So far, weather has prevented the professionals at Northeast Forest and Fire Management from implementing the plan approved by state and local fire officials. The burn cannot be conducted if the plants are too wet or if the wind is too strong. They hope to conduct the burn in December.

Return to top