JHS 100 years: Jamestown’s first summer community
On Oct. 7, 1872, the John J. Watson and Hopkins farms on the north end were auctioned. Lucius C. Davis, the editor of Newport Daily News, bought the 160 acres for $10,020. He soon sold the farms to the Conanicut Land Company.
The purchase was the first step in the development of “a new watering place” on Narragansett Bay.
Three months and about $42,600 later, the company controlled an area that extended from the East Passage to the West Passage, and from the northern tip to what is now America Way.
The Conanicut Land Company was definitely not a Jamestown venture. None of the four men who spearheaded it – Davis, Henry Lippitt, John Kendrick and Leonard Whitney Jr. – had ever lived in Jamestown. Only Davis lived in southern Rhode Island.
Davis used his paper to get out the word about the new community envisioned by the Conanicut Land Company investors. He wrote that the land company proposed to “make extensive improvements in the way of building a wharf, laying out streets, erecting a hotel, and otherwise fitting the section for summer residences.” The company divided the farms into 2,000 house lots, many as small as 5,000 square feet. (Jamestown didn’t have a zoning ordinance until 1935, nor a Planning Commission until 1947.) Parks, woodlands and a common fitted into a curving pattern of roads that followed the contour of the land and shoreline. The wharf, which could accommodate the large Providence-Newport ferryboats, ensured that people from Providence and beyond could reach the resort easily.
What the plans did not include were roads improvements to the small village at East Ferry or ferryboat connectivity with the southern part of the island. While politically part of the town of Jamestown, Conanicut Park would effectively be a separate village, occupied only in the summer.
When the 1874 season opened, a small hotel – expanded two years later to accommodate about 100 guests – looked east from a rise just north of the long ferry wharf on Broad Street. A delightfully Victorian waiting room for ferry passengers stood at the end of the wharf with a bathing house nearby.
The hotel was fully booked. At $2 a day for seasonal visitors, and $3 a day for day trippers, the prices were low enough that, as one newspaper reported in 1876, “Even the poorest of us may take a rest during the dog days.”
Although most of the visitors stayed at the hotel, some small Victorian cottages with gingerbread trim and deep porches were available. One cottage on Hillside Avenue – now the upper reaches of East Shore Road – was advertised for sale in 1874 for $2,500.
Each year, newspapers reported new amenities for the visitors.
Attractions at the hotel included boating, bathing, a livery stable, and a bowling alley. In the evenings, guest speakers lectured on varied subjects, and musicians played for dancing and singing. Magicians and ventriloquists entertained the children. Clergy from different faiths conducted Sunday morning services.
By 1876, so many steamers touched at the wharf that gentlemen could attend to business in Providence without problem. Roads were improved. A benefit festival in 1882 attracted 500 people and realized $7,000 for Seaside Home, the forerunner of the YWCA Camp Seaside established in 1887 for women who worked in factories in nearby cities. The Conanicut Park developers were among the directors of the Conanicut Telegraph and Telephone Company, which made the first attempt to bring telephone service to Jamestown in 1883. A nondenominational chapel was added to the complex in 1886.
About half of the land platted for Conanicut Park remained in the hands of the Conanicut Land Company. Many of those who bought lots purchased more than one – perhaps because of the small size of the lots – and only about 40 cottages were built.
The most impressive of the cottages was the Charles Fletcher cottage at 1076 East Shore Road. Fletcher came to Rhode Island from England in the late 1860s and built an empire for the production of woolen cloth. By the early 1880s, he employed 3,000 workers in nine mills. In 1885, he built his Conanicut Park cottage with its asymmetrical octagonal tower and turned part of his energy to becoming an accomplished yachtsman. He added a wing to the house for the wedding of his daughter Jane in 1896.
In July 1887, disaster struck the Conanicut Park Hotel. An illness that, according to the Newport Daily News, resembled “old-fashioned dysentery with cramps in the neck and back” hit everyone staying there.
The cause wasn’t hard to find.
As was common at the time, drainage pipes carried raw sewage directly out into the bay. At the hotel, a partially covered sewer passed close to an old well that provided water to flush the toilets in the hotel. When the sewer broke, the sewage contaminated the well, recycling the sewage back into the water closets.
The sewer was fixed and the well was filled in. The hotel reopened, but few came.
In 1909, after 10 years of only sporadic use, the building was torn down. The Conanicut Land Company auctioned off the land on which the hotel had stood as well as the remaining house lots. The purchase price for 450 acres was $11,000 – only $80 more than Lucius Davis had paid for 160 acres 37 years earlier.
This is the 15th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.