2011-12-15 / News

JHS unveils new exhibit: ‘Jamestown in the Resort Era 1875-1930’

BY MARGO SULLIVAN


A new Jamestown Historical Society exhibit was mounted on the walls of the back stairwell of Town Hall. Rosemary Enright points to a photo of an old hotel on the corner of Narragansett and Conanicus avenues, which is today the Bay View Condominiums. 
PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN A new Jamestown Historical Society exhibit was mounted on the walls of the back stairwell of Town Hall. Rosemary Enright points to a photo of an old hotel on the corner of Narragansett and Conanicus avenues, which is today the Bay View Condominiums. PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN The back stairway at Town Hall recently became a passageway back through time, courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society’s new exhibit.

According to Rosemary Enright, who organized the pictures and artifacts, the display – “Jamestown in the Resort Era 1875-1930” – was mounted over the last two weeks and will remain as a permanent exhibit, as long as town officials want it to stay.

The exhibit provides a panoramic view of the waterfront and East Ferry as both looked 100 years ago, she said, and offers some perspective for people who feel today’s waterfront looks crowded.

At the height of the summer resort era, Jamestown’s year-round population numbered 1,000, and they received 2,500 summer vacationers every season, Enright said. (By comparison, the 6,000 islanders today make room for about 1,000 summer people, she said.)

Many of the 19th century vacationers eventually built summer colonies and private homes but initially they stayed in magnificent waterfront hotels. Those buildings, except for the Bay Voyage, disappeared around 1938, lost to fire and the 1938 hurricane. Although they will never be replaced, due to cost, local regulations and changing times, a glimpse of their grandeur is captured by the pictures and original signs on display in the stairway.

The exhibit consists of five signs and 10 mounted black-andwhite photographs. The pictures, which came from several sources, including realtors Meredith & Clarke and the society’s own archives, depict the big summer houses, the big hotels and an aerial shot, circa 1926, of the waterfront, which was obtained from the U.S. Navy.

The signs came from the Bay Voyage, which is still standing and constitutes one of the oldest buildings in the town although it was moved to Jamestown from Middletown, and other important but lost landmarks of the era. For example, the visual centerpiece of the exhibit is the chimney sign from Winswepe, the former country club, Enright said. It was a gift from Sallie and Trum Richard, who shipped it from California. Other signs come from Harbor View Inn and from the Bay View Hotel, which was demolished in 1985. (The Bay View Condominiums today occupy the site at the corner of Narragansett Avenue.)

Most of the summer people came from Philadelphia and St. Louis, and there was also a colony of people from Providence and Newport. They settled in Conanicut Park, but that summer colony died out, Enright said, due to typhus.

The Philadelphians belonged to the Religious Society of Friends, she said, and they may have selected Jamestown because it had a meetinghouse, which is still standing today.

“They knew what the people in Newport were doing,” she said, “but they were lower key.” Nonetheless, their presence changed Jamestown forever and pushed the island from the backwaters into the 19th century, she said. The summer people forced the town to build roads and install streetlights, she said.

“They were very active in the community,” she said. The spat over the streetlights ended in compromise, as the town lighted only the sections where the summer people lived and only during the summer, she said. But their influence in other areas was equally longstanding. They brought new games, like golf, tennis and yachting.

The Conanicut Yacht Club, which they built, is one of the oldest on Narragansett Bay, Enright said. Until the summer people arrived, islanders saw the water as a place to work or a place to get across, not as a playground.

Jamestown was not poor at the start of the summer resort era, she said. The economy had been almost entirely agriculture-based, with the windmill representing about the only industrial development. But in 1873, town leaders decided to build a ferry dock and acquire a ferryboat.

“They were affluent enough at that point to think they needed a ferry boat,” she said.

Enright organized the pictures and signs and presented the preliminary layout for Town Council review. She specifically requested the back stairway, which has a high ceiling.

“For one thing, it allows us to put the signs high enough to avoid people touching them,” she said, and addresses both preservation and security concerns.

The signs give the exhibit color, depth and authenticity, but they cannot be replaced if people damage them.

Adams Taylor was hired to mount the still photographs, build brackets for the signs and install the exhibit. The exhibit cost about $3,500 to mount, Enright said.

Most of the money came from the society’s budget. Sallie and Trum Richard also made a contribution.

Their names will be inscribed on a small brass plaque, which will be added to the exhibit, she said. Because of the holidays, the historical society decided to delay the official opening until after Christmas.

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