Jamestown Historical Society 100 years: The Great Depression
In November 1925 at a special town meeting – in an uncharacteristic splurge of public spending – the voters authorized $25,000 worth of bonds to finance improvements at the beach at Mackerel Cove, including the building of a pavilion with bathhouses and a dance hall. The pavilion opened in 1928.
Ten years later, the building and much of the sandy beach in front of it were washed away by the hurricane on Sept. 21, 1938. Only the pavilion’s concrete steps remained, a fitting symbol of the Great Depression that wiped away Jamestown’s prosperity and ended its heyday as a vacation resort.
As the country’s leaders tried to come to terms with the stock market crash of October 1928 and the massive unemployment that followed, Jamestown – like all towns and cities – was at first left to deal with the consequences alone. Early mitigation efforts depended on individuals. Peter Cassese, the town barber, offered free haircuts to children whose parents were unemployed. Joseph Martin Sr., who leased the Beavertail Farm, supplied poor families with milk and vegetables free of charge.
Early in 1931, the Jamestown Board of Trade, an organization founded in 1929 to improve Jamestown’s business climate, took a hand. At the suggestion of Isaac H. Clarke, letters were sent to each of the summer taxpayers, requesting that any repairs to their homes here be made at once to relieve the winter unemployment. Some of the summer residents responded favorably and directed that work around their summer homes be started immediately.
In February, unemployed Jamestown citizens with dependents were asked to register with the town clerk if they wanted a job, and by early March, about 20 men were put to work on town roads. An additional 10 were employed on the state’s highway along the east shore. But it wasn’t until November 1931 that the Town Council appointed Lewis W. Hull, J. Howard Ellis, Albert A. Boone and Harold H. Hull – all prominent local Republican businessmen – as a formal Committee on Unemployment.
Not all reports from the earlier years of the Great Depression were dire. The 1931-32 report on high schools concluded, “Pupils are remaining in school longer than formerly. ... Under the existing labor conditions it is more desirable that young people remain in school, as this employment ... is more desirable than idleness.”
With the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, increased federal and state funds became available. As Jimmy West remembered, that spring, “My dad ... told me he had supported me long enough, so I joined the [Civilian Conservation Corps].” He had just finished his second year at Rogers High School.
Between 1933 and 1940, approximately $70,000 was expended on public works project, not including projects like the first Jamestown Bridge and the mosquito control project that dug ditches in the wetlands at Great Creek that were funded directly by the federal government. The money came from local, state and federal coffers. In 1932, a minimum wage of 50 cents per hour for unskilled labor was established with higher wages allowed for skilled work, but with the stipulation that no one person would receive more than $16 in any one week. For example, in one week in March 1935, 68 Jamestown workers received $471.60 for work paid for by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration – an average of less than $7 for each worker. In all, Jamestown received about $30,000 from FERA and its successor, the Works Progress Administration.
Even with the new sources of work, Jamestowners continued to take care of their own. The Jamestown Coal Company donated coal to the unemployed. The Daughters of the America Revolution met to sew government-issued cotton into clothes for the needy of the island. When the Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company retired the steamer ferry Mohican in 1934, all the lumber from the superstructure was given to the unemployed. Each day a crew of six men was allowed take away all they could carry.
The projects that were completed with public funds during the 1930s changed the face of Jamestown. Stone walls were built around the cemetery and between Town Hall and the Baptist church. An athletic complex with baseball and football fields, a running track, and bleachers to accommodate 325 people was constructed on the farm where the schools now stand. Unpaved streets were rebuilt on a base of crushed stone quarried from a town-owned quarry west of North Main Road near Carr Lane.
Defense access roads were built to Forts Wetherill and Getty, and Walcott Avenue was rerouted to eliminate the Brook Street turn. The row of stores, known as the Horgan block, that stood on the east side of Conanicus Avenue where the East Ferry parking lot is now, was purchased by the town and torn down in preparation for building the WPA-funded seawall at East Ferry.
The Great Depression changed the character of Jamestown as a resort. The Thorndike (where BankNewport is now) was torn down by its owner a week before the 1938 hurricane. The abandoned Gardner House (where the recreation center is now) was acquired by the town for $6,477.38 in back taxes in 1939, although it was not demolished until 1941. Only the Bay View remained to greet the incoming ferry from Newport.
This is the 20th in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.