JHS 100 years: The waterfront in 1900
As the 20th century began, anyone returning to Jamestown after a 30-year absence could have been forgiven for wondering in what town he found himself. The sleepy agricultural village of 1870 – total population, 378, including Dutch and Gould islands – had become a popular resort town. Year-round residents, according to the 1900 census, numbered 1,091. In the summer, the population grew to about 3,500.
The steam ferries on the East Passage – the Conanicut, put in service in 1886, and the Beaver Tail, which joined the fleet 10 years later – docked at a wharf built in 1873 just south of Narragansett Avenue on land that had been part of the Howland farm. John Howland had exchanged the site for $890 worth of stock in the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company – about five percent of the outstanding stock.
Three large hotels greeted passengers disembarking at East Ferry.
The closest hotel was the Gardner House, practically at the foot of the wharf, where the Recreation Center is now. Captain Stephen C. Gardner, the captain of the first steam ferry, the Jamestown (which by 1900 had been retired to the West Passage run), built the hotel in 1883. Before that, Captain Gardner and his wife ran a boarding house, Grove Cottage, on Narragansett Avenue across from the end of Howland Avenue.
The original three-story Gardner House could house about 45 visitors. By 1889, an extension half as long as the original hotel had been built on the northern end. In the early 1890s, a fourth story was added over both the new and old structures, more than doubling the capacity of the 1883 building. A large five-story annex was later built around the corner on Union Street.
North of Narragansett, towering over the crowds getting off the ferry a half a block away, stood the seven-story Bay View House (1889), with the smaller Bay View Hotel (1873) stretching behind up Narragansett Avenue.
South of Gardner House was the most elegant of the summer hotels, the Thorndike, built by Newport developer Patrick H. Horgan. Horgan bought the half-acre of land on Conanicus Avenue between Union and Lincoln streets at a lively tax auction on April 26, 1889, paying 48 1/2 cents per square foot – the highest price yet paid for land in Jamestown. Intent on recouping his investment, Horgan had a construction contract in place ten days later.
A 200-by-50-foot two-story building rose quickly. The first floor held small shops reached through a 10-foot wide porch along the whole east side. Small covered porches sunk into the building façade, their supports sheathed in shingle, created outside rooms for the hotel occupants on the second level. Some rooms were ready for occupancy by early August.
After the season ended, the true form of the building began to emerge. Above the flat-roofed box of the first summer rose a five-story, multi-gabled shingled building with a profusion of dormers bringing light into the upper stories. The asymmetry of the prominent seven-story tower was typical of the architect – Charles L. Bevins, who had designed Horsehead and many of the Shingle Style summer homes south of the village.
A five-story hotel needed an elevator. Charles Weeden, a Jamestowner who leased the hotel from Horgan in 1891, installed a hydraulic lift that winter. A cylinder filled with water lifted the elevator car and was slowly drained to allow it to descend. A windmill pumped the drained water back up to a cistern on the roof. The journey was slow, but it was much better than carrying luggage up four flights of stairs – especially trunks filled with everything needed for a two or three month stay, since many summer visitors came for the whole season.
Both the Thorndike and Gardner House added electric lights, run by 25- and 27-horse power gasoline engines respectively, in the 1898- 99 offseason.
By the turn of the century, one hotel was already missing from East Ferry. The misnamed Riverside House – a four-story summer boarding house at the southwest corner of Narragansett and Conanicus – had burned to the ground in June 1894 to be replaced by the familiar line of stores that still occupy the block. (The stores were renovated and the second story added by Bill Burgin in 1984.)
Other, smaller hotels and inns sprang up throughout the village. The Harbor View, just north of the Bay View on Conanicus Avenue, St. James Manor (also known as Prospect House and Carter’s Inn) on Union Street, and The Cedars, Grove Cottage, Bay Shore, and Thorncroft on Narragansett all offered accommodations with varying levels of service and amenities.
North of Jamestown harbor – beyond the Shoreby Hill Green and away from the activity of the ferry wharf – were two other hotels, both dating from 1889. James A. Brown of Middletown floated his 1860 country house across the Bay from Middletown Heights to the more prosperous shores of Conanicut Island. The house was renamed the Bay Voyage Inn, and the next year, a 30-room wing was added. William A. Champlin built his Champlin House, later to become Dr. Bates Sanitarium, across Conanicus Avenue from the Bay Voyage.
By 1900, the hotels and inns could accommodate about 1,000 summer visitors. The hotels offered not only rooms and three meals a day, but laundering, tailoring, entertainment, and even the occasional loan of cash to visitors without local banking facilities.
This is the 17th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.