JHS 100 years: The retiring Navy
In her 1944 book “This was my Newport,” Maud Howe Elliot wrote, “It is said that if, on Conanicut Island, you closed your eyes and threw a stone, you would probably hit a retired rear admiral.” There is lots of evidence to support her statement.
Among the earliest flag officers to retire here was Adm. David Dixon Porter (1813-1891), who rose to fame in the Civil War. With his fleet of mortar vessels – schooners armed with 13-inch mortars that could throw a ball weighing 241 pounds more than 2 miles – he supported his foster brother Adm. David G. Farragut when he captured New Orleans in the spring of 1862. He then proceeded up the Mississippi River to use his mortar fleet at Vicksburg. After the war, he was superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy from 1865 to 1969, and in 1970 became only the second person to have the rank of admiral of the Navy.
Like later retiring naval offi- cers, Porter was drawn to Jamestown for its peacefulness. He once grandly told a Town Council that although he had been in all parts of the world, Jamestown was the “the healthiest and pleasantest place he had found in all his travels.” He built a house at High Street and Walcott Avenue in 1889, but died only two years later.
About the same time, Rear Adm. Charles Henry Davis II (1845-1921) built a house – since demolished – on Highland Drive. Davis had attended the U.S. Naval Academy while it was in Newport during the Civil War and graduated just in time to see service in the war. He spent most of his career collecting and analyzing astronomical data for the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. When he retired in 1907, he moved to Jamestown full time and began painting. Although best known for his paintings of ships, he painted several oils of Jamestown scenes, two of which are in the JHS collection.
By 1924, enough admirals lived in Jamestown for the first Admirals’ Tea. That August, 14 retired United States Navy and United States Marine Corps flag officers gathered at the home of Rear Adm. Colby M. Chester (1844-1932), the only naval officer who actively served in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World War I. This first tea was to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay, an action that Colby had participated shortly after his graduation from the Naval Academy.
The oldest admiral at the party was George C. Remey (1841- 1928). Remey had led an attempt to regain Fort Sumter in early September 1863. He was captured and spent 13 months in a Confederate prison before being exchanged. He served as commander in chief of the United States naval forces in Asiatic waters during the Boxer uprising in China in 1900. For many years around the turn of the century, the Remey family summered at the Gardner House and later at the Bay View Hotel. In 1926, his daughter Mary Remey Wadleigh built a house on Conanicus Avenue. The house was later moved to Bay View Drive.
The youngest admiral at the 1924 gathering was Spencer S. Wood (1861-1940), who had retired only three years earlier. He had commanded the battleship USS Oklahoma in World War I and was later in charge of the First Naval District, which included Rhode Island. Wood may be the only admiral with a song written in his honor: in 1918, Chief Yeoman Daisy May Pratt Erd published the song “Rear Admiral Wood One- Step.”
Admiral Wood, who built a house at West Ferry where a grandson still lives, kept the tradition of the Admirals’ Tea alive until his death. A guest at his last party on Aug. 7, 1939, counted 32 admirals and other Navy officers.
While Wood entertained the old guard, a new generation of naval officers was learning about Jamestown as they trained in Newport and sailed with the Atlantic fleet based in Narragansett Bay. For them, the transition to peaceful life in Jamestown had to wait until after World War II.
Although most of these later retirees were drawn here by their Rhode Island experience, some already had roots on the island.
Adm. Alexander S. Wotherspoon (1892-1976) was the son of Maj. Gen. William W. Wotherspoon, the Army chief of staff in 1914, who had built a house on East Shore Road in 1897. Wotherspoon’s specialty was ordnance, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Gun Factory.” He retired to Jamestown in 1949.
Adm. Edward D. Taussig (1847- 1921) – of the older generation – and his son Adm. Joseph K. Taussig (1877-1947) traced their roots to the same small part of Europe as James Taussig, who developed Shoreby Hill. Both families had settled in St. Louis, and the St. Louis connection may have attracted the naval Taussigs to Jamestown.
The elder Taussig served in the Pacific during the Spanish-American War, before retiring to Jamestown in 1908. Perhaps drawing on his father’s Far East experience, the younger Taussig was an outspoken critic of the country’s lack of preparation for war with Japan. He was reprimanded for testifying to Congress in April 1940 about the inevitability of war in the Pacifi c. The reprimand was rescinded on Dec. 8, 1941, after Taussig’s son was badly wounded in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Joseph Taussig enjoyed Jamestown for only two years after the war, but his widow continued to summer on Shoreby Hill until her death in 1989.
The increasingly suburban character of the town after the opening of the Newport Bridge in 1969 and the relocation of Newport-based ships to southern ports in 1973 reduced the number of Navy offi cers settling in Jamestown. But many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the earlier generations of retirees still live or summer here.
This is the 19th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.